Sometimes, I tell my students, Prime Ministers fail because they are no good at their job. Theresa May seems to fall pretty neatly into the ‘not up to it’ category. I knew her premiership was in deep trouble when people kept saying enthusiastically last year, ‘Did you hear John Major’s speech? Good, wasn’t it?’
As I’ve said before, her ability to snatch defeat from victory or for her decisions to backfire is almost to be admired. No one realised that when May promised to confront ‘burning injustices’ on the steps of Downing Street she meant the ones she had been busily creating by wrongfully deporting people.
But there is one thing she is spectacularly good at and that’s creating constitutional crises. Great big rolling ones. She learnt from her predecessor, who nearly made Scotland independent and then called a referendum on the EU, despite Michael Gove and Boris Johnson begging him not to (in fairness, though, I think I’d probably do almost anything that both Gove and Johnson warned me against).
May’s crises seem better and bigger in quality and quantity. We are so deep in crises, we forget we are in them. By my rough calculations, May has created or worsened four major constitutional crises so far. That’s one crisis every 5.5 months. Here’s the big ones:
Crisis 1: Executive versus legislature: May tried to ride rough shod over parliament and ended up in court. This crisis was so well designed that it is a bit of a BOGOF crisis, as it also dragged in the Supreme Court. The judges were labelled ‘enemies of the people’ for, erm, giving the final say to the democratically elected legislature instead of the, erm, populace.
Crisis 2: The House of Lords: I have a theory that the House of Lords is the Russell Brand of British politics. Overpaid, seemingly a bit clueless then suddenly capable of wonderful, striking displays of social justice. See child tax credit, child refugees and now Brexit. May’s recent attempt to pack the House of Lords is a case in point of her ‘Midas in reverse’ touch. If you really wanted to pack the Lords (see 1911) you would need more than 10 peers and you would need to make sure they turn up and vote how you want (one of the Tory appointments has already announced they won’t take the whip). In pushing just 10 peers May got all the criticism and none of the advantage-packing nothing and losing everything, you might say. Corbyn, by the way, has announced he’ll abolish the Lords, just like [insert name of every progressive politician since, again, 1911] said they’d reform it.
Crisis 3: The devolved bodies: Though she spends time praising it, May seems pretty determined to bury the UK. Given that there is no executive in Northern Ireland, an anti-Brexit nationalist SNP government in Scotland and a Labour administration in Wales one would have tried to tread carefully or, at the very least, pretend to care. Instead the UK government has ploughed on regardless, doing the SNP’s job for it. This month, in a single week, the prospect of a united Ireland and an independent Scotland moved closer (though the reality of Irish reunification is a little more complex). I know I’d make a pretty bad Prime Minister but even I’d struggle to push two constituent nations of the UK towards independence in seven days (and I would, note, introduce compulsory siestas).
Crisis 4: Northern Ireland: This deserves its own crisis. The border was always going to be tough but with good will and gentle negotiation perhaps something could be done. Instead Brexiters seemed perplexed that Ireland (i) is a separate sovereign country with a foreign policy of its own (ii) was attempting, with its EU allies, to mitigate what it felt would be terrible policy. They responded by accusing Ireland of furthering some murky Sinn Fein agenda and Remainers of over-playing the problem of 499kms of open border with the EU. May also seems upset at whichever cowardly sabouteur Prime Minister agreed last December to some sort of ‘agreement’ about the border with the EU. Although Leave were all about ‘taking back control’ they now seem happy to have a few CCTV cameras and some assorted ‘technology’ to stop those 76million Turkish citizens strolling across the border. And, just to note, this FOI shows exactly how many software companies Dexeu has consulted so far. That’s correct. Zero.
Amid all these crises, Brexit rolls on (just), powered by an alliance of Brexiters that stretches, alas, from the leader of the opposition to Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage. Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection of a soft Brexit should surprise no one. Corbyn supports a hard Brexit. I know this because he whips his MPs and Peers to support a hard Brexit, says hard Brexity things and rejects every opportunity not to do hard Brexit. He appears convinced that the EU will stop him implementing his manifesto (it won’t). I fully intend, once I’ve finished this blog, to email this article to him using both a red flag symbol (see what I did) and one of those unbelievably annoying read receipts to make double sure he gets it.
So can these crises be resolved? Attlee said of his first meeting with Stalin ‘he only said yes and no and you could only trust him when he said no’. The difficulty is that you can’t be sure when yes means yes or no means no when the government, and the opposition, have no real plan. It is government by bandwagon (‘Oh, a bandwagon, park it outside my house’ as Noel Gallagher said of Damon Albarn). Both May and Corbyn are hoping something, anything will just turn up to save them.
But surely we’ve had crises is the past, you cry? This is true. Take the ‘Irish’ problem that dominated British politics in the late 19th and early 20th Century As this great book points out, it destroyed one great PM (Gladstone), tested another (Lloyd George), undid one political party (Liberals) and near undid another (Conservatives), who only got out of it by encouraging a military mutiny. The government, in a minority and propped up by Irish MPs (analogy klaxon), threatened to pack the House of Lords (that klaxon again) and decided to wait and see what happened. Eventually something came along but that something was World War One. It was only solved after... actually, even after war, civil war and partition, it wasn’t even solved just put into deep freeze.
Brexit looks like the weird, ever-morphing croquet game in Alice In Wonderland, where the rules change constantly, the participants are all faintly terrified of what’s going on and there are constant shouts for decapitation. But most of all, we are falling down the rabbit hole. When will we stop falling and what size will we be when we get there?