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 off 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!
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. 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 Mrs May’s predecessor. “David Cameron gambled the future of the country on a simple referendum,” grumbled The Economist in an article entitled “The elite that failed” (written, no doubt, by one of Cameron’s Oxford contemporaries). But the real sin Cameron committed was not the referendum, a legitimate political expedient with numerous precedents; it was agreeing to the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (FTPA).
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,” the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, explained, “our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election.”
Actually, no. What the FTPA 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 Theresa May proved in 2017 — the FTPA did not end that practice.
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 through a no-confidence vote or the defeat of a supply (public spending) bill. In practice, losing a vote on a key piece of legislation was considered sufficient reason to give up the seals of office.
Having split his party over the Corn Laws in 1846, Sir Robert Peel resigned after his Irish Coercion Bill was defeated in the Commons. Six years later Lord John Russell was brought down when his arch-rival Lord Palmerston got a majority of MPs to vote in favour of an amendment to a militia bill. Fast-forward to 1858 and Palmerston himself felt obliged to resign after his Conspiracy to Murder Bill was defeated on its second reading.
Like Peel before him, Gladstone was forced to resign in June 1885 after a defeat on an Irish issue. He was back as prime minister the following February, only to seek a dissolution when his Irish home rule bill was defeated on its second reading.
We think of the typical modern prime minister as leaving office only when defeated in a general election. But there are numerous exceptions. No fewer than four — Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson — stepped down on grounds of ill health (or illness gave them a way out of political difficulties). Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown, despite being fit as a fiddle, because his poll numbers were crumbling over the Iraq War.
Four premiers resigned like Victorians, however. Indeed, two quit even after winning key votes because their margins of victory made them seem moral defeats. Neville Chamberlain resigned in May 1940, despite having won the division on the disastrous Norway Campaign.
During her 11 years as leader, Margaret Thatcher suffered only four defeats in the House of Commons, all minor. Her downfall came in 1990 despite her victory over Michael Heseltine in the first round of a Tory leadership contest. Ramsay MacDonald went in 1924 after a huge Commons defeat over a Communist newspaper. Finally, Cameron felt obliged to resign after losing the Brexit referendum.
Compare and contrast with Theresa May, who has suffered no fewer than 27 Commons defeats, 10 of them in connection with Brexit, her raison d’être as prime minister. In no previous era of British politics could a prime minister have survived a defeat as large as last Tuesday’s. The proximate reasons she is still in office are, first, that the hard Brexiteers lacked the votes to oust her as Tory leader and, second, that they and their Democratic Unionist Party partners dread seeing Jeremy Corbyn in No 10. But the root cause is that the FTPA has created a seductive presupposition that the next election should not be until 2022.
Kicking the can down the road is the default setting of modern politics, and the FTPA encourages it. But any time you buy for yourself is equally available to your opponents.
Consider two scenarios. In the “Victorian” scenario Mrs May would have resigned last week. Unable to win a confidence vote, Jeremy Corbyn would now be trying to cobble together a minority government. This would immediately reveal that Labour 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 election, he might win it, but only narrowly.
Now here’s the post-FTPA scenario. 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. Either way, the split within the Conservative Party grows wider. In the case of a second referendum won by “remain”, a substantial proportion of voters would defect to Ukip.
Eventually, 2022 would come around. But by now Labour would be up against a divided right and would have its best chance of winning an outright majority since 2005.
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 the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford