Föhrenbergkreis Finanzwirtschaft

Unkonventionelle Lösungen für eine zukunftsfähige Gesellschaft

Nobody is really in charge of Britain

Posted by hkarner - 13. Juli 2017

Date: 13-07-2017
Source: The Economist: Bagehot

The prime minister’s power has drained away, leaving the country adrift

THE basic question of politics is always the same: who’s in charge here? Theresa May has already muddied the answer to this question once. By calling an election two years before she needed to, she turned a majority government into a minority and shattered her authority. Now she is muddying it again. By using the anniversary of her appointment as prime minister to relaunch her premiership, she is reminding everyone how little power she has.

Mrs May introduced Matthew Taylor’s report on the future of work with some reflections about her first year in office. The issue at the heart of her agenda is the same as it always was, she said: recognising that the EU referendum result was not only a vote to leave the European Union but also a call to change the country. But last month’s close election means that tactics must change: if Britain is to get anything done, politicians will have to work across party lines. She challenged Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to “contribute” rather than merely criticising.Mrs May gets some points for chutzpah. Having called the election to “crush the saboteurs”, in the memorable phrase of the Daily Mail, she now wants to make friends with them. But her relaunch proved to be a damp squib. The election result robbed Mrs May of the most important thing that any prime minister has: the benefit of the doubt. It also robbed her of the one thing that she has going for her as a politician: her air of competence. Most politicians have a group of friends they can rely on to watch their back when times get tough. Margaret Thatcher had a corps of ideological allies who would support her through thick and thin. Unclubbable and post-ideological, Mrs May is held in office only by the fact that the Conservative Party fears a leadership contest more than it fears her lacklustre leadership.

Her chances of getting things done are further diminished by the state of Number 10. Mrs May has lost not only her two chief advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, but also the head of her policy unit, John Godfrey, and her chief press spokesperson, Katie Perrior. For the past 40 years constitutionalists have worried that Britain is turning into a presidential regime, with the prime minister sucking ever more power into Downing Street and riding roughshod over notional checks and balances. Today the country has the opposite problem: a humbled prime minister and a hollowed-out Downing Street machine.

Where is the power that used to rest in the prime minister’s hands? Some is going to Damian Green, her oldest, and perhaps only, friend in politics and now, in effect, deputy prime minister. Mr Green is the Maybot’s human face, reaching out to fellow cabinet members and MPs. He is also reshaping her ideology. Mr Green has been a wet Tory since his student days at Oxford in the mid-1970s. His fingerprints are all over her recent speeches about working across party lines and crafting a new industrial strategy.

Some power is going to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, who works just down the corridor from her. Sir Jeremy is a professional in a world of amateurs—he has worked for four successive prime ministers and is politically astute as well as coolly efficient. Remainers worried that he bent over backwards to please Mr Timothy, Mrs May’s co-chief of staff, when the latter was in his pomp. Brexiteers now worry that (perhaps working with Mr Green) he will do his utmost to derail their project. But it is easy to over-emphasise the influence of both Mr Green and Sir Jeremy. A weak prime minister weakens those around her, whether politicians or civil servants.

The cabinet is more powerful than it has been for years. Ministers are getting noisier in lobbying for their departments. Both Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Michael Gove, the minister for the environment, have called for an end to the public-sector pay cap. Parliament is also flexing its muscles. At various points in recent decades it has looked almost as if it was being consigned to the purely ceremonial branch of British politics (when Tony Blair postponed an election in 2001, he told the Sun before he told Parliament). Now it is back at the centre of power. Coalitions of MPs are discovering that they can force the government to back down. One led by Labour’s Stella Creasy forced the government to agree to fund abortions for women from Northern Ireland. Another is likely to ensure that after Brexit Britain is still a member of Euratom, which governs the transit of radioactive materials across the continent.

The old gods and the new
The Repeal Bill, which the government published on July 13th, will give Parliament another opportunity to reassert itself against the executive. The bill is a legislative Leviathan which turns thousands of pages of European law into British law. The government wants to use so-called Henry VIII powers to amend the bill after it has been passed, without parliamentary scrutiny. This would have been difficult even if Mrs May had won a resounding victory in the general election, because it raises profound constitutional questions about the relationship between the executive and the legislature. With a weak prime minister, it could prove impossible. MPs from across the political spectrum are planning to turn the bill into a “Christmas tree” onto which they can hang all manner of amendments, as one put it.

There is something to be said for scattered authority. The voters refused to give Mrs May a mandate in part because they didn’t trust her to do the right thing with one. The divisions in British politics reflect a more profound division in the country as a whole. But divisions can become dangerously inflamed if they are not eventually resolved. And endless political manoeuvring can turn into paralysis. The biggest danger for Britain is that it will fall off a cliff at the end of the Brexit negotiations with no deal in place. The fact that nobody can really answer the who’s-in-charge question makes that a real possibility.

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