It is possible we have just seen one of the most important weeks of modern parliamentary and constitutional history. It is evident that we don’t yet know what the implications of that week will mean for Brexit or UK politics. It may be many months, if not years, before that becomes apparent.
Predicting what the next political moves will be both in the UK and the EU is not for the faint-hearted. What is clear is that political certainties remain “certainties” no longer in this unpredictable Brexit world.
Political parties have always been tribal and, with notable exceptions, members generally toe the party line. That is no longer the norm. Before Brexit it would have been unthinkable for a Prime Minister to lose two major votes by 230 votes and 149 votes respectively on the main policy of her government and not resign.
Conservative MPs have publicly challenged and disputed that policy, voted against it and still keep the party whip. As a matter of numerical practicality, that is perhaps not surprising.
It might be a dangerous precedent for party managers to deal with if they are seen to tolerate the conduct of MPs who disagree with the whip, form influential groups within a party that do not accept major policy directions and regularly help defeat the government.
While some Cabinet members have resigned because they wished to vote against the government, others (who are clearly unhappy with the way things are going) have stayed on board. However with Ministers and other high-profile MPs regularly writing in various newspapers from different perspectives, the concept of Cabinet collective responsibility is being well and truly stretched, as is party unity. This “speaking out” is a feature of the Opposition benches as well and may reflect the fact neither party currently reflects a position fully agreed among its members.
To add to the procedural confusion, the current Speaker seems to be taking an arguably different direction as to interpretation of certain Rules governing Commons’ procedure. Alleged failure to follow the Clerk to the House’s advice on procedure has led to suggestions he is taking a more political role, to the detriment of the Government.
The Speaker was also moved to comment that the Government withdrawing the motion on the first attempt at holding a “meaningful vote” in December after three days of debate, when 164 members had spoken, “was deeply discourteous”. The usual modes of working are clearly under strain.
But what do we, the citizens, think of this, viewing matters from outside the Westminster bubble? Are we losing our trust in our elected representatives? No-one disputes that they have a difficult job trying to reflect the different views on Brexit within their constituency. However it is worth remembering that while they are our representatives, they can and should reach their own views on issues. They are not required to vote with the majority in their constituency. That may be even truer where the extent of a protest vote in the Referendum has not really been bottomed out. Some MPs will stick with the party line; for others, their views and voting patterns perhaps explain and reflect the divisions in both Westminster and the country. Our remedy as citizens lies in holding our MPs to account at the ballot box next time around.
Changes in how Westminster is currently operating may be seen as only interesting to the constitutional lawyer, but these may be a hint of wider changes we can anticipate in how Government and Parliament will operate in future, with implications for what we the citizen can expect of our politicians. The MSPs in Holyrood and AMs in Cardiff Bay may not be seeing the same kind of operational difficulties currently being experienced in Westminster, but they will be watching.
As to where, when and how we will reach the end of what is after all only the start of the Brexit process, anyone who claims to know that probably also believes in the Easter Bunny. Are there going to be tariffs on Belgian chocolate eggs?
Lynda Towers is Director of Public Law, Morton Fraser