Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Britain’s having a Monty Python moment

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on December 17, 2018 before heading to the House of Commons to make a statement on her attendance at last week's EU Summit. - Prime Minister Theresa May will on Monday warn MPs against supporting a second Brexit referendum, as calls mount for a public vote to break the political impasse over the deal she struck with the EU. "Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum," she will tell parliament, according to extracts from her speech released by Downing Street. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Adrian DENNIS /AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, leaving 10 Downing Street, on her way to the House of Commons, Dec. 17, 2018.

As Theresa May went from crushing defeat on Tuesday to narrow victory on Wednesday, I’m sure I was not the only one reminded of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Despite having had both his arms chopped of by King Arthur (Graham Chapman), the Black Knight (John Cleese) refuses to yield:

Arthur: Look, you stupid bastard. You’ve got no arms left.

Black Knight: Just a flesh wound.

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The Pythons were never very good at ending their sketches, and so it is with Brexit. What was supposed to be a “meaningful vote” last week turned out to be entirely meaningless. The prime minister’s withdrawal agreement was thrown out by 432 votes to 202. Yet, little more than 24 hours later, there she was, having survived a vote of no confidence by 19 votes. Just a flesh wound.

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The danger exists that Brexit is not after all an attainable end-state, but an interminable “Monty Python” sketch.

For many of those who opposed Brexit, the easy option is to blame this mess on May’s predecessor, David Cameron. But the real sin Cameron committed was not to promise a referendum, a legitimate political expedient with numerous precedents; it was to agree to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

This was one of the few things the Liberal Democrats were able to secure by going into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 election. “By setting the date that parliament will dissolve,” explained Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, “our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election.”

Actually, no. What he act did was to end the custom whereby the monarch nearly always dissolved a parliament — in modern times, on the advice of the prime minister — before its time was up. True, this was a power that some prime ministers sought to use to their own advantage, by picking the moment most likely to give their party victory, but — as May proved in 2017 — the Fixed Term Parliaments Act did not end that practice, even if she miscalculated.

What the act really did, it turns out, was to destroy one of the old unwritten rules of British parliamentary life: that when a government suffered a heavy defeat, the prime minister resigned.

Under the old rules, a prime minister could be forced to resign or call an election by a no-confidence vote or the defeat of a supply (public spending) bill. In practice, losing a vote on a key piece of legislation (and sometimes even on a minor bill) was considered sufficient reason to give up the seals of office.

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We think of the typical prime minister as leaving office only when defeated in a general election. But there are numerous exceptions. In the 19th century, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, and William Ewart Gladstone all resigned when they suffered critical defeats in the Commons. So did Ramsay Macdonald in 1924.

Indeed, two — Neville Chamberlain in 1940 and Margaret Thatcher in 1990 — quit even after winning key votes because their margins of victory made them seem like moral defeats. David Cameron himself felt obliged to resign after losing the Brexit referendum.

Compare and contrast with Theresa May, who has suffered no fewer than 27 defeats in the House of Commons, 10 of them in connection with Brexit, her sole raison d’etre as prime minister. In no previous era of British politics could a prime minister have survived a defeat as large as last Tuesday’s.

Now consider two scenarios. In the old-fashioned scenario, May would have resigned last week. Unable to win a confidence vote, the Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn would now be trying to cobble together a minority government. This would immediately expose that Labor is as divided over Brexit as the Tories are. Any government he formed would be even weaker than May’s. If he somehow secured an early election, he might win it, but only narrowly.

Now here’s the scenario post-Fixed Term Parliaments Act: May continues as the Black Knight — in office, but not in possession of her limbs. Remainer MPs now aim to soften her Withdrawal Agreement, perhaps inserting full UK membership of the European Customs Union, perhaps punting Brexit back to the electorate for another referendum. In either scenario, the split within the Conservative Party grows wider. In the case of a second referendum that Remain won, a substantial proportion of Tory voters would defect to the UK Independence Party.

Eventually, 2022 would come around. But by now Labor would be up against a completely split right and would have its best chance of winning an outright majority since 2005.

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This is Black Knight politics. And it risks turning Brexit into a true Holy Grail. Just remember (as is revealed to Monty Python’s King Arthur), the Grail is only to be found in “the Castle of Auuggggggh.” If that’s the sound Tories want to make in 2022, they should stick with Theresa May. But they should prepare for much, much more than a flesh wound.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.