The Brexit spectacle has plunged Britain into a deep crisis and turned the country’s political leaders into laughing stocks. Justifiably? A closer look at the House of Commons reveals that it may be too early to pass judgment.
Once everything lay in ruins on this first day of April, anno Domini 2019, once all four alternatives to solving the Brexit dilemma had been rejected and the deeply frustrated and teary-eyed Tory MP Nick Boles (constituency Grantham and Stamford) had announced he was leaving the party, once the dozen half-naked protesters who had super-glued themselves to a pane of glass in the public gallery to call attention to species extinction had been removed, once the evening had turned to night and the session was approaching its end, only then was MP Liz Twist able to take the floor.
“I am very pleased to have secured this adjournment debate on the Blaydon Quarry landfill site. It is a matter of great concern …”
Twist spoke for a quarter of an hour about plastic garbage swirling around in the wind and the disgusting stench making life extremely unpleasant in the Blaydon constituency in northern England.
There are, after all, other issues that need to be addressed aside from the fate of the European continent.
The lower house of British parliament has been around for almost 700 years. Indeed, it had already begun holding debates by the time Christopher Columbus sailed off to the New World. The House of Commons is the mother of all modern parliaments, a temple of democracy.
These days, though, its reputation isn’t the best. It has recently been described as a “ship of fools” by the Economist, “mad” by the New York Times and a “big shit show” by Germany’s Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth.
One MP named Steve Baker, a Brexiteer, even demanded that the entire parliament be shoved into the Thames. “I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river,” he said. “These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand.”
The House of Commons, of course, is no stranger to strong words. But the recent goings on in Westminster have raised an important question: Is this really democracy? Or is it just the illusion of democracy?
On this Monday morning in early April, Ben Bradshaw has made his way to parliament by bike. Once again, the entrance is besieged by flag-waving Brexiteers crying treason and flag-waving Remainers also crying treason.
Bradshaw has been a Labour backbencher (Exeter constituency) for more than two decades. In a previous life, he covered the collapse of East Germany for the BBC. He knows all about systemic failure.
“It’s pretty tense at the moment,” Bradshaw says. He speaks of panic buttons that have been installed in the homes of some MPs and says that he has begun cycling to work to make himself a more difficult target than he would be if he walked or took the underground. “I know colleagues who have changed their vote because of death threats,” he says.
The majority system used in Britain’s democracy increases that pressure. An MP represents all voters in his or her constituency, not just those from their party. What should they do if most of those supporting their party are against Brexit but the majority in their constituency voted to leave?
It is a week in which parliament will once again be pushed to its limits: an historic week in a year that has thus far been full of historic weeks. It is a week in which parliament thought it would be able to find something that the government has been unable to unearth in two-and-a-half years of Brexit debate: a bipartisan majority for a solution.
On this day, Bradshaw will hold the floor for all of 150 seconds; his contribution to preventing a “no deal” Brexit, the UK’s chaotic crashing out of the European Union. Prior to his brief speech on the floor, he meets with parliamentarians from his party and in various other bodies. “We are constantly organizing,” Bradshaw says. “Groups are meeting two times a day and permanently on WhatsApp.” His cross-party WhatsApp group battling against a no-deal Brexit operates under the alias “Trains & Buses.”
The Palace of Westminster is a world of flat, 30-watt lighting paneled in wood and covered wall-to-wall with frescoes, gold mosaics, neo-Gothic ornamentation and stacked lancet arches framing endless kings, queens and prime ministers. Churchill is there, as is Thatcher and her handbag, cast in bronze for all eternity. Steps and visitor voices are subdued and at lunchtime on this day in early April, the faint smell of fried fish drifts over the marble-tiled floor.
An electric walker busily hums toward the upper house chambers, toward the Peers’ Library or the Bishops’ Bar. The figures on this side of the house — bent from the weight of titles, years and dignity — look as though they just climbed out of one of the historical pictures lining the walls. A door briefly opens to reveal a dining room: Two wan peers, a Lord and a Baroness, are dining alone at a long table.
Here, too, Europe’s future is being determined.
The entire building is a cathedral. A pantheon and a museum at the same time. It is holy ground. In the granite floor of Westminster Hall, a rather sobering plaque can be found: “In this hall, Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, Speaker of the House of Commons, Author of Utopia, was condemned to death 1 July 1535.”
