State aid and the union state

Defending the Union is not the same as owning the Nats. Tory disdain for devolution post-Brexit endangers it even further

Constructing a UK internal market needs time and attention too

Some nationalists claim the United Kingdom has no such thing as an internal market. Granted, it has no formal project branded ‘UK single market’. But its four parts have sent MPs to Westminster longer than modern regulatory states have existed. Britain built an integrated domestic market long before it joined the then EC. Until 1999, EU law played no specific role in preventing divergence. And the UK has an unusual lack of internal barriers for a large state.

The problem is real, but the end doesn’t justify the means

When devolution arrived, a mix of reservations to the UK Parliament and EU law served to keep it together. That EU framework ceases to bind the UK from 1 January 2021, leaving our internal market vulnerable to erosion. In areas which are within devolved competence but constrained by EU law, ever more barriers could result.

As Canada shows, states can easily end up with major internal economic barriers, which you then have to try to negotiate away. In the UK this would do great economic damage, at least outside of England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the rest of the UK as their main external market, and we are all deeply integrated.

Data from the Scottish Government, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and UK Government Internal Market White Paper. Figures do not add to 100% due to rounding. Flag images from Wikipedia.

So the issue is serious, as all three devolved administrations say they accept. It’s hard to see how you address it without action at a UK level. So far, so reasonable: hence a White Paper. It’s also true that even with common frameworks, many areas currently regulated at EU level will fall entirely to the devolved legislatures.

Nonetheless, powers devolved within an EU framework aren’t the same thing as reserved powers. Constitutionally, the UK Government wants to reserve some things which are currently devolved. The Sewel convention is clear: the UK Government shouldn’t do this without consent. That convention is core to making devolution work. Parliamentary sovereignty and decentralised power don’t easily mix. Sovereignty needs self-restraint for them to rub along.

Further, the EU doesn’t work in the same way as the UK. EU lawmaking is far more consensual and member states are part of the process. EU law is also likely to give member states more room for manoeuvre than UK replacements. The UK has no equivalent to directives as opposed to regulations, for instance. UK institutions are likely to be far more single-minded and far less prone to compromise. That means an ‘equivalent’ reservation in any given area could well mean less devolved autonomy in practice.

The principle of agreeing common frameworks with the devolved administrations isn’t new or controversial. Reserving subsidy control (state aid) makes sense in policy terms — though that doesn’t let us off the constitutional hook of consent. But the White Paper proposes new cross-cutting constraints on devolved policy:

the Government now proposes a Market Access Commitment, which will enshrine in law two fundamental principles to protect the flow of goods and services in our home market: the principle of mutual recognition, and the principle of nondiscrimination.

I don’t necessarily oppose some version of this. But it has major implications, depending on how it’s drafted and which sectors are excepted. It could well mean major new constraints, over and above EU-derived ones, in devolved areas. We’ve always had regulatory divergence within the UK in some areas. Building regulations differ in Scotland and England, for instance. Will changes now be subject to a market access test?

The White Paper also takes a profoundly asymmetrical approach, with policy in England as the implicit norm. The legal market access commitment will only apply to devolved policy. But policy in England (or England and Wales, or Great Britain) in the same areas could create market barriers too. How far will the UK Government constrain its own approach, and proposals to Parliament, in these areas? Could ministers at least have to certify whether such proposals discriminate against other parts of the UK, for instance?

Would this mix — some EU constraints gone, some powers reserved, a new general constraint — mean more or less de facto power for devolved institutions? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know without seeing the actual drafting. Even that’s not enough to gauge how the market access commitment will pan out in practice. I do know that it has huge implications for how devolution works. It’s a big constitutional change: it merits proper discussion. And in our system, convention is quite clear that consent is required.

So the Scottish and Welsh Governments have every right to be outraged by the idea of imposing it upon them. And to consult upon it for a mere four weeks (a third of the time to consult on a reformed judicial pension scheme, for instance) is outright farcical. The problems with devolution and our home market have been discussed for over four years. And the Brexit cliff-edge on 31 December is of the UK Government’s own (perverse) making. Yes, the SNP always takes any excuse to invent grievances. That doesn’t make it right, or good for the Union, to give them real ones.

