Today might mark the end of something significant. Of course, predicting historic events as they happen is hard. But I will speculate nonetheless. What I think is happening is the end of three things.
The first is the UK two party system.
The second is the present rigid House of Commons voting system.
And the third is the end of party political discipline, come what may.
Add the three together and I think that today’s so-called indicative votes in the Commons are more significant than just deciding what Brexit option we might proceed with, however important that might be.
Let me unpack this. I could spend my time this morning endlessly speculating on which of the many Brexit options might attract support tonight. But I do not know. And as yet, nor does anyone else. Nor do we know how this matter might progress next Monday, when the Commons supposedly takes control of the parliamentary process again. In that case I will leave that speculation to others. I have already made my wishes clear.
Instead I think it at least as interesting to note the systemic consequences of what is happening. Bill Cash and Theresa May are united in thinking that the Commons deciding for itself is dangerous. They side with Charles the first on this issue: they clearly believe, as he did, that the Executive, once in office, must have a divine right to rule without question being asked. I suggest they are wrong.
I accept, of course, that if we were ever to see again government with the sort of majority Tony Blair enjoyed in 1997 then the chance of a challenge to the Executive from the Commons would be very low indeed. Absolute rule by a prime minister - so that they could take us into an illegal war, for example - would remain a possibility in that case. But I do not expect to see such power afforded to any political party in the UK for a very long time to come. And that is because the two party system is broken.
The idea that there is a Tory party anymore is ludicrous:the ability to keep factions so opposed to each other operating under one label will very soon cease to be possible. The ERG has seen to that.
Labour is little better placed. Much as I like Jeremy Corbyn as a man (and I do) I do not trust the dangerous fantasists who surround him who will not engage with the reality of the economy that we live in. The UK is, and will continue to be a mixed economy, whatever they might think or desire. So to not consider how a mixed economy might work in the interests of all whilst they wish instead that private ownership of the means of production can be done away with, is a dangerous negation of their duty to all who depend on left wing government to protect their interests in the real world we actually live in. And people sense that, even if they might not articulate it that way.
This does not imply there is some mushy middle ground. There is not. The left of the Tories, the TIG and the Orange Book LibDems all occupy a neoliberal space that has been discredited by the failure of the policies to which they ascribe. And they fail to embrace any realistic approach to climate change. They cannot and will not be the heirs of the failure of left and right. Which does not mean, as yet, that it is clear who will emerge to take power. What, instead, is I think likely is that what has happened will encourage multiple new alliances, and in turn parties. And I happen to think that this will be good for politics.
Tonight’s option before the Commons of multiple option voting to determine the basis for compromise is the forerunner for this, and the precedent from which there can then be no reversal. The two party system assumed wisdom was to be found in the mind of a single, or no more than two at a time, leaders. The loss of party control over tonight’s votes is clear evidence that the Commons no longer thinks that. For better or worse, the Commons is now beginning to think for itself. I believe that better: time alone will tell. But I think it irreversible.
And the change in logic is what makes a change in politics possible. Indeed, it is what makes it inevitable. This is how coalitions are made. And how they also fall.
And this too should be how bad Executives are held to account.
But that requires a fluidity on voting that the Commons does not know as yet, but which I think will also come.
Which in turn will break the power of the Whips.
And which will, I think, lead to better government. I should add, eventually.
The indicative votes today are important. But, I think, they are more important by far than what they might decide (or not) in themselves. We may just be building a new democracy. Its arrival is well overdue.