MPs return to parliament today after the Supreme Court yesterday ruled its shutdown was unlawful. So now what? The talk is of a no confidence vote – and Johnson surely deserves it – but Labour wants to avoid being bounced immediately into an election without first ensuring No Deal is off the table. Johnson’s been legally mandated to ask for an extension if no withdrawal deal with the EU is struck in the next few weeks, but who trusts Johnson to abide by the law, given his history, yesterday’s devastating ruling against him, and his arrogant, bullish reaction to it?
With parliament recalled, there is time for an alternative outcome, with an alternative PM given time to attempt to piece together a commons majority and form a government.
We’re told on the airwaves that any such PM could only be supported if they almost immediately dissolved parliament. But why? There’s no constitutional or democratic imperative to do either – though as my colleague Adam Ramsay has set out, the media has in recent years attempted to rewrite what our constitution says to prevent just a progressive coalition government. In fact, such a government would be no less legitimate than Johnson taking over as PM without an election, clinging to his reactionary coalition even as his majority vanishes. The only people who’ll tell you different are the establishment, who still see the Tories as the ‘natural party of government’. But as we’ve seen in Italy recently, there is nothing wrong or improper about the party of government changing mid-term, so long as the MPs who put them in place were elected. And indeed, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Greens, and Plaid between them got well over 50% of the vote, compared to the Conservatives 42.4%. So they absolutely have a mandate to address our current crises, from Brexit and austerity to climate change and the constitution.
It may be Johnson (or a Tory-coronated successor) has no choice but to try for a version of May’s business-friendly deal after all – ending freedom of movement for all but the rich and tearing up many of our worker and consumer protections. But opposition MPs who’d back this as the least worst option would be taking a massive gamble on trusting Johnson – or indeed, if he is toppled or falls on his sword, on a party which its own ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond described as being in the process of being turned by entryists into an “extreme right wing faction”.
So - an election? Today’s Daily Mail is crying out for one. But whether it’s May’s deal rejuvenated, or extension to continue negotiations with the EU, in any election that would follow – then what? An election in which Farage and Tory hard Brexiteers and their shady backers would throw everything at dividing our country (with Johnson probably busy dying in a ditch somewhere)? An election right now, when government has done nothing significant for ordinary people in years, leaving a vacuum of cynicism and broken dreams into which the hate-mongers and their moneymen have poured?
So, how about we don’t have a 5 minute cross-party supported Corbyn government that sees off No Deal and then dissolves itself. And let’s (definitely) not have a Harman or Ken Clarke government that did the same, as Lib Dem deputy Ed Davey was urging once again this morning.
How about a bigger dream? How about a longer term cross-party supported Corbyn government, governing in the interests of the country and indeed the world?
It seems unlikely, of course, given the hysteria that’s been thrown at Corbyn on the basis of some mildly European style social-democracy and (perhaps more significantly) his anti-imperialism.
But in fact, all the other opposition parties are largely in alignment with these views, or their memberships certainly are.
And faced with now seismic political upheaval, the worsening devastating (and divisive) legacy of austerity, the self-evident utterly dysfunctional state of our constitution, and not forgetting the unfolding climate crisis that the Tories are speeding us towards merrily…perhaps it’s time for something different?
So here’s my fantasy cross-party cabinet – not for a 5 minute government, but for rather longer than that.
Yes, all the people listed below have had their hiccups. But you know, they’re all pretty smart, principled people, and none of them have broken the law, misled parliament, adopted false names, been sacked for starting free range foreign policy, or lied to the Queen… wouldn’t it be nice to have a government like that?
A cross-party cabinet
PM - Jeremy Corbyn
Because Labour is offering some of the most radical – and desperately needed – policies for generations. And because they’re policies that aren’t actually especially radical in a European context. And because his policy to extend, negotiate (with a progressive intent) and then see where we’re at and give the public the final say, is the only one that actually makes much sense at this point. Oh – and because he’s the elected leader of the official Opposition, with far greater numbers of MPs than any of the other parties, and if you’re suggesting anyone else as the next PM, you’re ignoring a pretty massive aspect of our democracy, and that’s something we’ve seen too much of already recently.
Deputy PM - Caroline Lucas
Lucas deserves massive credit as a prominent Remainer who never made the mistake of pretending that if we just went back to mid-austerity era circa 2015, or 2012, everything would be just fine. She’s taken a consistently principled but flexible position on Remain. Undoubtedly frustrated with Corbyn initially, she’s moved away from taking cheap political shots and pursued constructive engagement. As Deputy PM, she should be given a brief to implement the kind of radical constitutional (and electoral) reform that this mess has proven that we need – something she’s consistently been advocating. Such an offering should also persuade the Lib Dems that supporting such a government is in their interest.
Chancellor - John McDonnell
32 hour week? Tax-funded personal care? Abolishing prescription charges? Yes please. For the kind of economically redistributive policies that Britain clearly needs – policies that would address many of the unheard grievances that drove the Brexit vote – Corbyn needs his closest ally next door.
Foreign Secretary - Diane Abbott
The only other true radical in Corbyn’s cabinet, and one of the smartest – despite the racist myth-making, her supposed ‘gaffes’ are in reality minor in compared to plenty of senior white male politicians. Abbott is also one of the few senior MPs with a voting record to be proud of on military adventurism and immigration. Imagine what a different (and in my view, million times better) image of modern Britain, Abbott – the daughter of Commonwealth immigrants - would present to the world, compared to Johnson, Raab and co.
