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Brexit: A minor miracle is required to come to a decision in time

Meghnad Desai

The Preamble to the Indian Constitution begins with the words ‘We, the people…’. Indian democracy is also a Republic. The people are sovereign as we and all politicians will soon realise when they have voted. United Kingdom, India s model for its democracy, does not have people as sovereign. It is not a Republic but a constitutional monarchy. Sovereignty lies with the ‘Crown in Parliament’. Parliament has one chamber popularly elected and its executive is held by the Party that gets a majority. People are indirectly sovereign via their MPs.

Even so, it is the executive the PM and her Cabinet which controls the business of Parliament. Most of the legislation is proposed by the executive. Backbench MPs can introduce Private Members Bills but very few get to the statute book. It is the PM who represents the Crown for all parliamentary purposes. Indeed, the PM can sign treaties with other governments and even take the country to war as a result of the Royal Prerogative. The US president has no such prerogative. He has to go to the Congress for permission to wage war.

Brexit has stretched the system to its limits. The referendum implicitly makes the people the deciding party. Technically, the referendum result has to be validated by the Parliament. After the referendum of June 2016, Parliament did endorse the popular result. Then, the executive declared the date of leaving the European Union as March 29, 2019. As we all know, the Parliament has twice rejected the deal put to it by the PM. Time was running out and the EU has allowed a short extension.

Even so, the executive was running out of ideas. So there was a radical innovation introduced last week. An influential Backbench MP Sir Oliver Letwin, a former Cabinet Minister, proposed that Parliament take control of the proceedings away from the executive. For the first time ever on Wednesday, it was MPs who controlled the timetable and the business. They arranged an ‘indicative vote on a series of alternative policies for Brexit including no Brexit, a second referendum, softer versions of Brexit, etc.

The change was so radical that many began referring to Oliver Letwin as the prime minister. He was Ek Din ka Sultan. In a way, the British people came closer to exercising sovereignty via their MPs independently of the executive. It was made possible by overriding all conventions and protocols to vote without treating them as draft bills. Even so, all that was achieved was what everyone suspected. There is no majority for any alternative to the deal Theresa May offered. But then, in a dramatic turn, May offered to resign if her deal would have been accepted by Parliament. Since there was no alternative that commanded a majority, Parliament had to vote once more on the deal.

Had it been accepted, then, UK would have left by May 22. But the deal was rejected for a third time on Friday afternoon. In effect, the PM has lost all authority. But as she had said, I will go if you accept my deal . They have not and she has not gone. But the situation is anomalous. Thirty-four of her own party MPs voted against her deal. Had they voted for it, she would have had her deal. She could resign but there is no one else immediately available. Formally, there is no PM nor a deputy leader of the Conservative Party. To elect a new leader, the procedure provided would take four months, at least. Firstly, there has to be a contest among the MPs until only two are left. Then they go to the country , i.e, Conservative Party members across the UK. When the party members would have voted, the leader is chosen. Theresa May was lucky that in her case, with only two left, her rival Andrea Leadsom made a political blunder and dropped out. So no hustings were required.

It would need a miracle for the House of Commons to come to a decision before April 12, which will persuade the EU to give UK more time. On Monday (April 1), the Letwin process was repeated. Of the many which were rejected last week, some were quite close, including one which is almost no Brexit and another called Common Market 2.0. If any gains a majority then, in a more formal setting, that proposal could be pitted against Theresa May s deal once more. The winner will be the UK s Brexit.

So much more remains to be negotiated. There is a transition period for twenty-one months to work out future arrangements. Of course, no proposal may again command majority. Then the UK falls out without a deal and without a transition period on April 12. If so, the economic consequences are the least of the problems. The UK itself may splinter with Scotland going independent, Northern Ireland caught with a border problem and a constitution in tatters.