Historic times as cracks show in caucus walls
In the U.K., the U.S. and Canada we may have seen the first cracks in the partisan walls that guarantee caucus discipline in each place.
In the U.S., 12 Republican senators defied a presidential demand they support his “national emergency” to shift money from defence spending to his wall. This is a first in his presidency and may now make it easier for others to split over the next confrontation, a budget showdown.
In Canada, two former ministers, each of whom have publicly criticized their own government, still sit as Liberal MPs. Why? It can only be because the PMO fears what the two might say, and the reaction from other MPs, if they were to be ejected. It will be interesting to see what happens at Wednesday’s inevitably tense and chilly caucus meeting.
But it is in the U.K. that the cracks are widest, threatening both the Conservatives and Labour. Eleven members of the parties’ caucuses have defected to the new Independent Group. Perhaps even more astonishingly, a dozen cabinet members defied their party whip on a key Brexit vote, abstaining or voting against the prime minister’s direct orders.
A new Social Democratic Caucus has been set up in the Labour Party, bringing together as many as 50 MPs under a banner defiant of their leadership. An even larger percentage of the Tory caucus salutes another factional flag, the hard-core Brexiteers “European Research Group.” Each of the country’s two main parties now have formal internal divisions in their parliamentary groups.
It is events now unfolding that are the most surprising, however. Moves that could foreshadow more profound changes. When Parliament decisively rejected Theresa May’s Brexit plans, and a “crash-out” no deal Brexit, and then demanded an extension to the negotiating period, it dramatically accelerated a cross-party crisis management process.
Senior members and backbenchers from both parties are beginning to meet more openly, taking charge of the paralyzed parliamentary approval process in a manner probably unseen in decades. They bring together MPs from the soft-Brexit and pro-EU groups in each caucus, operating beyond the control of the PM or Jeremy Corbyn. Their goal is to try to meld aspects of each party’s approach to this powerfully divisive issue in a package that could win a majority in Parliament. It is hard to describe how improbable this is in both the Canadian and British political systems.
Perhaps a Canadian parallel might be a parliament irretrievably divided over the terms of Quebec (Alberta?) separation. Senior members of all three parties without the direction of their party leaders get together to plan a path forward. The prime minister and oppositions leaders are left to try to exert influence from the sidelines.
Whether the British politicians succeed or fail, they may have opened a door to a new understanding of partisan caucus discipline that will be hard to close. We briefly saw something similar during our own bitter two year struggle, in 1980-82, over repatriating the Constitution — deep internal divisions within each party, and equally deep and lasting friendships across party divides among those who brokered the deals that made an agreement finally acceptable.
In our case, the partisan walls soon went up again, but the divisions continued to fester: a long leadership civil war in the Liberal party, open factionalism in the NDP, and most shockingly, the destruction of the Progressive Conservative Party. There is no reason to believe that the instability of an old regime necessarily accelerates the birth of a new and better one.
But, if the backbenchers and their front bench colleagues can focus on a message of national unity at a time of crisis, not partisan finger pointing. If they can deliver a solution that the parties separately could not achieve, one that wins a majority. And if they do this is a public and private spirit of mutual respect and shared mission … all enormous ‘ifs,’ perhaps impossible to achieve.
If this were the legacy of this extraordinary moment, one that helps to legitimate political compromise, and a less vicious partisanship in the U.K., however briefly, it would be historic. Who knows, it might even have a ripple effect across the pond.
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears