“Do you remember a few months ago when the government losing a vote was a really big deal?”
That’s what a close friend said to me after the latest “unprecedented” parliamentary shenanigans. Since last summer we’ve become so used to cabinet resignations and the government losing votes that the word unprecedented is a little over-used.
The other word that the 24-hour news channels trot out frequently is “febrile”. Our politics has a febrile atmosphere that has had viewers flocking to the BBC Parliament channel. In countries far away the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, is a household name. This year BBC Parliament’s viewing figures briefly rivaled those of MTV. Add to that news channels, politics shows and bulletins and we can safely say Brexit is a smash viewing hit.
With the second series of Brexit in swing British politics has gone a little bit Netflix. Just as people clamour for the latest dramas to binge, we now have politics to match. This is the spectacle to end all spectacles with the promise of an explosive season finale: general election? Theresa May being re-programmed by robotics experts? A Corbyn government? A second coming (sorry I mean referendum). It literally feels like anything could happen. The public are hooked in exactly the same way that modern TV streaming services rely on for success.
This has all come about because of three factors. The first is the 2017 general election result; the second is the way Brexit divides opinion within political parties; and the third is the stubbornness the Prime Minister and her cohort showed before her final demise, due next month.
The 2017 general election was a disaster for May in terms of her wanting a thumping majority but ending up with relying on the DUP for support. Without this election it is highly likely her deal would be through Parliament by now. The election result, following a catastrophic campaign, should have been enough to seal May’s fate but she wasn’t having any of that.
Brexit gives us many nuanced characters, just like any popular drama. We see how they line up in Parliament by party colours only to find out later that they’ve been working with people from other parties. Change UK is made up of the ones that have gone so far in sleeping with the enemy that they’ve formed their own little group. The two main parties remain riddled with factions.
Theresa May has proven an old adage that Prime Ministers tend to try to cling to power. She has taken it to a new level. In normal times resignation would have been expected after an appalling general election result but not with May. Since then there have been over 40 ministerial resignations. She must have been running out of people to be able to appoint, it is that unprecedented. She carried on, even though many of her colleagues refused to work for her. In the summer of 2018 her Chequers Plan was announced to great fanfare and cabinet approval only to result in ministerial resignations within 48 hours, including Boris Johnson — but not her.
May survived a vote of confidence from her own party MPs and her government survived a vote of confidence in the Commons. There were plans to change the Conservative Party rules to ensure that she would be forced to quit. In order to stay she agreed to stand down if her deal was voted through the Commons. We have entered the bizarre dimension where success is now rewarded with the sack; failure results in getting to hold on to your job long past your time. This is a fine way to sell the capitalist principle of meritocracy. It is also an extra plot point in the Brexit Shit Show. We all get to see her demise if she gets what she wants. That’s compelling viewing.
This attitude has rubbed off. Cabinet collective responsibility used to mean that in order to be a minister you had to vote with the government. If a minister didn’t vote with the government (by convention) they had to resign. With conventions out of the window, ministers are doing what they like. At one key cabinet meeting May feared leaks to the press so ministers were forced to hand over their mobile devices and unable to leave the room until she had done a press conference to confirm what had been agreed. That is how much she trusted her closest colleagues.
Parliament used to be real life. It was dull. We binged on box sets to escape the real world. Now politics is beyond real, and we indulge in all the latest votes as though we’re escaping humdrum existence.
Obviously, whilst Parliament is now a fantasy world where anything can happen, and probably will, Brexit has real implications for all of us living in the UK.
The way reality and this Box Set Parliament intertwine makes the spectacle all the more disturbing. The risk of Brexit to jobs, supply flows and free movement is terrifying. The real life stuff of getting the right medication, affording food or simply being able to stay in a country you’ve made your home is being tampered with. The chances of escaping the negative impact of Brexit are small but get better the more wealthy you are.
At some point the Brexit Shit Show will end. I did worry that we may have entered a world where Theresa May is immortal and intends to sit out eternity saying “my deal is the best deal; it is the only deal” but logically it had to end and a new normal will now develop. Chances are the spectacle of parliamentary politics goes back to what it was like before.
Do you remember? Parliament used to just be a terrible place where legislation was voted on by rich, over-privileged bastards who genuinely thought they had the wisdom to decide what was best for the rest of us. It will go back to that one day. Life will go on and no doubt a Netflix series of Brexit and Parliament will be made. People will binge it, hardly believing that it could possibly be based on anything that actually happened. We will be back to normal; passively observing a boring set of current affairs but lapping up the most amazing story ever told, re-sold to us by clever Brexit-proof TV executives.
Pic background: The Westminster fire of 1834
This article first appeared in the Summer issue of Freedom Journal