More was a predecessor of the current speaker John “Order, Ooorrr-deeehhrr” Bercow, who has likely passed by this spot countless times. Bercow is like a character straight out of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” outfitted with a voice that could come in handy when ordering a last-call beer just before closing time at the local pub.
“I admit, I enjoy the job and I love the theater of parliament,” he says. “I enjoy the role.”
The House of Commons with its green benches is famous throughout the world. It is the stage of classic parliamentarianism: The benches of the governing party facing off against those of the opposition, with government ministers seated in the front row mirrored on the other side by the shadow cabinet.
Bercow is the director of this play. But, he insists, he isn’t trying to increase the drama. “Well yes, I think there are aspects of our traditions that are slightly theatrical,” he allows. “But I don’t set out to cause controversy. I set out to do the right thing.”
The Power of the Speaker
The right thing: Ensuring that parliament’s voice is heard and its influence is asserted — against the crown, against the executive and against any other challenges that might stand in the way. In this week at the beginning of April, it is Bercow who determines what votes pertaining to Brexit will be allowed.
The lower house sitting on this Monday begins at 2:30 p.m. with a prayer followed by the question period, during which queries may be directed at the government — in this case, the Home Office.
Minister of State Caroline Nokes (Conservative Party): “Of course, the honorable and learned lady will know that an entire package of citizens’ rights for EU citizens is planned as part of the withdrawal agreement. That will provide the route, and her party might consider voting for it.”
Joanna Cherry (Scottish National Party): “As always, the minister does not answer the question.”
One speaker hardly has a chance to sit down before the next one pops up from the benches to “catch the eye of the speaker.” Ever since the end of the 17th century, when the House speaker was horribly cross-eyed, there has been a requirement that the name of the representative be called out as well.
The speaker alone decides who is granted the floor in parliament – and in a debating body like the House of Commons, being given the floor is existential. The spoken word is what counts, not some compromise paper.
The seating arrangement on the benches is roughly the same as that of a primary school class. Up front are the well-behaved ones, the ministers and spokespersons. In the back, in the corner farthest away from the speaker, are the uncompromising voices that bellyache and vituperate — the know-it-alls. It is the corner reserved for those who have nothing but disdain for the EU; the “Spartans” surrounding Jacob Rees-Mogg sit here. For now. They are eagerly waiting for their desired “no deal,” and hope to move all the way up to the front row and take over the place once it happens.
But the current condition of the place leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Westminster Palace badly needs to be renovated. There are unsettling reports from the depths of the palace — of mice infestations, of tangles of cables of unknown provenance, of Victorian age pipes. False alarms from smoke detectors are almost a daily occurrence.
When water began dripping from the ceiling right in the middle of a tax policy debate earlier this week, more experienced MPs were relieved that it was just rain and not the sewage pipes.
The minutes of proceedings documented the incident:
Sir William Cash (Conservatives): “On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I just wondered what was going on. Is it hot air that is escaping from in here?”
Mr. Deputy Speaker: “Some might say there is a leaky parliament at the moment, so we will take it from there.”
But even if there is agreement that Westminster Palace badly needs refurbishment, no consensus has yet been reached on the details of how that should take place. There is a deep-seated unwillingness to leave this “citadel of freedom,” as Winston Churchill called it, if only temporarily. It’s almost as if the MPs don’t, in fact, completely trust the Windsors, as if they are wary of the royal family turning back to absolutism.
A constitutional monarchy is a delicate balancing act. For almost 1,000 years, the parliament has been in the position of having to assert itself against the Sovereign, against the diverse kings and queens that have worn the crown.
It isn’t difficult to read the topography of British power inside the Palace of Westminster. The two houses, the upper and the lower, are situated opposite each other and are connected by a central lobby. If one were to throw open all the doors inside the Palace of Westminster, John Bercow would be staring straight at the gold-leafed throne of the queen. They are roughly 150 meters apart and are situated at the exact same height.
But it is the speaker who holds more power. At least in this palace.
The rules governing the lower house are stricter than any EU directive and since the time of Queen Victoria, they have been collected in a handbook called the “Erskine May,” one of the lower house’s most important weapons. The “Erskine” is packed full of rules, provisions and exceptions — myriad details that can be leaned on to justify a feint, a thrust or an unusual proposal.
