Lesley Riddoch: Our old politics is in meltdown amid this Brexit crisis

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The end of Theresa May’s lamentable Brexit deal is finally in sight, but more than her future as Tory leader is now in the balance.

We are witnessing the meltdown of Britain’s archaic and schlerotic democratic system. Parliament is apparently set to take control from the executive, with rumours that MPs plan to table an amendment giving motions proposed by backbenchers priority over those put forward by the Government, if its Brexit plan is defeated on Tuesday. This radical departure from business as usual could see laws passed that effectively prevent a hard-Brexit, or indeed any departure from the EU, since a majority of MPs oppose quitting without a deal. And following the Speaker’s decision to allow amendments to a government motion last week, the rebel MPs, thought to include former government ministers, can expect a sympathetic hearing.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. (Pic: AFP/Getty Images

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. (Pic: AFP/Getty Images

This takes us into entirely new democratic territory. Although a Commons intervention in the face of lemming-like government behaviour and Prime Ministerial intransigence may be necessary, it’s not a democratic solution for more than a short time and a specified reason.

It’s easy for Remain campaigners to snort with derision at the Prime Minister’s insistence this weekend that there will be a “catastrophic and unforgiveable breach of trust” in British democracy, if the UK remains in the EU.

Last week, FT blogger David Allen Green listed the multitude of ways in which the Prime Minister has already breached that trust including bribing the DUP, adopting Henry VIII powers, trashing the devolution settlement and misleading the House over the existence of Brexit reports.

He concludes; “Each of the examples cited are greater or lesser constitutional tresspases. But not one prompted the synthetic uproar [that greeted] the Bercow decision,” which means MPs control the business of the Commons as they surely should.

That’s all true. But even though the Tories have been weaponising rather than serving democracy for years, Leave voters must have the chance to prevail in another vote - cumbersome and drawn-out though that process may be. Many working class voters in the Midlands and north of England are somehow persuaded that the Establishment making their lives miserable is the European Union not Westminster. They point immediately to the European Commission as an unelected, distant master instead of the House of Lords and believe austerity was imposed by Brussels not London.

There are deep-seated dynamics at work here that will not be quickly or easily understood or undone. And yet to avoid a hard Brexit, time is of the essence – thanks to the Labour and Tory leaders preferring to game rather than face up to these difficult realities till the very last minute.

That’s why a vote to revoke Article 50 would be unwise and Joanna Cherry’s suggestion of an emergency executive or government of unity to formalise a short-term plan for a suspension before a second referendum and General Election is better.

Indeed during a visit to London this week, talk of a one-year delay to accomplish all of this was the talk of the Steamie.

The EU has made it clear that it regards the negotiation process on British withdrawal as complete and will only countenance a delay for some proper democratic process to take place like a second vote or a general election. Since Jeremy Corbyn is intent on trying to renegotiate, a General Election can only deliver a Government with much the same cloth-eared approach to Brexit as the current one.

This is why MPs in the two main parties have been forced to act - taking over from out of touch leaders who have been put beyond real challenge by autocratic party structures allowed to develop over decades. MPs are working across party divides to hatch a viable Brexit plan, cheerfully disregarding leadership positions and acting like mini-parties contained within the unnaturally large groupings they inhabit because of the conformity imposed by first past the post voting.

This raises big questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to survive if he continues to ignore the vast majority of his members clamouring for a People’s Vote.

In his Sunday Marr interview, Corbyn once again flew kites suggesting it would somehow be possible to push the EU into a Norway style deal without freedom of movement. Unbelieveable. And a precise repeat of Theresa May’s Canute-like belief that two and two can be made to not equal four by sheer exercise of a very special British will.

Championing solutions that will not fly has brought calamity to the Tories. That fate now awaits the leader of the opposition. No uncommitted voter in this country and few within the Labour party believe Jeremy Corbyn can negotiate any better deal and crucially – many believe he should not be able to. Corbyn wants a general election but his voters want the people to decide.

This dysfunctionality has also affected the People’s Vote campaign. Many supporters are upset at the presence of New Labour figures like Alastair Campbell at its helm, fearing the drive for a second vote is just a front for toppling Jeremy Corbyn. And yet they despair of Corbyn’s Brexit stance too.

Yet, at an emergency Convention held in London last week, a rather different constellation of forces was assembled by the Open Democracy campaign and showcased the consensual and clear thinking Green MP Caroline Lucas. Three independence supporters spoke – including Alyn Smith, Joanna Cherry and myself – prompting the unusual sight of 700 progressive (mostly) English activists applauding the idea that Scotland and England will once again happily co-exist in a Union – as two sovereign members of the European Union.

At long last, English activists and citizens have begun to stir. Beyond misfiring Westminster, progressive unionists are making common cause with supporters of Scottish independence in a way that may alarm SNP voters but may help gain a Section 30 for a second independence vote and soften the hard negotiating lines that characterised the last independence referendum.

In short, the old hierarchies protecting the British political system are in meltdown. Deals are being struck, new allegiances created, and leaders sidelined.

If the Brexit crisis is somehow averted, MPs cannot let up until there’s agreement on a programme to transform British democracy and resolve its underlying democratic failings. This can still be a good crisis, but if that isn’t possible, more than just this government will fall.