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The PM’s conduct puts parliament’s long-term vitality in peril

"A major constitutional crisis" screamed the headline of The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday. It was joined by a cacophony of others on Fleet Street excoriating parliament and its most senior representative.

Downing Street briefed that the speaker was seeking to subvert or prevent Brexit. The prime minister lectured the Commons that it must "face the consequences of its actions".

On Wednesday, her latest peroration was that the chamber was "indulging itself over Europe" and that this had led to our country's deep travails.

This is displacement activity of the highest order. Not only from these newspapers (all of which until recently were urging MPs to reject the deal they now endorse) but also the government and prime minister herself. For nearly all roads of the current crisis lead to the front door of 10 Downing Street.

No one can doubt the prime minister's determination and fortitude. She worked tirelessly to secure her deal and in so doing implement the result of the referendum as she saw it.

What does PM's letter reveal?

What does PM's letter reveal?

Do the PM's words reveal anything else about her strategy as she battles through the ongoing crisis at Westminster?

The problem is that vision was rejected – twice and by the biggest margins in history. Yet the prime minister has simply not responded, politically, intellectually or possibly even personally.

She seems to have dug a psychological bunker so profound that the reality of her defeats has been unable to reach its depths.

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She has reacted not with humility or contrition or openness, but with a tone so lecturing and hubristic that many MPs have thought her deeply arrogant. Her spokesman explains this by saying she is frustrated with parliament's "inability to take a decision".

The truth is it has, repeatedly on all manner of things – they're just not decisions to her liking.

Theresa May
Theresa May hints she could quit if she's faced with prospect of longer extension

Mrs May is unique in our constitutional history in refusing to accept the will of the House of Commons. This streak was most clearly on display on Wednesday when she refused to act on her own motion from last week which said she would seek a long extension to Article 50 if her deal had not passed by now.

She has also reneged on the idea of indicative votes to determine the will of the House, something her deputy promised only days ago. She has repeatedly flouted convention by not resigning after the major defeat of legislation.

She thought she could just ignore the rules of the Commons which say they must not vote on something more than once. She has refused to rule out no deal despite the fact that, again, the House of Commons voted for such a move twice.

It's no wonder that MPs on all sides of the House think she treats them with little or no respect. Her message is that they must travel with her because she says so, because they must.

Brexit: 90% say handling of negotiations is 'national humiliation'

Brexit: 90% say handling of negotiations is 'national humiliation'

Sky Data poll results

But parliamentary democracy does not work in such a fashion, especially if you lead a minority government.

Mrs May acts as if she has an enormous majority and that she can bend them to her will – but she has not and she cannot. It is no surprise hers is the first government in history to be found in contempt of parliament.

The tone was set after the 2017 election when she walked up Downing Street, deprived by the British people of her majority.

The early scaffolding of the bunker was already in place – she did not reference the election result once but merely spoke of the referendum.

She attempted to anchor her political legitimacy in its deep sea. Before and since her, rhetoric tells us she believes her authority rests not on the Commons' confidence but from 2016.

Theresa May hints she could quit in event of long Brexit delay

Theresa May hints she could quit in event of long Brexit delay

'I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June'.

Mrs May portrays herself as its defender against a malign and devious parliament which seeks at all costs to annul Brexit. In believing this and taking up this mantle, she is not only wrong but deeply misguided.

She is wrong because there is a majority for Brexit in parliament, just not hers – and misguided because her conduct threatens not just our leaving the EU and her government.

As a broadcast journalist I am rightly bound by strict rules of impartiality when it comes to party politics. But I am not impartial about our parliamentary democracy; for that I am a fully signed up evangelical.

I believe it is one of Britain's greatest inventions, exported and emulated across the globe, that it has served our country – under both Conservative and Labour administrations – well.

It has proved flexible when necessary, cautious when required and managed, for the most part, to scrape off the froth of the hottest political debate.

Leo Varadkar favours allowing the UK government more time to reach a Brexit deal, but not any suggestion of changing the terms around the backstop
The Irish PM thinks the UK government should have more time to sort the Brexit deal

The conduct of the prime minister and her ministers imperil its long-term vitality, undermine its authority and threaten to unstitch the seams between people and parliament. They have been insufficiently temperate or careful with their tone and rhetoric – they talk incessantly of "the will of the people".

That mandate was a powerful one and if it can be implemented in any way which parliament finds acceptable, then it should be. But by contrast the PM, the head of a parliamentary democracy, seems to think the "will of parliament" is of trifling importance.

