Analysis: Resistance to a General Election is a sign of Britain’s deepening malaise

Ben Wray

Clement Attlee returned to the polls because he could only secure a majority of 5 MPs, a stark contrast to May, David Jamieson finds

THERESA MAY has faced the worst Commons defeat for a sitting government in British history.

Not by a short stretch either. May’s flagship policy, her government’s sole reason for being, her Brexit deal, was smashed by 230 votes. One would need to return to the 1920’s to find the runner-up. Ramsay McDonald lost a vote by 166 MPs.

Yet May holds on.

It is supposed to be an item of British political tradition that governments return to the people if their agenda has been defeated, of even if they are thought to be unstable. And this has historically been the case.


A good example is the 1945 Labour government, the most effective reforming government in modern British history. Among its achievements were the welfare state, the NHS and the nationalisation of considerable areas of industry including the coal mines and rail. By British political standards, the scope of its vision is unparalleled except by the Thatcher governments, which acted to destroy the political consensus it established.

In 1950, still in conditions of post-war austerity and after a damaging internal fight that saw leading leftwingers quit the government front bench, Labour leader Clem Attlee won the General Election, but with a majority reduced down to five MPs.

It was to improve this majority, and according to Attlee’s diary to appease the King, that another election was called in October 1951 just twenty months later. Winston Churchill lost the popular vote but won more seats.

And so a government of enormous historical consequence to British society bumbled to a close. But its fall was partly of a consequence of a need to secure a stronger mandate from the people.

May’s Government

The comparison between Attlee’s project and May’s could not be more stark.

Where Atlee’s 45 administration was made up of intellectuals and trade union pioneers, visionaries and leaders (whatever you think of its politics or successes), May’s cabinet is an endless churn of mutually hostile faction fighters, with almost as many views of what Brexit is for as there members have.

Over time, the front bench has shed 11 senior ministers, resulting in a cabinet increasingly filled-up with non-entities and lacking in experience. The current Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, nominally in charge of the Government’s main purpose, is a relative unknown even in Tory circles.

Besides the now crashed Brexit deal, May’s policy agenda is light in the extreme. Much of the policy material May actually campaigned on in the 2017 General Election was ditched for the Queen’s Speech in recognition that a minority administration couldn’t carry its burden.

What remains has largely fallen flat on its face. May’s government has faced over 30 defeats in the Commons. The roll out of Universal Credit has been repeatedly delayed due to its own internal inconsistencies and failings. Large parts of the English rail infrastructure have proven chronically disorganised leading to reluctant nationalisation by the government.

From Windrush to the mishandling of the Grenfell disaster, the government has been plagued by scandal, the source of only some of its high profile resignations. Meanwhile, little action is taking place over the housing crisis and homelessness, over the deterioration of the high street economy, let alone the challenges posed by automation or climate change.

A General Election?

It would be a massive departure from supposed agreed norms of British Parliamentary tradition for the current deadlock not to be resolved by a General Election.

Complaints from the commentariat that this would not automatically resolve the Brexit impasse, or that May could win, or that further chaos would ensue any outcome, are utterly besides the point.

The government must represent some kind of mandate, and after the defeat of May’s deal, it represents none.

Politicians must place some kind of plan before the voting public, and currently this process is dormant.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for a country that faces many more dangerous and pressing challenges than Brexit, there must be a way to break the collapse of political life created by the crisis.

The alternative, presented so readily from the backbenches of both major parties and supported across large parts of the media and by bosses organisations like the CBI, is a consensus that the more broken down British democracy becomes, the less of it there should be.

Added to this the Government’s decision to block talks with the Scottish Government (mandated by a Scottish election and the Scottish Parliament) on a referendum on Scottish independence, and the apparent death of government from Stormont in Northern Ireland, a picture is emerging of a British democratic crisis spiralling out of control.

Picture courtesy: United Nations Photo

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