Could a 'national unity government' be the solution to May's Brexit deadlock?

  • Theresa May is struggling to get support from her party and parliament for her Brexit plans.
  • The EU is refusing to budge on its red lines as the chances of a no-deal Brexit surge.
  • Some MPs are starting to consider a “government of national unity” to break the deadlock.
  • National unity governments have been formed before. Could it happen again?

LONDON – It is difficult to see a way through the Brexit impasse that Theresa May currently faces. Torn between a soft Brexit that half of her MPs reject and a hard Brexit that the other half rejects, she has pursued a “third way,” which the EU will reject.

That is making the threat of a no-deal Brexit greater by the day. And in a parliament which looks so paralysed, Conservative MP Anna Soubry’s radical, somewhat fantastical, proposal for a cross-party national unity government – a tradition reserved for times of acute national crisis – does at least merit consideration.

Speaking about the idea on the Today programme this week, Soubry, a hardline Remainer, said: “I personally would abandon the Labour frontbench and I would reach beyond it and I would encompass Plaid Cymru, the SNP and other sensible, pragmatic people who believe in putting this country’s interests first and foremost.”

So what is a “national unity government” and how could it possibly work?

The Ministry of All the Talents

Nicky Morgan Chuka UmunnaGetty

The arrangement is different from a coalition because it comprises all political parties. It was first formed during the Napoleonic Wars in 1806 and referred to as “the Ministry of All the Talents,” and last occurred in 1931, when Cabinet ground to a deadlock over how to respond to the Great Depression and formed a Labour-led unity government.

Under the arrangement pushed by Soubry, there would be a front-bench comprised of MPs from the Conservative, Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, DUP, and Liberal Democrat benches, who all agreed upon one central point: That a no-deal Brexit should be avoided in all circumstances.

It would be an extreme measure that has gathered at least some support from Soubry’s colleagues. Nicholas Soames, another Remain-supporting Tory MP, said this week: “I must say if I had my way we would have a national government to deal with this. It is the most serious problem this country has faced since the war.”

Is a national unity government likely?

Jeremy Corbyn Theresa MayGetty

No. SNP and Plaid Cymru have indicated they’re open to considering the idea, but both Labour and the Conservatives have already firmly rejected the idea. A spokesperson for Theresa May said on Wednesday that they would not consider the proposal, while a statement for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told Business Insider that the idea was an attempt at an “establishment stitch-up” designed primarily to keep Labour out of government.

More relevantly, however, both parties calculate – probably correctly – that being in cahoots with one another would destroy their electoral prospects. Both parties, especially at times of such national division, define themselves by their differences to each other, as even any Prime Minister’s Questions indicates.

As Nick Clegg and his band of Liberal Democrat MPs found out when they went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, association with a party that alienates your core vote can destroy your electoral appeal and take away the resonance of any political messaging, potentially forever.

Imagine Theresa May and Liam Fox sat on the front-bench between John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn and you start to realise quite how unlikely such an arrangement would be.

Don’t bet against a second referendum

But these are strange times, and stranger things than a national unity government have happened before. For some MPs, party loyalism has already given way to Brexit tribalism, as evidenced by the handful of Leave-supporting Labour MPs who handed May a key victory in a crunch vote on the customs union on Tuesday.

What could emerge instead is a softer form of unity among parties, less a formal arrangement than a common consensus among MPs to put party differences aside and mobilise against a no-deal Brexit in the national interest should May’s deal fail in the Commons.

Dominic Grieve, another Remain-voting Tory MP, gestured towards the idea this week, saying that “parliament will assert its own authority” if it was confronted by no-deal.

“If it comes to the crunch, there would be a substantial majority to prevent no deal,” he told the BBC. What happens then is anyone’s guess. Don’t bet against a second referendum.

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