This isn’t a first, either. Since 2016, the Sewel convention has been ignored several times, and not just for Scotland. Whatever you think of the arguments for an exception in any given case, it’s becoming a pattern. Among multinational states, the UK seems unusually willing to just override devolved competence. At the same time, secession is unusually — possibly uniquely — easy to seek. In a union state where a British nation overlaps with several other, older nations, that’s a strikingly unstable mix.

Voice, choice and consent

The mix is particularly dangerous to the Union in Scotland. Much of independence’s appeal comes down to agency — speaking to a view that Scotland has no real say in Britain. In response, UK governments yo-yo between ever-looser union and centralising confrontation. Neither works. On the one hand, there’s a limit to how far you can or should devolve within a state. On the other, preserving the Union and owning the Nats are not the same, though a certain sort of Tory seems unaccountably convinced that it is. If you don’t want the UK to break up or become a constitutional God of the gaps, you need to make its central institutions more legitimate in Scottish eyes.

Brexit has damaged support for the Union in Scotland. But it offered a chance to grapple with a more shared approach to governing the UK. The Welsh Government is the most sensible and least heard of the four administrations on constitutional issues. It made proposals for a UK Council of Ministers to decide on common frameworks. More recently, it has called for the successor to state aid rules to be enforced by a neutral body.

Whatever the detail, the principle is clear. Devolved governments need a real say in this area, and the UK Government can’t be both party to and arbitrator of shared rules. Yes, that will slow some UK decision-making down. It would be no bad thing if some UK decisions had to take some more time and be a bit more considered. But for good or ill, it’s part of the price of sustaining a complex union state.

The internal market debacle provides a good example of a core problem with how the Union currently works. Federal systems usually involve some element of shared rule as well as self-rule. The UK, unless and until it finds ways of dealing with the English Question and dividing legal sovereignty, can never be a true federation. But in practice, devolution often raises federal questions, and so does Scottish discontent.

When required to think about Scotland, English commentators often get worked up about money. In doing so, they miss the point about voice. Somehow, the British central state has to find a way to make itself more palatable north of the Border. It has to satisfy enough Scots that Britain as a state isn’t England-Plus with unreliable Scottish opt-outs.

If it can’t, the end of the Union of 1707 is only a matter of time. The Conservatives may think they’re standing up to the SNP. They’re actually dancing to its tune.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 18 July 2020.

Public good

The Cummings farrago exposes a government which doesn’t grasp its own role

Wars give us enemies with faces. Coronavirus does not. Social media delights in both putting war metaphors up and shooting them down, but I suspect the lack of a clear enemy makes national cohesion harder. And as we start to talk about exit strategies, whose interests come first and when may well divide us further.

Dominic Cummings has, if nothing else, given many people’s fury a face. And many have written already about how offensive his conduct — and his disdain for explaining himself — has been. But the defence of his conduct betrays a basic failure to grasp the purpose of government, which I think deserves a closer look.

Family first?

When push comes to shove, of course people care about their own children more than anything. But an unpalatable truth is that much of what the state does aims at keeping that impulse from running riot. One of the biggest challenges in education is stopping monied parents elbowing less fortunate kids out of the way in the interests of their offspring. Fair admissions, access to higher education, school funding formulae: keeping loving parents at bay is the bread and butter of education policy.

When politicians put their kids’ education first — as Diane Abbott and Tony Blair both found — we tend to censure them for it. Sometimes, as in Abbott’s case, that’s mainly about hypocrisy. But it reveals a deeper truth. We may nod as politicians say any parent puts their families first, but we don’t like it when they actually do. Because they set the rules which keep that truth in bounds.

Coronavirus poses a wider, sharper, harder challenge. The vast majority of us are vanishingly unlikely to die from it. We are asked — instructed — to act against our own and our loved ones’ interests (at least our immediate interests) every day. Do my friends gain or lose when I can’t help look after my nephew-in-all-but-name? Do children gain or lose from missing months of classes in favour of the trench warfare we call home school? Do families gain or lose from not having loved ones at funerals?

‘Parents always want to do what they think best for their kids’, ministers say. Of course. Why do ministers think we have laws?

Following instincts?

As maxims go, ‘follow your instincts’ may well be beloved of start-ups. It’s also precisely what the coronavirus rules try to prevent. Humans are deeply social animals. We want to see friends and family in groups, we want to hug people and not voice-project at two metres, we want sex. But all these things can transmit coronavirus.

So the state took draconian measures to get us to suppress our instincts. I don’t dispute the need for them: I merely observe that they remain draconian. After a shaky and ambiguous start, we were told to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. And it broadly worked. Possibly it overshot: the British are now among the most cautious of nations, and UK ministers (rightly or wrongly) are struggling to coax them out.

But to judge from the Prime Minister’s press conference, many ministers think we’re mugs. Having demanded a national effort, having given a simple instruction, having thanked us all for the sacrifices we’ve made, yesterday Johnson said Cummings ‘followed his instincts’. But people who didn’t attend loved ones’ funerals, let their children roam freely or see lonely family members resisted their instincts. From Grindr to grandparents, we built an edifice to contain a pandemic by keeping our instincts at bay.

As Johnson says, Cummings did what lots of us would naturally do. Why does he think we have rules?

Public demands

There’s something inhuman about what government — in truth, the policy world — requires. To work in policy, you have to be the kind of person who knows most government choices can kill. You have to embrace choosing whose lives and whose futures to put first every day. Most people don’t want to do it for a reason.

Most people don’t have to acknowledge that up front and they don’t like it when they hear it. So politicians often have to pay lip service to human instincts when half their task is to constrain or countermand them. Yes, it’s hard. And they’re allowed to say it’s hard. But what they cannot do is cite it as a defence when they put their private interests before what they say the public good demands.

On the evidence of the past few days, ministers and advisers neither recognise a higher public good nor care to pretend otherwise. That does not just constitute a culpable failure in public office. It constitutes an intellectual failure to understand what public office is for.

Unless and until they realise that ‘Wouldn’t you have done the same?’ is not just inadequate, but irrelevant, we will have no reason to believe they grasp the point of their own jobs. And even if we ignore every other issue, for that reason alone, Dominic Cummings must go.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 25 May 2020.

Dear sensible Conservatives …

I’m not just writing this with liberal Conservatives or Conservatives who voted Remain in mind. I’m thinking about all of you who know that politics involves trade-offs, opposition matters in democracies and disagreement with the Government is not treason to the country.

Your views on the current Government vary. A few of you are quietly or openly miserable. Many see Theresa May as one of the sensibles at heart, trying to keep the diehards within the tent. Others think her Brexit policy is broadly tolerable. But I imagine you all look across the political divide, see what’s happened to moderate Labour and think it could be much worse for you internally — even as you fear losing to Corbynite Labour.

Labour pains (and possibly precedents)

It certainly could be much worse for you. I’m a Labour moderate: I know what ‘worse’ looks like. But in some ways, your situation feels like a much more extreme version of Labour’s 2011 or 2012. At the time, we had a leader whose basic priority was to keep Labour’s internal coalition more or less on board. We also had a groundswell of feeling in, around and sometimes in complicated opposition to (combined with a sense of ownership of) the Party. In our case it was driven by a mix of being in Opposition and the sheer scale of Government cuts to the most vulnerable. And we had a longstanding hard left element of the Party — a small one in Parliament and a larger one in the country.

The soft left and many who now identify as moderates liked lots about this state of affairs— not wholly unreasonably. Ed Miliband went on the March for the Alternative in 2011. New Labour was self-consciously disavowed — either as too centrist, or as an outdated response in new circumstances, or both. Labour started to sound more critical of business, less keen on markets in public services, less interventionist in foreign policy. All of which was well within the mainstream of politics, whether you agreed with it or not.

On the side, sources like Another Angry Voice became quite well-liked and read by much of the left. Owen Jones was read and shared with sympathy by many social democrats. They were clearly to the left of the leadership — how far wasn’t too clear to many at the time. Organisationally, the unions had been shifting left over years. CLPs were moving that way too, with an inevitable impact on candidate selection. It’s not surprising that the 2015 intake had a significantly larger share of genuinely Corbynite and would-be-Corbynite-if-we-could-get-away-with-it MPs than the rest of the PLP.

We also tend to forget that nasty incidents relating to anti-Semitism and foreign policy predate Corbyn’s leadership. Under Miliband, three Labour MPs saw fit to invite Raed Salah to the House of Commons — and of the three, only Jeremy Corbyn was on the hard left. During the Gaza offensive in 2014, a shadow minister cheered the fact that protesters forced a Sainsbury’s to close — and yes, she apologised, but how did we ever get there in the first place? When an MP’s language called a Jewish Ambassador to Israel’s loyalty to the UK into question, it took a week for Labour to get him to apologise.

Meanwhile, Miliband tended to nod to the left of the soft left in his rhetoric, even when policy remained pretty resolutely social democratic. By 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn borrowed the same rhetoric and most of the policies too, Andy Burnham and (to a lesser extent) Yvette Cooper found themselves struggling to tell Labour members why they shouldn’t vote for him apart from saying he couldn’t win an election. Liz Kendall was the only candidate who consistently said Corbyn was wrong on policy as well as tactics. And the moral case against Corbyn was only made by a very few. The rest is history. Whether social democratic Labour will ever reassert itself against left-populist and hard left Labour I don’t know. But our parlous state is obvious to all.

Conservatives and the nationalist right

I see parallels with the Conservatives and the nationalist right now. Theresa May is no liberal and in many ways she’s an anti-liberal — a true Home Secretary turned Prime Minister. But she isn’t a zealot at heart. And most of the Cabinet is trying to keep the zealots onside en route to a Brexit which I would deem moderately hard, but would probably include a lot more regulatory co-operation and alignment (UK rule-taking in disguise) than said zealots actually want. But in so doing, too many of the sensibles are aping their language and assumptions.

May herself did it repeatedly. Her attempt to portray differences of view as somehow threatening to the nation when she called this year’s election was a case in point. Somehow we had reached a point where political division in the House of Commons — in an adversarial assembly! — was supposed to be a problem. She drew on the language of conspiracism as well as the nationalist right in her absurd claim that the EU was trying to influence the UK election. Earlier, her ‘citizen of nowhere’ remarks played into the same sort of rhetoric and language.

Boris Johnson, whose patriotism is so all-consuming he probably decided whether to back Brexit solely on the basis of his own personal advancement, has played the same game. (I normally disapprove of blanket cynicism about politicians. However, every now and again the evidence requires exceptions to be made.) Our born-again patriot Foreign Secretary recently declared himself ‘troubled with the thought that people are beginning to have genuinely split allegiances’. One assumes his convictions are of recent origin as he only renounced US citizenship this February.

Even more recently, David Davis — also a Brexiteer, but probably more pragmatic than many of his fellows — wrote to demand Labour MEPs have the whip withdrawn for voting in favour of a European Parliament resolution. The relevant section ran as follows:

The European Parliament … is of the opinion that in the fourth round of negotiations sufficient progress has not yet been made on citizens’ rights, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the settlement of the United Kingdom’s financial obligations …

I think the UK national interest is served by recognising our weak negotiating hand and a) settling on citizens’ rights rapidly and in good faith, b) settling as much as possible on the Irish Border while pointing out that the extent of EU-UK divergence will dictate the nature of border management and c) agreeing the broad outline of a financial formula. As far as the money is concerned, getting a decent final relationship is worth virtually any amount. British MEPs also have a duty to their constituents’ interests as they see them (including, I might add, non-UK EEA nationals when it comes to citizens’ rights). They have every right to use their votes to nudge the UK Government towards reality as they see it.

You might disagree with me on the merits of that view. But it is not unpatriotic to hold it. It is not “acting against your country” to advocate it. The national interest is a contested thing, which is one reason we elect people with a responsibility to adjudicate upon it. To call on opposition parties to withdraw the whip for “voting against the national interest” is as toxic as it is disingenuous. It’s not all that far from “enemy of the people” as applied to judges. And “enemy of the people” wasn’t all that far from “traitor”.

