Imagine that you are Prime Minister and that one day your staff appear in your office with some frightful news. A dangerous military competitor in the Middle East is developing weapons of mass destruction that can be potentially deployed within forty-five minutes of the order being given. The dread and paranoia immediately engulf you like a hallucinogenic drug. Imagine if it was possible to fit these weapons into warheads that could reach London. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured. Imagine having to meet with the army of grieving relatives. And just think of the consensus amongst the historians of the future. “Only one man could have stopped this catastrophe and he did nothing!”
If any of us was placed under this pressure, we would go completely around the bend. Clearly, all rational thought becomes impossible in such a situation. The spuriousness of the incoming military intelligence and the powerlessness of the government in London to meaningfully act become effectively irrelevant. You are impaled on an unbearable mental anguish and you need to do something – anything! – to dislodge yourself again.
I suspect that it is exactly the same with Theresa May and the prospect of “no deal” or “going off the cliff.” Imagine how awful and embarrassing it would be if there was a gigantic queue of lorries snaking all around Dover! Imagine if there were fisticuffs at a checkpoint on the Irish border! Imagine the deafening condemnation from the historians of the future! And so all rational thought promptly goes out the window. There is the undignified scramble around European capitals to salvage some scrap of a deal, along with the junking of all coherent long-term policymaking.
If May wins today’s confidence vote amongst Tory MPs, there could be another year of this and it could be even worse. The rules of the vote stipulate that if she wins, she will be awarded a year’s leeway, in which she is immune from any further leadership challenges. She will be thereby free to regale parliament with deals that are the dregs of the current one. If parliament continues to reject them, she can hold a general election in which she is frozen in place as leader (against an unintelligible rabble of an opposition). She can determine what is in the manifesto and, just as importantly, what is not in it. Whereas she had been previously required to nurture a delicate coalition of Brexiteers, Remainers and everything in between, a renewed May will no longer need to be mindful of the Brexiteers. They will have sold their share of the farm.
You might think: so what? Why does this squabbling between factions matter so long as it is resolved through the fair and straightforward power struggle of a confidence vote? To answer this, we should come back to our starting-point.
In 2003, the case for the Iraq war had been set out in bogus intelligence documents and not in an election manifesto that had been placed in front of the public. It might seem comedic that Tony Blair would ask one electorate to approve a manifesto of policies that concerned another, separate country that he was about to invade. Yet Blair’s government had no democratic mandate for the colossal expense and gruesome chaos of the Iraq war. He and the political class had slipped free of the normal democratic gravity; they were away doing their own thing, disconnected from the wisdom of the electorate that is ultimately the only ever sensible input into UK politics. Tellingly, and for all of the recent wailing about the foolishness and bigotry of UK voters, the result of Blair’s truancy, a war cooked up behind closed doors by our “expert” political elite, was an absolute disaster.
At the moment, both the ruling Tory party and the Labour opposition are similarly on the lam. Both parties had made manifesto commitments at the last election to leave the Single Market and the (existing) Customs Union. Having weaselled themselves into power by making these promises, they have blithely broken them. The options that our parliamentarians are lately toying with – reconciliation with the EU’s protectionism, tariffs literally within the UK, postponing Article 50, and a second referendum with a stupid, manipulative title – have no mandate from the electorate and each of them in fact defies the mandate that was given.
Fixing the Prime Minister in place for another year would feed the paranoia that an absconding or unsupervised political class is hatching our future amongst themselves. A new leader could yield to what is now the only acceptable scenario: that the bare bones of Brexit are put once again in front of the electorate, in a general election, to be either rejected or reconfirmed.