That things are a shambles in both the US and the UK is obvious. But I want to step back a bit from the immediate issues and look at how in both countries, political norms have been breached that may not be recoverable. In the US, we now have a president who shamelessly and repeatedly utters lies that are known to be lies even as he speaks. He is also corrupt and has surrounded himself with corrupt family and government officials and private advisors. And yet his party supports him and is willing to find excuses for his outrageous behavior.
It is by no means the case that previous presidents and administrations were paragons of virtue. Far from it. The norm that has been breached is the requirement to be discreet and hide their misbehavior in ways that allowed for plausible denial by their supporters. Now we find brazen behavior that has not only been embraced by his supporters but even treated as if they were desirable things to be cheered. Rather than the president’s party and its supporters reining in the behavior back towards norms, Trump has pulled them away from the norms. People who may have initially started supported Trump because they liked his idea of limiting immigration of people of color and building a wall now seem to have adopted an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ attitude and decided that since they committed to him, they must follow him wherever he takes them, even if it is to the fetid swamps of outright racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.
In the UK, the norms that are being breached are more procedural. The Brexit disaster and prime minister Theresa May’s ineptness in handling the negotiations have resulted in a breakdown in the ability of the governing party to control the flow of legislation in parliament. The debate and vote in parliament tomorrow shows this clearly, where the government has been forced to agree to debate and vote on amendments from all over the place, including its own backbenchers. Already 19 amendments have been tabled with more possible before tomorrow.
At least three of the amendments are constitutionally innovative, because they would significantly empower parliament in relation to the executive in the weeks ahead. Mostly the government controls the business in the Commons – ie what gets debated – which means it decides what gets to become law. But the Cooper amendment would create time for a bill that the government would never table itself to be passed in February. And the Grieve amendment, along with a broadly similar Lib Dem one, would enable backbenchers to seize control of Commons business to debate Brexit on particular days before 29 March. [My italics-MS]
As I see it, there are two key amendments:
Amendments to prevent a no-deal Brexit. The two most important are probably Yvette Cooper’s, enabling the Commons to pass a bill requiring May to seek an article 50 extension if she cannot get her deal passed, and a softer, non-binding one from Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey, rejecting no deal in principle.
Anti-backstop amendments. The two main ones are from the Tories Andrew Murrison and Graham Brady, calling for the backstop to expire by December 2021 or for it to be removed from the withdrawal agreement altogether.
Parliamentary procedure is something that only Robert’s Rules of Order aficionados really understand and there any many possible outcomes tomorrow, depending on what motions are allowed and their order. But what is clear that May’s government has lost the normal tight control over events but is now in a reactive mode, being forced to listen to those normally on the sidelines.