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Is Britain Heading for Constitutional Crisis?

Jamie Dettmer

At no time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a Labour leader had to break with his party and head a national unity government, has a British prime minister been so boxed in as Theresa May, say analysts.

British lawmakers, exhausted and on edge from the political turmoil of last week — when the country was meant to have left the European Union, but didn’t — fear this coming week could be more traumatic for a constitutional order that’s cracking under the stress of a Brexit impasse that’s also fracturing Britain’s two storied parties, the Conservatives and Labour.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, outraged party activists by suggesting Saturday a national unity government may have to be formed to find a way out of the political dead-end.

“If needs must, we have to then do what’s right,” he said.

Former Conservative minister Nicky Morgan has also hinted that a national government might be the only option, if May declines to implement any alternative Brexit policy for lawmakers to vote on Monday in a second stage of so-called indicative voting.

Houses of Parliament in London by Petr Kratochvil is Licensed Under CC0 Public Domain

Last week, for the first time since 1906, lawmakers seized control of the parliamentary agenda from the government, aided by the House Speaker, to debate 16 Brexit options.  They voted in the end on eight, although none secured a majority.

But two came close — one calling for a second referendum and another for a so-called soft Brexit that would see Britain remaining in a customs union with the bloc.  A third that would see an even closer relationship with the European Union also did fairly well and behind-the-scenes is reportedly picking up more promises of support.

May has reserved the right not to implement what the House of Commons decides, but could be forced by parliament to do so, a further overturning of constitutional practice.  She still hopes to secure backing for her thrice-defeated and highly contentious Brexit withdrawal deal that’s anathema to a large group of hardline Conservative Brexiters and a Northern Irish party she relies on in her minority government.

No-deal Brexit

More than half of her Conservative lawmakers signed a letter Saturday insisting May decide to go for a no-deal Brexit and leave without any agreement with Brussels, a move that could wipe out 10 percent of Britain’s trade, according to economists, disrupt crucial supply chains and push Britain into a recession.

It would also leave up in the air the fate of 3.5 million Europeans living in Britain and as many as 1.5 million Britons living on the continental mainland.

But there is no majority in parliament for such a sharp break.

With all avenues seemingly leading to dead-ends, half her Cabinet is pushing for a general election, hoping it would return a parliament not so undecided.  But the other half is adamantly opposed to a snap poll, pointing out that an early election she called two years ago crippled the Conservatives, losing them their majority in the Commons.

“It would be an act of extraordinary self-harm,” a minister told VOA.  “How can we fight a general election when we are so bitterly divided and with a leader who’s promised to relinquish leadership soon.  What will be the manifesto that can unite the party,” he said.

His fears may not be misplaced. Despite poisonous divisions in the Labour Party over Brexit, allegations of anti-semitism and over the ideology of Jeremy Corbyn, the most far-left leader the party has had since the 1940s, an opinion poll on Saturday put Labour five points ahead of the Conservatives.

If repeated in an election, that would leave Labour the largest party, although shy of an overall majority.  It would likely form a coalition government or agree to voting arrangements with the pro-EU Scottish nationalists, Liberal Democrats and a new breakaway centrist party made up of Labour and Conservative defectors.

But it too has sharp Brexit differences, replicating the irreconcilable difficulties the Conservative government is finding impossible to overcome.

Few lawmakers and commentators now think Britain will escape the mess without wide-ranging and long-term constitutional and political wreckage.  That could possibly draw the queen into the crisis, and right into the center of party politics, something modern-day monarchs have avoided as they are meant to stay above the political fray.

Nuclear option’

Two constitutional lawyers have advised the government it would have the legal right to ask the queen to withhold her royal assent to any bill foisted on the government by parliament.  Stephen Laws, a former parliamentary counsel, and Richard Elkins, an Oxford University law professor, argue parliament would be abusing constitutional process and “the government might plausibly decide to advise Her Majesty not to assent.”

Ministers have tagged that approach a “nuclear option.”  It would propel the monarchy onto a collision course with parliament, something not seen since the 18th century.

Exasperation is rising across the country that is angrily split down the middle over staying a member of the EU or quitting.  The one thing uniting the nation is frustration bordering on contempt for the country’s political class.

Commentator Charles Moore, a former editor of the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph, argues parliament members are putting themselves above a public vote that decided for Brexit.

  But pro-EU commentators, while agreeing the constitutional order is at risk of unraveling, say voters were tricked and many who voted for Brexit had no idea that could put Britain outside the EU single market and customs union, something leading Brexit politicians promised wouldn’t happen.

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