John Bercow, for example, turned to the “Erskine” to stop Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to put up her deal for a third vote in the lower house despite having made no changes to it.
The more chaotic everything becomes, it seems, the more important is the weight of tradition. MPs must be addressed with the name of their constituencies: (“The right honorable member from Basildon and Billericay…”) It can seem downright Shakespearean at times: Phrases such as “honorable and learned lady” or, in the upper house, “noble and gallant lord,” are common forms of address.
Words like “liar,” “rat” and “Pecksniffian” (unctuously hypocritical) are banned. Though an expert like Brexit hardliner Jacob Rees-Mogg has no trouble offhandedly uttering insults in the plenary: “What was it the late Earl of Beaconsfield said of Mr. Gladstone: ‘A prolix rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity’? I would not dream of saying such a thing about the right honorable lady. Let me return to the motion in hand….”
The passage was carefully noted in the minutes, uttered at 4:20 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time.
The speaker can allow as many questions as he would like and thus allow the minister being questioned to suffer as long as he sees fit. David Cameron, Theresa May’s predecessor, once had to address 103 questions during one iteration of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which takes place every Wednesday if the schedule allows.
The public galleries are located directly across from the speaker, a colorful collection of citizens who, on April 1, are unaware that they are sitting together with environmental activists who aren’t afraid of showing a bit of skin and who are just waiting for their moment to whip off their kit — not even the most astonishing moment of the debate, as one newspaper would later wryly note.
No, No, No and No
Some comfort can perhaps be found in the fact that the activities of parliament do appear to have some purpose in hindsight. The show in early April, for example, could roughly be sketched out as follows:
Act I: The lower house votes on four Brexit alternatives, the results of which, in the order of their occurrence, are: no, no, no and no.
Act II: The lower house forbids itself from voting again on Brexit alternatives.
Act III: Theresa May appears, with the lower house hinting that it might actually decide to vote again on Brexit alternatives after all, but then again, it might not.
The Tuesday that follows is rather calm by comparison. It is time for Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP from Exeter, to reconsider his strategy. The day before, he had sat for five hours “on these rather uncomfortable benches” until he finally got his two-and-a-half minutes.
He used his time to say: “While the headlines that greeted last week’s indicative votes, saying that they were a shambles and chaos, were patently ridiculous, given that it was the first time that we were given the opportunity to discuss these options after two and a half years of the government failing to get a consensus, it would be helpful if we made progress today.” He went on: “Whatever happens tonight, I think we are going to have to accept the principle that the Brexit that is now on offer is so different from the Brexit that was offered in 2016 that it would be undemocratic and illegitimate not to give the people a final say on it.”
British parliament has an archival system in place for the storage of ancient records, some of the rolls as thick as rolled-up sleeping bags, but it does not have a way to record votes electronically. The general leaning among the MPs is gauged by the speaker largely based on the volume of the grunts of agreement or the sneers of discontent. Or by the “divisions,” which involves MPs moving to the “Aye Lobby” or the “No Lobby” on the right and left of the plenary. Two clerks note down the resulting numbers and then one MP from each camp brings the results to the speaker.
In theory, the MPs are strongly encouraged to vote a particular way by their party’s whip, and for quite some time, the majority system led to sustainable stability in the House of Commons. But since the beginning of the Brexit debate, the whips have been completely unable to maintain party discipline.
Forcing the Government’s Hand
“It’s quite chaotic,” says MP Bradshaw. “In this, we are a perfect image of what’s happening in the country as a whole.”
It is the hour of the backbenchers. Rarely have individual MPs held as much power as they do at the moment. The Monday evening vote on a future customs union with the EU, for example, fell just three votes shy of a majority. If just two MPs had voted differently …
That helps explain the nervousness that permeates the constant sessions. The instruments outlined in the “Erskine” have become more important than ever – random precedents that can be used to cleverly take advantage of the speaking slots reserved for backbenchers, regions and ministers, or to choose just the right moment to introduce a motion, such as an indicative vote, with which parliament can force the government’s hand.
