How to change the government without an election
We are British citizens who live in Italy. We don’t normally follow Italian politics closely, but over the last couple of weeks I and my wife have taken special interest in the way in which Italy has effectively changed its government without holding an election.
Briefly, following the March 2018 general election, an awkward governing alliance was formed between the strongly rightist League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the more centrist Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio. Given the divergence of the two parties’ policies on many issues and the incompatibility of the two leaders, it is surprising that it lasted for almost 18 months, largely thanks to the skill and patience of the independent prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
This arrangement collapsed in August when Salvini, buoyed up by his apparent increasing popularity in the opinion polls, announced a motion of no confidence in the prime minister, probably as a precedent for calling for an election which he hoped would reinforce his power. Conte resigned, claiming that Salvini had “triggered the crisis only to serve his personal interest”. This was immediately followed by the Democratic Party (which came third in the last election) opening exploratory discussions with the Five Star Movement with which it had not been on good terms. These consultations led to an agreement on a joint agenda based on pro-Europeanism, green economy, sustainable development, fight against inequality and a new immigration policy. With the blessing of Sergio Mattarella, the President, a new government, composed of the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, has been formed under the leadership of Conte. Salvini has been effectively consigned to the opposition.
There seems to be every reason to follow a similar process of changing government in Britain without holding either an early election or even a vote of confidence. In the last week, the opposition parties and ‘rebel’ Conservatives have demonstrated their capacity to combine forces to soundly defeat Boris Johnson’s government on 4 occasions. If they can stick together and find a common platform, the opportunity exists for them to become a de facto coalition government which could systematically block all legislation proposed by the present government, rendering it powerless and presumably leading eventually to the resignation of the prime minister.
What has driven this cross-party group together is their common determination to preserve genuine democracy in Britain at a time when the prime minister has tried to by-pass or over-ride parliament in his self-determined quest to take Britain out of Europe without an agreed deal by the end of October. Beyond this is the fear amongst the adherents to the group of the risk that an election, if called soon without effective laws in place to protect proper electoral conduct, could lead to a sharp shift to the right within parliament. Finally, there is the widely voiced view that Johnson is untrustworthy and motivated more by his personal ambitions than any respect for improving the livelihoods of his fellow citizens.
If the broad goal of protecting democracy and especially the sovereignty of parliament is to be achieved, this will require concerted action in the style of last week for a long period, ideally until 5th May 2022, the mandatory date for the next general election.
This period would be used for moving ahead with a raft of overdue legislation on domestic issues on which there is a large measure of cross-party consensus. These would relate, for instance, to health and care, education, environment and climate change, infrastructure, equality, social security. Special commissions would be set up to engage the public in guiding the government on migration policies and the UK’s future long-term relationship with Europe. A similar approach could be adopted on the reform of electoral policies (including proportional representation, lowering voting age, votes for UK citizens living abroad, social media codes of conduct, penalties for infringement of electoral law etc.).
To explore whether such an approach is feasible, I would suggest that MPs who have voted against the government and others who want to come on board, should take full advantage of the prorogation of parliament, decreed by Johnson, to meet with the aim of creating a long-term Pact for Democracy. If there is a consensus that it should be possible to sustain a parliamentary majority in the medium term, then this should be followed by the formation of a cabinet-in-waiting (including an interim chair), charged with immediately outlining legislative goals for inclusion in an early Queen’s speech.
The most divisive issue will clearly be Brexit and even within the “Pact” a parliamentary majority for a withdrawal plan or for staying in Europe is unlikely to be attainable at the moment. Until the government is able to define the kind of relationship that the country should have in the long-term with Europe and build public support for this, there is no basis for negotiating any agreement with the EU. We should face up to reality and admit this, initiate a consultative process and request the EU to allow us to stay as full and active members for at least 2 more years, during which a referendum could be held.
Let Italy’s democratic success be an inspiration to all British MPs who now know what it takes to protect the sovereignty of parliament that Johnson has tried to hi-jack “to serve his personal interest” like his fellow-populist, Salvini.