One idea that keeps floating around the Brexit debate is the possibility of some form of Government of National Unity (GNU) being formed to somehow sort out the mess. It’s not an absurd idea, especially if you’re of the view that the UK is currently in a major constitutional and political crisis (with a possible economic one just around the corner) that can only be solved by radical means. Previous crises have triggered previous forms of national government such as the coalition that arose during the First World War and continued after it, the MacDonald-Baldwin National Government of 1931 and Churchill’s government during the Second World War. There have also been various plans for National Government (and often associated National Parties) proposed at various other points of perceived crisis — the British political history of the 60s and 70s is littered with dozens of ideas for various forms of political unity.
Brexit also makes for a good catalyst for some form of unity government because it cuts across the party cleavage and divides both the Tory and Labour parties.Not just on the question of whether it should happen, but also on the question of it does, then how should it happen, each party has MPs with a wide range of views on the matter in ways that don’t neatly connect to other political attitudes. With Theresa May failing for a third time to get her deal approved by Parliament yesterday, attention turns to what forms of Brexit (or even what methods of not doing Brexit) might have a stable Parliamentary majority — and if there’s a stable Parliamentary majority to push forward the key issue facing the country at this time, by the usual practice of a parliamentary democracy, shouldn’t that majority be the one forming the Government?
This isn’t just idle speculation on my part — Tom Watson’s quite open in this interview about being approached and asked his views on a GNU and just today, Nicky Morgan has suggested it as a way through the deadlock. But what would this Government be made up of, and what policy would it put forward?
On the second question, we have some idea from last week’s indicative votes that it may be possible for some form of softer Brexit, based on a customs union, with some sort of single market relationship and EEA membership alongside another public vote of some sort, to get a majority in the Commons. It’s supported by the bulk of the Labour Party, a large (if still a minority) faction in the Conservatives and would likely get support from the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, TIG and Plaid Cymru, especially with a second referendum as part of the deal. (It might even be attractive to the DUP, given Nigel Dodds’ announcement yesterday that they’d support whatever keeps the UK together)
They key problem here, though, is that you wouldn’t get a lot of those elements to support a Corbyn-led Labour government, and you wouldn’t get Labour to support a government that they’re not leading. However, to form a GNU you don’t actually need the Labour Party itself, just a good chunk of its MPs. Like the ones who’ve signed up to be part of Tom Watson’s Future Britain Group, for instance, or those who’ve never felt on board with the whole Corbyn project.
So, if you take those MPs from the one side and add to them the similar number on the Tory side who’d go for some form of the Soft Brexit/referendum option, I think you’d find yourself with something between 250 and 300 MPs (though probably towards the low end of that mark). Astute readers will now be thinking that’s not a majority, and it isn’t, until you add in the other parties who add in another 60 or so MPs, enough to get to a majority. A slim one, yes, but it would be for a Government that didn’t face a coherent opposition, giving it space to manoeuvre between an ERG-dominated Tory rump to its right and a hardened Corbynite Labour on its left.
I’m not going to get into the division of the spoils here because it would be too likely to turn into one of those fantasy cabinets that policy wonks blurt out on Twitter when taking a break from West Wing marathons, but my expectation is that there’d likely be a line — a fuzzy one, but significant to cross — between the Government and its Parliamentary support. The SNP, for instance, wouldn’t join a coalition like this, but could give it Parliamentary support in exchange for certain concessions.
What I’d expect would be that this Government would have two clear aims. First, to negotiate a new Brexit deal based on some form of Soft Brexit/Norway/Common Market 2.0/whatever else we’re calling it next week, and second, to organise a new vote/confirmatory referendum/#PeoplesVote/et cetera to approve that deal or return to the status quo of EU membership. (Interestingly, this would fit with the process laid out in the Parliamentary Supremacy amendment for Monday’s debates in the Commons) I’d also expect that any government like that would also have a policy of requiring members of it (at least at Cabinet level) to not oppose the deal in the referendum, to try and avoid some of the mistakes of the previous process and to try and avoid it being branded as ‘betraying Brexit’.
Now, you might have noticed that amidst all my discussion of what a GNU would do, I’ve not really given much detail on how it might come into being. It’s why when I was talking about it earlier this week with my students I described it as something I wouldn’t be surprised to see happen, but didn’t think it was likely because I couldn’t work out the sort of events that would make it happen. However, now I’ve seen the Parliamentary Supremacy amendment (g on the Commons order paper) I can see a path to it. If that, or something like it, passes then there’s a clear path to having to find a government that will implement it in a couple of weeks time and a clear body of people who voted for it in the Commons to build it from. It would still be a difficult process from there, requiring lots of goodwill and tradeoffs from all sides, and a very complex final deal to seal it all in place, but the principle of it — and the resulting pressure to make it happen — would have been agreed, and that would make for a big motivator.
I’m still not sure a GNU is likely, but I’m definitely not going to be surprised if it does happen. The big question then would be ‘will it work?’ and that’s something that’ll have to wait a while before I’m going to venture an answer to it.