Watching the House of Commons on its first day back from prorogation did not exactly make for the most uplifting viewing. Boris Johnson’s rhetoric caused MPs to leave the chamber in anguish, break down in tears, and launch furious criticisms across the room. But one moment was overshadowed by this toxic climate. Emily Thornberry turned to the Liberal Democrats and said sorry, apologising for comments she made in an interview last week, comparing the party to the Taliban. You could feel the benches breathe. It is this spirit of conscience that the opposition should fortify – reconciliation over rage.
The fact remains that the prime minister has delivered competing views on whether he will extend Article 50, as the Benn Act mandates the prime minister must do should he fail to obtain a withdrawal deal by 19 October.
There is every chance that Boris Johnson will break the law. He has already done it once, why not turn the screw further? In this event, opposition parties should hold to their promises set out by the Church House Agreement – a historic document of camaraderie. A unity government should grow from this baseline, establishing a temporary administration to make decisions rather than headlines.
The government of national unity, or ‘GNU’, was bandied about in the first days of Johnson’s premiership. And there it has stayed, suffocated by party divisions. Indeed, conference season has only heightened the bitter rhetoric between Labour and the Lib Dems. This is the greatest challenge for such an administration. Tackling the immediate concerns that hold parties and individuals back from extending the hand of cooperation should be of prime importance.
For the opposition outside Labour, the biggest barrier to alliance is Jeremy Corbyn as a leader. Jo Swinson put him in the same bracket as the prime minister, deeming him ‘unfit to lead’. Ex-Tories who were booted out or resigned as a result of Boris’ tyranny have also stated they will not be led by Corbyn. But unless there is a full majority of unified parties, a government could not rule or pass legislation. And so, compromise here must be paramount.
In order to convince all parties to team up, three basic questions need answering. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, who should lead? As the official leader of the Opposition, the baton should undoubtedly first go to Corbyn. It would be wrong for other opposition MPs to deny him that chance. But if negotiations fail, opposition leaders should nominate a caretaker who could command trust above partisanship. Esteemed backbenchers such as Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman, or even Caroline Lucas all could take the seat.
This caretaker position would be subject to temporary restrictions, so that no one party feels side-lined or ignored. Thus any caretaker government must be constrained by what path of legislation it is allowed to pass. The immediate concern should be to deal with the Brexit impasse. It would be up to opposition leaders to decide on secondary bills requiring a vote, i.e. the Domestic Violence bill. Having a strict plan would give leaders the confidence to stick with the unity government, and hold other parties to account if they take unnecessary chances.
This government’s existence should also be temporary by design. The time limit should not be imposed by restrictive deadlines (other than Article 50), but by step-by-step goals. For instance, once an extension is passed and signed off by the EU, then they can turn to an election or referendum as the next logical step. Their use as an administration should not be made frantic by time. A Queen’s Speech could even set out the legislation they wish to pursue, and give constitutional weight to their leadership – something that many critics will be questioning.
Of course, the biggest concern throughout this fantasy politics is whether the government could stay united. Could Ian Lavery hold his tongue for a few months, while Chuka Umunna refrained from criticism? This is where plans and guides cannot predict. It would be up to MPs and party activists to shake hands, guided by the overarching principle of unity and necessity. Nobody wants this government to have to exist. But as a concept, it’s better than watching the clock tick closer to midnight.
To that end, the unity of this temporary government should put political allegiance aside. It will be a difficult task. There is much distrust within the opposition, based on attitudes and voting records. Even as a bystander, it’s hard not to reflect on these problems – some of them deeply rooted in ideology. But take it from Emily Thornberry, who chose to apologise publicly and directly. Unity in this situation can exist. There are a lot of grievances to ignore. But by solving this crisis through unity, not only will we be more likely to resolve Brexit; unity can also inspire a renewed sense of trust in politics – a trust our country desperately needs.