Like on March 25, the day which is referred to either as the “revolution” or as the day parliament grabbed the baton away from the government, depending on one’s political proclivities. Either way, it was momentous. That was the day that a narrow, bipartisan majority voted in favor of holding the indicative votes in the first place.
It was the day that parliament reasserted its power. Three cabinet members resigned so that they could take part in the vote. It was, in the words of Ben Bradshaw, “one of the finest hours” of parliament. “The speaker is the parliament’s defender against the overbearing and dictatorial government. Like in the Middle Ages he was defending it against the absolute monarchy. He has been a national hero.”
And it just keeps going. On the Wednesday of this week in early April, Bercow allows another backbencher impertinence to go ahead: the so-called “Cooper-Letwin Amendment.” Brought by Labour deputy Yvette Cooper and Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin, the goal of the amendment is to make it impossible for the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal. It would force the prime minister to request an extension in Brussels.
Yet with May set to head to the EU capital in just a few days, there is no time to lose. The readings are crammed into a single day, as are the bitter debates that follow – and then the amendment is actually passed, with a majority of just a single vote. A sensation. A scandal.
A Certain Rage
Perhaps Phillip Lee’s vote was the decisive one. Lee resigned as justice minister a few months ago, but he remains one of the few who considers himself to be a friend of May and her husband. “Our international reputation is just going down in flames. It’s a mess,” Lee says. “The only way we can hold the party together is by having a referendum, a final say in which there are two deliverable options: a hard or clean Brexit or revoking Article 50 and remain.”
Lee is sitting in the cafeteria of Portcullis House, a building located across from Big Ben that is reachable through an underground passage. The cafeteria is a kind of mixed zone for contacts that should not go unnoticed. It is Wednesday, the day on which the prime minister must respond to whatever questions MPs may have.
During that question period, she speaks about schools in Bristol and about youth gangs, and she reiterates her broken-record claim that a bad deal is worse than no deal. And at some point in the middle of it, she opens up to the Labour opposition and suggests that they talk. “Her turnaround,” Lee says, “fits the Theresa May I know. She would be absolutely happy with a much softer Brexit.”
There is a certain rage at Westminster that has developed within British society and underestimating its intensity would be dangerous. It has also ratcheted up the pressure on MPs. “I’m a doctor,” Lee says, and goes on to speak of anxiety among the MPs, of anger and “irrational fixed beliefs,” as he puts it. “There are signs of mental illness, and as a doctor, I can see them.”
The whips, in particular, are suffering, Lee says. Not to mention Theresa May herself, who from week to week is looking increasingly haggard and out of sorts.
And then, referring to the extreme state of tension and angst, he says something else: “Some of that is government strategy — pushing people against the wall, forcing people into that state of mind. The best thing that can happen is to just go on holiday. We need a space to make rational decisions. So for me, canceling another week of recess is actually irresponsible.”
Swallowed Up by the Insanity
The apprehension continues to rise. The Bank of England has calculated that Brexit is already costing the country 800 million pounds each week.
Should societal unrest be the consequence of a no deal Brexit, the royal family would be evacuated to a secret hideout, likely taken aboard the yacht Hebridean Princess to an isolated Scottish isle. Newspapers have reported that old Cold War plans have been taken out of the drawer and dusted off.
Perhaps all of the rituals in Westminster, the carrying in of the ceremonial mace before a session can begin and all of the formal means of address, are exactly what are needed to avoid being swallowed up by the insanity.
“I’m proud of parliament,” says Phillip Lee. “Despite all the pressure and with different motivations, parliament has stood up against this government. I think that’s a measure of our democracy functioning. Parliament is representing what the country is. It’s shouting to one side and shouting to the other, and the majority is in the middle and just wants it to go away.”
A few tables away, Boris Johnson – a man of surprisingly small stature – shuffles past, the former foreign secretary who is now seen as a possible candidate to succeed Theresa May as prime minister.
Phillip Lee has to hurry off to another meeting. But before he goes, he says that Brexit does have its good sides. “It has shown light on the inadequacies of parliament and the civil service, the whole system of parties and informing the electorate.”
When should all that be fixed? The MP stands up. Through the window facing the Thames, a young woman can be seen holding up a sign reading: “Betrayal of Democracy!”
“That,” says Lee in parting, “is an opportunity for future government.”