Apologies if some parts of this post seem familiar, but it is, after all, Groundhog Month.
Theresa May and her team (particularly, it seems, Olly Robbins and Gavin Barwell) are currently undertaking a coup. So far they have been successful.
But, you may say, Theresa May already was the leader of the country. So how can she have undertaken a coup? The answer is that although she was PM, there were, at least in theory, significant constraints on her power. One such constraint came from Cabinet. A PM is supposed to make decisions in consultation with Cabinet. The PM picks the Cabinet, so often you get a Cabinet who are already disposed to go along with the PM, so this is not always much of a check on power. But it has always been there as an expectation.
But the problem is that it is only an expectation. It’s not a formal, legal requirement, but a part of the UK’s tradition. And one of the things Theresa May and her cronies have done in going rogue is to be as legalistic as possible. Anything they want to do that they legally can do they have done. Tradition and precedent have been kicked aside. They’ve done what they wanted and challenged any of their opponents to find a legal way to stop them. And in the absence of a written constitution, there’s not a lot their opponents can do. It’s not written into law that May has to do what the majority of her Cabinet wants. So she hasn’t.
In the past we have expected our rulers to be bound by feelings of duty, honour and shame, and but none of those has any effect on May. Her attitude is that unless you can convince the police to come and arrest her, she’s staying in office. (Actually, even if she was arrested she’d still probably refuse to step down. And she’d probably get away with that too.)
Another informal check on the power of a PM is the party. But May is simply ignoring her party. They put her into the position of PM. But now she’s there she doesn’t need them. She’s become PM without a party. Every single Conservative MP in the land, every Tory councillor, even every party member, could knock on her door and tell her to go, and it wouldn’t force her to go if she didn’t want to. She could disown her party and there’s nothing much they could do. (In reality I don’t think even May has the balls to stay on in every possible eventuality – for example, a disastrous showing at the May local elections may be enough to force her out – but a bunch of backbenchers telling her to go can simply be stared down.)
The party can, of course, hold an internal vote of no confidence. But once that’s happened and the leader has survived it, the leader has a year before another vote can be put. In that year enormous damage can be done as the party becomes irrelevant. Even if another vote is held, there’s no guarantee that the party could get rid of the PM, as modern government has so many MPs on the governmental payroll that self-interest may induce them to vote for the incumbent if they think that their salary is going to be slashed with a new leader.
The party MPs could instead bring the PM down with a Parliamentary no confidence vote, assuming the opposition would vote for it. But as that will most likely lead to an election those MPs may fear losing their seats, or the opposition party winning, so that may put them off supporting such a vote. They may also be bound by feelings of duty towards their party which they feel preclude them ever voting against the party in such a fashion (feelings of duty which Theresa May does not share).
There’s also no guarantee that the opposition will support the no confidence vote themselves if the PM has reached out to them and is including them in the processes of government, and/or if the opposition judges that the PM’s going rogue is badly damaging her own party, so they should hold off and let her do more damage. Both these things have happened with Theresa May and the Labour Party, so there is no longer any guarantee that the Labour Party would vote against May in a no confidence vote, although I’m sure they will if the Brexit talks with them are unsuccessful.
Another possibility may seem to be a Parliamentary vote for an early election, but that does nothing to remove the leader from being party leader. If that leader wished to stay to fight the election, they could. So voting for an early election (which requires two-thirds of the house) means going into an election with the rogue PM, which none of the MPs in the ruling party are going to want to do, because they’ll probably lose the election in that scenario.
There’s precious little else that can be done to remove a rogue PM. There’s no way that the public can bring the PM down, or force an early election. There are no public recall mechanisms. So a rogue PM and executive who are determined to stay in power to enforce their agenda can do so for a quite a long time, long enough to create havoc.
A rogue PM has not really been that much of an issue in the past. This is partly because in past times politicians have felt more bound by convention and tradition (it would have been unthinkable for any PM to behave like this thirty years ago). But it’s also because in the past a rogue PM wouldn’t have been able to do much. A PM has much less power than a US President. A rogue PM can’t just decree that a new law has been passed. Only Parliament can pass new laws, or alter existing ones. And it is true that in many ways Theresa May’s power is incredibly weak. She cannot command her party. Large numbers of her MPs brazenly mock her. Her successors are openly talked about.
But international treaties are a different matter, and that’s where the rogue PM can really wreak havoc. It turns out that while Theresa May can’t just write some words down on a piece of paper and have a new law come it being, she can profoundly change the country and its future just by writing some words down on a piece of paper, if those words are her signature and the piece of paper is a Brexit extension agreement with the EU. For that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission. (At least apparently so, although I still maintain that she has no legal power to sign any of these extensions of our behalf.)
On this understanding of the PM’s power she could sign the country into slavery if she so wished. She could sign an international treaty with Russia whereby the entire population of Britain is to be turned into dog meat in Siberian factories, and apparently there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, although you can bet that in such a case the civil service lawyers would suddenly discover that, hang on, it turns out that the PM can’t just sign an international treaty and have it automatically become law after all.
This brings us to the civil service. A PM who is fully rogue and who goes against the civil service and the Establishment probably would not last long; they’d find a way to bring him or her down. In Theresa May’s case she isn’t, of course, rogue to that extent. She and her team have not been silly enough to go rogue against the civil service or the Establishment; in fact, they’re on her side. They’re all rogue. The civil service has gone rogue, and so has the Establishment. They’re openly against the people now. They’ve always been that way, you might say, and you’d probably be right, but Brexit has forced them to come out in the open about it. The deep state has been forced to surface, and it isn’t pretty to look at.
In addition, she also has a lot of Parliament on her side, in the form of the Remainers from all parties who form a majority in Parliament, and who have been emboldened by the media and each other to stop pretending they want to respect the referendum result and instead to frustrate it. So Parliament has gone rogue too. As has the Speaker.
Basically the whole of the Establishment has gone rogue along with the PM. And this is what the Leavers of Britain, armed only with their toothpicks, are up against. This is why the Conservative Party badly needs to change its leadership rules. It’s why the Fixed Term Parliament Act is a bad idea. And it’s also why referendums, for all their imperfections, need to be become a permanent feature of British life. But those are issues for further discussion. For now, we just need to appreciate what we’re up against: a rogue Establishment that knows it has to win.