Home Secretary – Jo Swinson
The right-leaning Lib Dem MP has so far refused to support a Corbyn-led government. But Home Secretary would be a natural choice for the Lib Dem leader in such a government. Her voting record shows a strong history of opposition to ID cards and she has more recently campaigned against the building of new prisons. With Lucas tasked with delivering PR, and key Remain allies in place, would Swinson really be able to justify continue to play a zero-sum political game?
Brexit Secretary - Keir Starmer
The poor EU has had three different Brexit secretaries imposed on them in three years, including one (Raab) who lasted less than 4 months. But Brussels has got to know – and admire – Starmer in his role as shadow Brexit secretary, too. In this most critical, technical and complex of roles, a bit of continuity is required.
Work & Pensions – Mhairi Black
The SNP MP has been one of the most effective critics of the effects of the government’s benefits cuts. Her party have been working in Scotland to work to ameliorate the effects of some of the most damaging cuts. As the “Baby of the House” – and the youngest MP to be elected to parliament in modern times – Black has articulated the plight of both young people – particularly cruelly targeted by benefit reform – and older ones, whose humiliation and frustration she set out so movingly in her excoriating maiden speech in parliament and in her work in the Select Committee. Her obvious compassion would be a breath of fresh air at the department.
Education – Angela Rayner
Rayner has been one of the most impressive shadow cabinet members – she has a great campaigning instinct, and has developed strong policies to end the profiteering and oppressive, elitist, bureaucratic structures in our education system, from free school meals for all to scrapping Ofsted. Her life story, as a working class single young mum who benefitted from some of the last Labour government’s initiatives like Sure Start, is impressive and easy for voters to connect with.
Health Secretary – Philippa Whitford
The former surgeon is the SNP’s spokesperson on health. Critics will immediately cry “but health is a devolved issue, so the SNP can’t be put in charge of the English NHS”. In fact, that’s exactly why they *should* be put in charge of the English NHS. Whilst England has pursued a wrecking mission to divide the NHS up into a dysfunctional marketplace, resulting in huge costs (as OurNHS has consistently exposed), Scotland under devolution has pursued a more sensible strategy, preserving the idea of the NHS as a public service, not a cash cow for businesses. They’ve led the way on tax-funded personal care and prescriptions, policies that are now also official UK Labour policy for England. And the results speak for themselves, with performance and public satisfaction both now outstripping England’s.
Environment – Liz Saville-Roberts
The Plaid Cymru leader is a voice of warm, calm authority for this critically important post – and Plaid have a (mostly) positive record on Green issues, and a history of often working well with the Green Party in Wales, though the relationship has been somewhat bumpier of late. Again, her inclusion would be an important indicator of a new style of politics.
Business – Rebecca Long-Bailey
Labour’s shadow brief holder since 2017, Long-Bailey has risen admirably to the task, driving forward a radical and vitally needed plan for a Green New Deal.
Justice – Dominic Grieve
The whipless Tory, former Attorney General and QC has been one of the bravest critics of the hard right, do or die Brexit turn of his party, being threatened with deselection by his own party in consequence. Whilst not without his problems, as a liberal Tory he also played a key role in defeating illiberal plans of the Blair government, including 90-days detention.
Leader of the House - Harriet Harman
You can’t imagine Harman sprawling disdainfully across the parliamentary benches as our current Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, did. And why not make the “Mother of the House”, the Leader of the House? Harman is liked by the Labour Right, who might otherwise feel my fantasy cabinet includes too little for them. The reality for this wing, though, is a straight choice between a disastrous Brexit, continued austerity and continued constitutional and climate chaos, or a government prepared to pursue something radically different to fix the country. Can they really look their constituents in the eye and say they weren’t prepared to make that call?
Transport – Laura Pidcock
Transport is overdue a Northern MP to address the disproportionate investment strategy of this government. And also another working class young woman, personable in manner and with strong union connections. She’s a rising star, deserving of promotion to Cabinet level.
Trade Secretary – Stephen Gethins
The SNP MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee has advised his party on Europe and environment and agriculture, and before becoming an MP had an impressively internationalist background working with NGOs, with a particular focus on arms control. Just the man for retooling British trade policy away from being the world’s arms dealer.
Minister for the Cabinet Office – Tommy Sheppard
The Edinburgh East MP holds this politically important brief for the SNP, in a role which covers implementation of policy and the devolution consequences of Brexit. A former Labour politician and official who resigned in 2003 over the direction of the party, his appointment would be a good indication of the willingness to heal old wounds and put aside tribalism. As the founder of a comedy club he might also bring some light relief to fraught proceedings.
Local government - Layla Moran
Lib Dems have long seen themselves as the party of local government, and Moran would be a good choice - one of the more politically savvy youngish Lib Dem MPs, she’s impressed with her work with campaigners, and was seen as a potential leadership candidate.
Defence - Clive Lewis
The Labour MP has served as an infantry officer and is the obvious choice for a return to this post, and to cabinet level. He's also been one of, if not the, senior Labour figure most open to cross-party co-operation and electoral reform, and just also importantly, has developed important thinking in his recent shadow ministerial brief on sustainable economics.
There are other posts of course – I suggest handing them to a few men, as I’ve noticed that the above list ended up comprising 11 women and 6 men – entirely without design, I was just picking the best for the job.
Because the job is huge – there are 4 interlocking crises, of Brexit, but also of austerity, of climate, and of constitution, besetting our country. And who says we “can’t have nice things”, just because our media tells us our progressive politicians can’t be allowed to work together long term, and also tells us that only one of these four crises matters – the one that few cared about until a few years ago, until we were saturated in a dark-money funded media agenda? Isn’t it time for a government in the interests of the many?