The British Parliamentary system is often regarded – and not just by the British – as an archetypal model of how democratic government is supposed to work. The Mother of Parliaments, which the Palace of Westminster calls itself and is often called by others, has been cloned all over the world, with minor local variations. But does the parliamentary turmoil of Brexit demonstrate that, after all, the model is fatally flawed?
The British Government has virtually stopped governing, and its central policy – to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union – is obstructed by a House of Commons that knows what it is against but refuses to say what it is for.
The result of this week's days of debate on Brexit have shown that the British parliamentary process is still working, but not working well. Its efficient functioning depends on a high degree of party discipline that can tolerate a few mavericks on its fringes but can rely on the great majority of party members to vote in favour of party policy. It also depends on the existence of a party leadership that is in perpetual conversation with all shades of opinion, including opinion among its opponents – or at least is engaged in listening.
Wise leaders will look to build as much consensus as possible on all sides. By this measure, Theresa May is the least wise British prime minister not just for decades but for centuries. She could by now have secured a Brexit deal, and it wasn't just the House of Commons which prevented it. It was her also own personality. She has a curious blend of obstinacy combined with a lack of conviction. She backed the Remain side in the 2016 referendum but now spends all her energy trying to achieve the opposite. What does she really believe? Nobody knows. She knows the steps, but can't dance because she is tone deaf.
So the outcome of this crazy week of British politics is that the European Union will be asked to agree an extension of the Brexit deadline to help her get her deal through Parliament. If it has any sense it will not cooperate, but take the initiative that her request will have handed to it. So the EU will have to provide what the British parliamentary system has failed to identify – a policy that will work.
Let us assume that leaders of the EU are not yet so tired of the British that they will gratefully take this opportunity to get shot of them. Let us also assume that British membership of the EU is still deemed to serve the interests of the 27 other EU nations. Then playing their cards with the strategic aim of frustrating Brexit altogether becomes a realistic game plan. And it would be helpful if the EU were itself to recognise how it has contributed to the pro-Brexit mood.
If Theresa May succeeds at her third attempt to get her deal past Parliament, the EU will be asked to agree an extension of the Article 50 deadline until the end of June. That is hardly likely. More likely is a request for a much longer extension, of a year or two, while the Government strives to revise its policy into something the House of Commons can agree on. But with both Parliament and the Cabinet in perpetual disarray, there is nothing in sight to fill the vacuum. Even the option of a second referendum is beginning to look out of reach. There is literally no majority for anything.
So the "no deal" scenario being ruled out, what is left? The EU is entitled to insist that the UK does something quite fundamental to shake up its politics, such as holding a general election. The Tories will fear annihilation at the polls and the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn - whom they hate quite viscerally - in 10 Downing Street. Abandoning Brexit altogether - the revocation of Article 50 - might well seem the better option.
CLIFFORD LONGLEY'S BREXIT WATCH:
Clifford Longley will be writing regular updates on Brexit over the coming weeks. To read more click on the links below.