This sort of rhetoric has made far deeper inroads into mainstream Conservatism than the hard left equivalent managed in mainstream Labour before autumn 2015. It’s a dangerous game to play. And if I can’t persuade you it’s wrong in principle, think on this: if you don’t want a total car crash in March 2019, at some point you will have to disappoint the people who actually believe this stuff.

You will have to compromise on the Brexit bill. Your deep and comprehensive free trade agreement will involve copying large parts of EU law in all but name. Even after any transition ends, the European Court of Justice will — though probably not directly — continue to have influence over law in the UK. You will probably find your two-year transition period isn’t long enough. You will discover that immigration can’t be cut to tens of thousands without damage you won’t be willing to tolerate.

Do you think the obsessives on the nationalist right will spare you when you try to bring them back to Earth? Philip Hammond was sympathetic to Brexit not that long ago. He backed Remain in the end, but he was distinctly eurosceptic. He is implementing a policy of leaving the single market and not forming a customs union. He still has Brexiteers baying for his blood now. What is it about the record of lifelong europhobic obsessives which makes some of you think they can ever be appeased? What happens when you have to tell them Utopia doesn’t come wrapped in a Union Jack?

So if I were you, I’d draw some lines in the sand sooner rather than later. I’d resist the temptation to define disagreement as unpatriotic. I’d remind myself that pragmatists can’t control zealots forever. I’d get ready to fight sensible, moderate conservatism’s corner. And I’d remember that if you co-opt the zealots’ language and instincts for too long, you’ll have nothing to defend yourself with if they come for you.

For the good of the country — though of course your zealots would deny my right to say such a thing — please learn from Labour’s social democrats. Given the chance, the hard left turned on us. Given the chance, the nationalist right can turn on you in turn.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 October 2017.

Northern Ireland at Westminster: confidence, supply and the principle of consent

Northern Ireland’s MPs rarely play a big role in Commons arithmetic. With only 18 out of 650 seats, they’re rarely decisive in the United Kingdom’s elections. Furthermore, none of the UK-wide parties win seats there.

So we’re not very used to Northern Ireland’s politicians having much say in the government of the UK. The current maths shocked us all. And as a Labour member, I clearly hold no brief for a Conservative confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. But the way the legitimacy, as opposed to the wisdom and policy content, of such a deal has been attacked has often been problematic at best. And at worst it’s ignored Northern Ireland’s right to a say in the UK altogether.

Who are the DUP anyway?

Much commentary on the DUP has been rooted in an ignorance of their nature. DUP politicians are indeed socially conservative in a way those in Great Britain rarely are these days. Greater scrutiny of that conservatism would be thoroughly justified. They show no sign of trying to export those norms to Great Britain — they will probably mainly want more money for Northern Ireland. But it would be a thoroughly good thing if we heard more about the impact of DUP attitudes on women and LGBT people in Northern Ireland. It is striking that Westminster never tried to equalise its abortion laws with Great Britain’s through all the years of direct rule. (We should also note this isn’t just the DUP’s prerogative in Northern Ireland. Our own sister party, the SDLP, is just as opposed.)

There are valid points to make about the history of several DUP politicians. The rhetoric and behaviour of the late Ian Paisley deserved excoriation — though in the end he formed a joint Executive, which we should remember too. It’s fair to say that it did at times display a worrying level of equivocation over loyalist terrorism. Recently, the RHI scandal and Arlene Foster’s stubbornness speak ill of DUP attitudes to good governance.

But conflating the DUP’s periodic failure to keep its nose clean with the role of the IRA mistakes the case. Conflating deeply conservative religiosity with having been inextricably bound up with terrorism won’t get you very far in understanding Northern Ireland. And DUP flirtations with Ulster Resistance were very different from the IRA’s responsibility for nearly half of deaths during the Troubles and its inherent connection with Sinn Féin. I’m not saying there aren’t a great many charges to lay at the DUP’s door over many years. But I am saying it’s a different set of arguments. The DUP is not the PUP.

Confidence, supply and the peace process

It is wholly fair to worry about the impact on the impartiality of the UK Government, perceived or actual, in the Northern Ireland peace process. The key part of the Good Friday Agreement cited here reads as follows:

The two Governments:

… affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions …

It doesn’t constrain government formation in either the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. (Imagine the reaction were a united Ireland banned from giving Sinn Féin a role in government in Dublin and you’ll see why not.)

But it would be wholly unacceptable for the UK Government to be parti pris on either side in the peace process. A full coalition, with collective responsibility across government policy including the Northern Ireland Office, currently would make the UK Government’s position impossible in practice. But that’s not on the cards. A full coalition would serve neither the DUP’s interest nor the Conservatives’. The DUP wouldn’t want that level of responsibility; the Conservatives will have to reach beyond the DUP to make this House of Commons function anyway.

The main issue, from a Tory point of view, is guaranteed support for its Budgets — supply. And with a confidence and supply deal, there is no need for matters relating to the NIO to be included. It is completely fair to be worried about the quality of those assurances and to scrutinise the substance of a confidence and supply deal. Obviously, there would need to be assurances about impartiality, which the Irish Government states it has been given. And as the SDLP’s leader has very sensibly said, “We have to judge it on its merits and see what the deal looks like.”

A confidence and supply deal may well be a bad idea. It may very well be politically unwise. But it’s not constitutionally or politically illegitimate in and of itself, any more than it was when Labour toyed with similar deals in 2010.

The principle of consent

Above all, too many in Great Britain have seemed hostile to the very notion that Northern Ireland’s MPs might affect the balance of power at Westminster. It feels a bit like the concerns in the 1950s that integrating Malta into the UK might allow its MPs to do the same in close elections. But unlike Malta, Northern Ireland already forms part of the UK. Its MPs have every right to a say in its governance, as do MPs from England, Scotland and Wales.

This is a basic principle of fair treatment of the UK’s constituent countries. It also goes to the heart of the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK is based on the will of its people and can only be changed by that same will. Membership of the UK confers certain rights, including a voice in the House of Commons. If you don’t grant the region the right to its say in excepted and reserved matters and its voice in Parliament — and if your view is essentially that it can only have that voice so long as it never decides anything, you’re only granting that right in the narrowest possible way, if at all — you’ve got a pretty shallow understanding of the principle of consent.

It’s natural that, say, Sinn Féin’s leadership would argue Northern Ireland politicians should have no role in helping form a UK Government. They’re an abstentionist party and they seek a united Ireland. And of course they have every right to that position. If Northern Ireland and the Republic ever wish to form a united Ireland, the UK should give effect to it without demur.

But in the meantime, there’s no need for the rest of us to take a very specific view of legitimacy at face value. Northern Ireland’s rights within the UK extend further than simply not expelling it from the body politic. Whatever you think of the DUP, we should all remember that.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 20 June 2017.

On electoral responsibility

Elections are brutal things. Politicians usually do what they need to do to win. Frankly, as a Labour member I often wish we were more ruthless.

Still, a politician fighting for votes should always remember there remains a country waiting to be governed afterwards. There is no dead of night into which your silliest turns of phrase or your most careless commitments disappear. Theresa May’s predecessor was sunk by one of his most careless commitments: I imagine he could advise.

When it comes to silly turns of phrase, politicians should also remember hurt feelings have consequences. The United Kingdom proved that how people feel matters on 23 June 2016. As a result, we now face our most challenging and complex negotiations in many decades. In those negotiations, 27 other countries hold almost all the cards. The Union they form together has clear principles of its own. It has a vital interest in preventing British free-riding leading to other countries trying the same thing. And it currently has higher priorities than pure economics, as the UK of all countries should understand just now.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May and her ministers have promised the British people they can have their preferred EU benefits (or near as damnit) without the obligations. She spoke the language of antagonistic nationalism to please her party’s zealots at Conference. She threatened where she should have conciliated. She rattled sabres instead of building bridges, and she failed at every turn to manage expectations. And today she chose, after a leak highlighting the hubris and ineptitude of her government’s Brexit ‘strategy’ — probably aimed at warning the German public they might have to pay a fair bit more if the talks collapse — to accuse the very people whose goodwill she needs most after 8 June of ‘interfering in our elections’.

