It’s passed time for Labour’s 172 MPs who have no confidence in their leader to declare themselves the official Opposition. The crisis is bigger than the future of the Labour Party. The national interest demands an Opposition front bench that has the competence and inclination to begin to engage with the issues facing the country.
As I write, I’m reading that there is no agreement among Labour MPs regarding who should be the figurehead behind whom they should unite. If they can resolve this, they can depose Jeremy Corbyn immediately by asking the Speaker of the House of Commons to recognise them as the official Opposition.
Under the Ministers of the Crown Act, 1937:
“If any doubt arises as to which is or was at any material time the party in opposition to His Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons, or as to who is or was at any material time the leader in that House of such a party the question shall be decided for the purposes of this Act by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and his decision, certified in writing under his hand, shall be final and conclusive.”
This is not lost on the SNP who, The Times reported this morning, are preparing to demand that they be installed as the Opposition given that Jeremy Corbyn is unable even to fill the posts of a shadow cabinet.
Why does this matter? Because the nation urgently needs the kind of deliberative leadership that only Parliament can provide. It’s all too plain that those who nominally run our country, and the European Union, have no clue how to proceed. While politicians such as Jean-Claude Juncker demand that Britain invokes Article 50 at the earliest opportunity before any route forward is clear, at home we’re proceeding as if the irreconcileable objectives of staying part of the European single market and clamping down on immigration can both be pursued.
The last thing the country needs is a prolonged vacuum over the summer to be filled by an incoming Prime Minister citing a mandate provided by the tiny and ageing membership of a single party. Parliament should fill the void by pulling together the disparate voices of the nation and taking time to consider the implications of what has happened and the options for moving forward. It’s a time for distributed, considered leadership not some charismatic individual seizing the agenda.
It’s in the interests of both sides of the argument to make sure decisions are taken in a way that has the confidence of the nation. As the former Labour adivsor, John McTernan, argues today, this is what Parliament is for:
“Parliament must demand, indeed seize, that power and make clear that Article 50 will only be triggered by a vote of both houses. This is just the first step. The next is to establish a Joint Committee of both houses to scrutinise the Brexit negotiations. The Joint Committee would not just summon witnesses, it would demand papers. The full negotiating positions, the background briefings, the offers from the EU – all would be provided and all would be published in full on a dedicated Brexit website. This is the most important treaty negotiation of the post-war, it must be done transparently and openly.
“There must be no room for the government to hide, no place for ministers – particularly the Prime Minister – to conceal the full and actual impact of decisions. This is the nub of the matter… When there is chaos, uncertainty and turmoil leadership is needed. If Labour and Tories can’t provide it because of their internal strife then it is for parliament to seize the day.”
None of this can happen until MPs raise their attention above party considerations to the national agenda. In time, as Chris Dillow suggests, Labour may need to find a leader who can unite the PLP and grassroots:
“This requires emollience, charisma and person-management skills rather than a talent for policy development.”
That’s the business of a leadership election. For now, though, Labour’s MPs need to agree on who they can unite behind so they can field a team in the House of Commons that plays a part in shaping Britain’s way out of chaos. If Labour can’t do this, the SNP are ready to take over.