In the land of pantomime, this government has led – maybe even forced – parliament to turn itself into a tragic farce.
Last week’s events in parliament were full of skits that would have made the Monty Python team proud – though even they might not have been able to imagine them.
The government ended up whipping against its own motion (which had been amended) and then proceeded to lose the vote.
But, faced with stiff competition, the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay emerged as the undoubted winner for the most stand-up comedian of the show award. Having solemnly stood up to urge parliament to support a government motion, he then promptly scurried through the Noes lobby to vote against it himself.
“Is it a good motion to vote for,” he was asking.
“Oh, yes it is. Oh, no it isn’t,” was his response. At least pantomime writers have the decency to get those two responses from different players. But Mr Barclay’s theatrical innovation was to show us that he could do both at once.
So much for the farce. What about the tragedy?
The Brexit saga has undermined many of the norms that are essential to making our democracy work.
A modicum of respect for parliament. An understanding that judges are independent of politics and shouldn’t be attacked when they uphold the law of the land. Some vague kind of cohesion within political parties.
A government that has some semblance of competence. A cabinet that actually works as a collective, and exercises collective cabinet responsibility.
A Prime Minister that is primus inter pares rather than doing his or her own thing, living in a bunker and only coming out to tell everyone what she alone decided and everyone should meekly follow. Making decisions that are in the public interest and reflect personal conviction rather than in the interest of self-promotion.
Members of Parliament who are expected to exercise their own judgement when representing their constituencies rather than be led by the nose by the polls. The idea that taxpayers’ money is not there to be handed out to buy votes in pork barrel politics at its worst.
The idea that democracy is not about mob rule by the majority but finding a reasonable balance between the views of the majority and the interests of the minorities.
Each and every one of these democratic norms has been thrown up in the air during this process. The big question is: can it all be put back together at some stage? Is this a temporary aberration and a functioning democracy will, eventually, once more emerge.
Or is this a Humpty Dumpty moment where all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can never put our democracy together again?
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