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May’s Levitation

Steven Spencer
Naked Politics Blogger

Any student of UK Government and Politics will parrot back the mantra that the government is not all powerful because parliament is. The main principle of the UK Constitution is that what the Crown enacts in Parliament is law.

A Prime Minister is only elevated to this office if he or she can command a majority in The House of Commons and must maintain the ‘confidence’ of the house in order to stay in office.

It has been painfully obvious to all concerned that this Prime Minister has not had the confidence of the House for over a year and in any normal circumstance would have either been replaced by a new Tory leader or called a general election.

Why then has May attempted to levitate above ‘normal’?

Endless hours of commentary, many thousands of words written and seemingly endless parliamentary debate cannot hide the fact we are in fact no further on, no closer to reconciling the result of the 2016 referendum with something that is politically and constitutionally actionable, and no nearer to the end of ‘Brexit’; a made-up word that has enveloped a whole country since it was coined.

Why no closer? May’s levitation is the answer.

This question is complex, but in essence, comes down to fear. In 2017, Labour under Corbyn gave the Tory Party an almighty scare. They did not win, but considering the manifesto they presented was ‘lefty’, they managed to increase vote share, win new voters and increase their representation in the Commons, despite the pre-election polls predicting a Tory walkover.

This essentially placed May between a rock and a hard place; the rock being her own divided party, the hard place being the next election. Attempting to deliver a Brexit the Tories could unite around whilst having no majority and whilst relying upon the DUP was always going to be impossible, but reaching out to Labour, a party the Tories had derided as Marxist loonies who would turn the UK into Venezuela, was seen to be electoral suicide.

So, May has attempted to play a high stakes game of making Labour blink ever since. From repeated parliamentary votes as the clock runs down, to blocking a second referendum in the hope of forcing the Labour front bench to protest, to lumping pressure onto wobbly Labour MPs by offering increased funding for their constituencies, to celebrating the defections of Labour MPs in the wake of claims of anti-Semitism; May’s main priority has been to provoke Labour into a position that the Tories could round upon and coalesce into a coherent mass.

That this strategy has failed is a surprise, perhaps even to Labour, as their MPs have proven to be much more loyal than Corbyn ever was on the back benches. Why? The answer is that Labour seem to have their eyes on the post-Brexit return to domestic concerns and even a leftward-bound Labour can see that there is a chance to gain power from an ailing Tory party. They have been vague enough to just about avoid serious division, with the shared enjoyment of watching the Tories rip themselves to pieces helping no end.

Labour were safe in the knowledge that levitation above normal constitutional norms can only be temporary and in the last few days we have seen a return to parliament expressing its will. A government that cannot pass its main policies on the major question of our age is a government that has lost the confidence of the House of Commons. All that remains is the death rites of a formal vote to be issued.

In all likelihood, the current talks between Labour and the Conservatives will not result in a deal that the Tory Cabinet can support, as it would probably result in their backbenchers being willing to vote for a general election. But even if the talks succeed, the lack of a majority and the heavily factionalised nature of the ruling party make an election a question of constitutional logic. The levitation of May’s government is coming to an end, which will be a sad moment for students of UK politics, but a blessed relief for a country that is crying out for ‘normal’.

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