This week’s parliamentary Brexit drama is merely the latest phase of a revelatory unravelling of the British constitutional arrangements.
For a country with a 1,000-year evolved democratic system, the struggle between the government, Parliament and the electorate over how, when or if the UK should leave the EU has proved that, under pressure, there is no way of being certain that the government can govern.
Theresa May’s government has no majority, which makes her plight even weaker than it might have been had she won the ill-advised 2017 election. But, in truth, even with a majority she would have reached the point she did this week. Back in December, the Cabinet could not command a parliamentary majority for its Brexit policy, so Parliament has had to re-visit the issue this week. A range of Parliament-led ways forward may now need to be found. The government may have to follow Parliament, which is unprecedented in modern times.
It is possible that neither Parliament nor the government will be able to achieve a majority for a version of Brexit. If that happens, it is still possible that the people will have to be involved again, through another referendum. This is like a game of constitutional pass-the-parcel, and it does not show the British governmental arrangements in a great light.
Brexit is the most important issue to affect Britain since 1945. Suez, the ‘three-day week’, the Winter of Discontent and the 2008 banking crisis were important, but did not involve a sudden and conscious decision by the country about its economic future. What happens in the weeks before 29 March will affect the UK for a generation.
Not only are billions of pounds now being spent on ‘no deal’ preparations, but the civil service is expanding fast. Whitehall can do little apart from struggle with both the process and potential aftermath of Brexit. One day, eventually, a government will have to look at the increasingly stressed condition of local services, some of which have been cut by 40-50% or more within eight years.
Britain’s government and political parties may be radically changed by all of this. Councils, as always, will have to pick up the pieces.