What constitutes a political crisis? And when, and how, does a crisis of politics evolve into a crisis of the constitution? This might sound like an argument over semantics. Yet for political scientists, the distinction is an important one. This is because it can tell us what might happen next: a political crisis is solvable by politicians as gridlock – slowly – works its way through to a resolution. A constitutional crisis, on the other hand, suggests something more fundamental: a deeper contradiction in the system requiring an altogether different solution. One is (more or less) temporary, the other (potentially) permanent.
The case for Brexit as a temporary bug in the Westminster system can be made via counterfactuals. If the general election had not been held in 2017, Theresa May would be operating with a slim majority rather than as head of minority government. If different decisions on the direction of Brexit had been made at various forks in the road – particularly following the loss of this governing majority – then it is at least plausible to think the present situation might look very different. Reaching out in June 2017 to secure broader support for a softer Brexit than she had laid out before her ill-fated popular poll might have made all the difference. The point is that these are questions of statecraft, not a system failure.
Indeed, retrospective analysis of the legislative politics of the last two years shows that the minority government has, on the whole, managed to fumble along – up to now – as well as one might reasonably have expected. The last period of minority government in the 1970s led to an equivalent number of defeats and many of the same political tactics: pulling votes at the last minute, mass abstentions from the government and the politicisation of the whip’s office.
However, you have to reach further back, to 1924, for anywhere near comparable defeats as those suffered by May on her Brexit deal. But again, these defeats were the result of political parties realigning and the party system coming to terms with the rise of the Labour Party. They were a matter of the party system, not the political system.
There is also a problem in assessing the functioning of Westminster through its capacity to manage the issue of Europe. The last period of comparable governing turbulence to now was during John Major’s premiership. Then, as now, the issue of Europe and tight parliamentary arithmetic disrupted the normal flow of relations between government and parliament.
The difference now is that the EU issue has underlined and heightened a political cleavage in the electorate based on social values. The new post-Brexit politics is something that the Independent Group, and undoubtedly any future project headed by Nigel Farage, hope represents a political sea change.
Yet they may be disappointed. The result of the Brexit brouhaha might yet be a recreated political coalition on the centre-left that looks a lot like the pre-coalition Liberal Democrats, and the latest iteration of British Euroscepticism on the right.
This would begin to look a lot more like the ebb and flow of conventional British politics than a dramatic reformulation. And the surest bet in British politics is that, when politicians attempt to redefine the political system, the electoral system reasserts itself.
It is when we look more closely at the rhetoric and actions of MPs that things become more worrying. Unworkable and unsustainable contradictions are the symptoms of a constitutional crisis. A breakdown of collective cabinet responsibility, which leads to cabinet ministers saying one thing to the House of Commons and then doing another.A Prime Minister who, at crunch time, decides to pit the office of Prime Minister against the Parliament from which she derives her political power. A Parliament made up of MPs who are unable to reconcile a desire to act as both delegate and representative.
Theresa May’s speech on 20 March appeared to be moving the politics of Brexit on from crisis management to a political blame game. The Prime Minister’s theme of anti-politics outraged MPs, but these rhetorical themes of collective failure and systematic breakdown are shared – one way or another – by Jeremy Corbyn, Chuka Umunna and Nigel Farage.
The realities of complex modern democracy sit uneasily alongside the idea of simple solutions. This friction creates a different type of constitutional crisis: a long-term undermining of political legitimacy among voters. And what all the polling shows is that the one thing that seems to unite voters is a sense that politicians are failing. Moreover, and for what it’s worth, surprisingly resistant to this blame game on the Brexit impasse so far is the EU: voters blame the government, followed by parliament, with the EU a distant third.
Perhaps the key determinant of whether the current crisis is political or constitutional is whether it can be resolved through an electoral event. If so, it is ephemeral. And a general election could, in theory, break the deadlock. A small swing towards the Labour Party could lead to a different minority government and another referendum. A Conservative leader advocating a different deal or no deal at all may get the numbers they need.
However, any general election or referendum campaign is likely to be driven by recrimination. The danger is that we could, in trying to resolve a temporary political deadlock, talk ourselves into some longer term damage.
By Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr Alan Wager, researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe. This is from our report, Article 50 two years on, and was also featured on the LSE Brexit blog.