I presume Mrs May called this vote because she felt confident about the outcome. Politicians are not in the habit of ceding three years in office on a whim. So by her own lights, she can presumably afford a modicum of statesmanship. She can afford to start preparing the public for the climbdowns which will be required for a deal. She backed Remain, however quietly, and she knows Vote Leave sold a pack of lies to win. She knows we can’t have what they promised.

At some point, one of two things will happen. British expectations will gradually return to earth, allowing us to move towards some inferior-but-not-devastating deal with the EU over time. Or British expectations will meet EU reality and the result will be a car crash. It seems our Prime Minister deems the latter worth making more likely in the cause of (in her view) winning a majority of 140 rather than 120.

I imagine it will indeed win votes. But seeking to govern is not just about seeking votes. This irresponsibility may well come back to haunt Mrs May, even if she wins her mandate. She will richly deserve it, if so.

It’s just a shame it will come back to haunt the country too.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 3 May 2017.

Free votes: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Whip

Free votes are funny things, and much overrated. We always have them for changing parliamentary procedure. We normally have them on things like abortion, equal marriage and euthanasia: essentially, ‘God issues’. Sometimes, we have them for no very obvious reason: fox-hunting was a case in point. And occasionally, we have them to make a point: Ted Heath held one on the ‘in principle’ vote for entering the EEC in 1972, largely to encourage Labour to split as badly as possible on the same issue.

It’s easy to see why they appeal. We complain about spineless lobby fodder, MPs with no independence of thought, rigid party dogma and so on. Allowing a freewheeling debate, with MPs able to vote their conscience, sounds great (though actually, plenty of MPs rebel). You even hear people saying we shouldn’t have whips at all.

But there’s a reason why in practice, MPs usually get free votes when either the party doesn’t care too much, the outcome isn’t in doubt, religion comes into play or party management means leaders think they have no choice. Equal marriage is important to me personally, for instance, but the whole of government policy on tax, benefits and inheritance wouldn’t have fallen apart if it hadn’t gone through. Not everything can be separated out so neatly.

Take the free vote principle too far, and eventually governments can’t govern coherently at all. If the Budget is completely rewritten by a series of splits, you’re not going to get a massively improved document with better policy for all: you’ll probably get a complete mishmash with everyone running round to try and square all the contradictions after Parliament has voted.

If you run a foreign policy on a ‘voting at will’ basis, you’ll also get an incoherent mess. The Government’s decision to allow Cabinet ministers to campaign against each other in the EU referendum and Labour’s free vote on Syria both illustrate the point. EU membership and decisions on military action are fundamental to UK policy. You can’t just say ‘Well, we’re neutral on leaving the EU, but basically our foreign, security and economic policies are the same either way’ or ‘Well, we don’t have a line on military action in Syria, but basically our policy on the Middle East is the same either way’. These decisions are game-changers: if you don’t have a position on them, you don’t have much of a position full stop.

Too many free votes don’t just make governing harder: they blur government accountability. Most people don’t think they vote for their individual MP: they think they vote for their preferred government, or their preferred party, or to send a message of some kind. The link between how we vote in an election and what policies we get depends, ultimately, on ensuring that MPs from a given party usually vote the same way. I don’t want a completely unwhipped Parliament for the same reason I don’t want a House of Commons filled with independents: parties may be unpopular, but they’re also necessary.

This isn’t to say MPs should be partisan lobby-fodder: dissent is important. But you can’t dissent when there’s nothing to dissent from. Most of the time, governments have to set out their stall and make sure their MPs are happy enough with the collective line that they can get it through Parliament. Rebellions serve a purpose, but so do concerns expressed on the floor of the House or in Committee: they allow for an interplay between a government and its MPs.

And if enough of your MPs won’t toe your preferred line, then you usually need to change it. When Labour MPs made it clear to Jeremy Corbyn that they wouldn’t be led down anything other than a pro-European path, that was the principle of parliamentary democracy at work. To his credit, he gave way, and Labour will now campaign to stay in the EU. No leader can survive without the acquiescence of the MPs they’re meant to lead. Tony Blair shouldn’t have had a free vote on Iraq: he should have had a policy with which MPs were more comfortable.

So yes, we need MPs who don’t always toe the party line. Sometimes MPs have to rebel. But let’s not confuse valuing dissent with not taking a position at all.