But if we have to choose direct or representative democracy, it must be the latter every time. We cannot govern by direct democracy. It will be parliament, our representative body, which long after she has gone must act as the conduit between the government and governed.

It is the first duty of any administration to ensure that the authority of parliament is beyond question. Someone must make that case and it should be the prime minister, but she is nowhere to be seen.

Not all of this is Theresa May's fault. The insertion of a hefty dose of direct democracy was always one which our representative democracy would find difficult to swallow. But Theresa May is making its digestion far more difficult.

The PM was defied by her ministers
Image: The PM seems to think the 'will of parliament' is of trifling importance.

Parliament is not blameless – but in recent weeks it has desperately wanted to try and seek a compromise. It is the prime minister's own red lines and truculence which prevents that compromise emerging.

I repeat: there is a majority for Brexit, just not her Brexit, and certainly not hers if it is with a gun to MPs' heads.

There are so many other options she could legitimately pursue, if only she had the political agility to avail herself of them.

She could embrace the Kyle-Wilson amendment, which would provide the votes to pass her deal subject to a ratification referendum (one I suspect she would win).

She could soften her red lines, add to the political declaration, offer Labour MPs what they want on a customs union and call their bluff and publicly call for them to back it.

Or if she really cannot tolerate the current House of Commons (a perfectly legitimate and not unprecedented situation for a prime minister) she could call an election.

What she cannot do and should not do, for the long-term health of our democracy, is bully parliament – nor should she give succour to those (already ubiquitous) who claim that its will is somehow illegitimate, that the democratic process, when it goes against her and them, is wrong.

Image: Downing Street briefed that the Speaker was seeking to subvert or prevent Brexit

The constitutional wreckage of her approach is all around us. Her refusal to allow an inch of compromise from her vision means the executive and legislature are daggers drawn. Precedent is going down the drain. Collective responsibility has gone.

The speaker is implicated because of her insistence on bringing the same thing back again and again and showing no regard or even awareness of the precedent which should prevent it.

MPs are considering transforming the standing orders of the Commons to seize control of the order paper. Our constitution is being rewritten before our eyes – and no one really wants it.

And the irony is, her battering ram approach will not serve Brexit well even if parliament finally buckles.

Consider what is now her plan. She would like to bring her deal back to the House next Thursday – Brexit eve.

I have long thought there isn't a cat in hell's chance of her deal having the numbers to get through. But if I'm wrong and she passes it with a tiny majority, by holding a gun to parliament's head, forcing MPs to choose between that and no deal with hours to go, imagine the result.

Image: Protesters outside parliament

For a start, that would be no stable majority for the necessary EU Withdrawal Bill (which will be amended to high heaven). Secondly, the legitimacy of such a result, in such circumstances, having lost twice, would be near nil, on both sides.

Then, the withdrawal agreement would doubtless be picked apart as soon as Mrs May had left and was succeeded by a hard Brexiter. She fails to see that the implementation of the referendum result is reliant upon the perception of a fair and just parliamentary process.

As Edmund Burke, the father of the philosophy of conservatism once wrote: "Make the Revolution a parent of settlement, and not a nursery of future revolutions."

Her cardinal aim since becoming prime minister has been to avoid the damage to the political system which would inevitably come if the referendum result was seen to be overturned. But her medicine may yet prove worse than the disease.

Her intransigence renders parliament impotent, her stubbornness is fraying the relationships between the key bodies of our constitution and her active connivance and encouragement in a narrative which suggests that parliament is seeking to subvert "the will of the people" threatens to permanently stain our democracy.

House of Commons Pic: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy
Image: Mrs May would like to bring her deal back to the House on Brexit eve. Pic: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

How ironic, given many Brexiters claim that their project is about the restoration and rejuvenation of parliamentary democracy itself: for what is the point of "restoring" parliament if in the process the popular will on which parliamentary democracy must rest is destroyed, damaged or tarnished nearly beyond repair?

Quite the legacy, quite the irony, for a Conservative prime minister, of all sorts of prime ministers, whose forebears beyond all else cherished our democratic institutions and revered parliament.

Edmund Burke, for one definitely did. He famously said: "Society is indeed a contract… it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

Government and our institutions are the same. Theresa May's most solemn duty as prime minister, the current custodian of our democracy, is to respect the past, our political institutions, how they operate and crucially bequeath a functioning political system to its future tenants.

That is more important than delivering her version of Brexit or keeping the Tory party together. It is more important than anything. I deeply worry that this thought might never to have occurred to her.

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