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Tony Travers: Westminster's fate could depend on radical change

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The Brexit debacle has revealed many, generally bad, aspects of the operation of the UK’s national government and politics. 

It has also told us unpalatable things about some voters: MPs now routinely receive death threats and have been advised not to leave Parliament on foot. The baleful performance of the entire system (and of sections of the electorate) will inevitably have had profound impacts on the public’s already faltering levels of confidence in the country’s political machinery. Cabinet collective responsibility has broken down. The relationship between the government and Parliament has been damaged. Parties’ capacity to whip their own MPs to vote in a particular way has been seriously undermined. Senior ministers have fallen out with the Speaker. A number of leading politicians have questioned the impartiality of the civil service.

MPs have found themselves under pressure to be delegates rather than representatives, thus undermining one of the key principles of British democracy. Taxpayers’ cash is being burned to fund hypothetical service needs. The devolution settlement has been put under intense pressure, while the Union may yet be.

The Conservatives face a break-up threat which has no parallel since the Tories’ split over the Corn Laws in 1846. Labour’s Opposition role has been fatally undermined by schisms between the leadership and MPs which are only in part Brexit-related. The Liberal Democrats have failed to capitalise on the other parties’ woes to the extent that an independent group, to become a party called ‘Change UK’, is the home for many defecting MPs. Elsewhere, Nigel Farage has set up the Brexit Party to pursue a clean-break departure from the EU.

If local authorities and their politicians behaved like this, the government would send in commissioners and/or put councils into special measures. Of course sub-national government is not immune from the spill-over consequences of the chaos in Westminster and Whitehall, though its capacity to carry on regardless provides some comfort in an uncertain world.

Councils have received little detailed guidance about what to do if Brexit goes badly. None of the problems outlined above will go away in the coming months because the poisonous impact of Brexit is now a fixed influence on UK political life. Accusations of betrayal, treachery, being an ‘enemy of the people’ and threats of ‘riots in the streets’ will scar politics for years into the future.

Preparing for ‘No Deal’ has engulfed the government to the point that very little else can be done. Older people’s care, housing, roads and the declining quality of the public realm are on a long list of issues where Whitehall policy-making is inert. A spending review is due this year: will it be for three years or one? Can the fair funding review be implemented in 2020-21? What about schools’ funding? And social care resources? November is now just seven months away.

For decades, successive governments have sustained a highly-centralised form of government in England. Things are similar in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, though in the latter councils (along with the rest of society) are in the curious position of being administered by officials without any political legitimacy to back them up. As Brexit continues to damage both the reputation and operation of the UK governmental machinery, the question of constitutional reform will surely gain traction.

Some commentators are openly questioning whether things can go on like this, arguing that the uncodified British constitution is seriously damaged. Normally, it takes defeat in a conflict, or a civil war or gaining independence from an imperial power to provide a country the clean break necessary to re-start its system of government. Brexit, for all its destructive power, has not yet taken us to quite such a revolutionary point. But power needs to be pushed downwards and made more accessible to voters. Westminster and Whitehall need to recognise that their very survival may now require radical changes to our damaged, over-centralised, system of government.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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