"Once you pop, you just can’t stop," goes the Pringles tagline, describing the insatiable desire for more, more, more once you get a taste of the famous crisp. We find ourselves in a similar situation as this crucial week in British politics develops. The lid is well and truly off, only we’re not eating into salty snacks but long-established elements of our unwritten constitution.
Once you jettison one convention or mis-use another, it becomes all too easy (for the Government and MPs) to keep going. No one has stopped me yet, and besides we are in a crisis, so the normal rules don’t apply...
The Prime Minister is penned into a corner. He must deliver Brexit, or do anything at all to seek to deliver it, if he is to keep power. But how far might he go?
Might he ask the Queen not to sign into law a backbench motion stopping the UK leaving without a deal on October 31? Might he signal an election for October to win cross-party backing, then slip it back to November? Might he expel his predecessor Theresa May from the Conservative Party, should she choose not to side with him in a confidence vote in the coming days? Might he refuse to acknowledge an Act of Parliament requiring him to ask for an extension altogether?
His opponents are similarly trapped. Do or die, I must martyr myself for the sake of economic prudence and the good of the country. I must stop the no deal at all costs whether by tweaking Parliamentary procedures, fast tracking legislation even if it means it won’t be properly scrutinised, or bringing the Queen into the debate through a Humble Petition.
Both sides are driven by ego and a sense of righteousness. They’ve dug in, they’ve committed to their cause, and more importantly they truly and wholly believe in the stories they tell. Staying is an abject betrayal of the people and a future of euro-tyranny; leaving is economic apocalypse and the tragic closing of the British mind.
In that context, tampering with the UK’s constitution doesn’t seem all that radical, but it could have profound consequences.
Like any useful thing - the law, money, companies, human rights - the British constitution is a story that we collectively believe in for our common good. But it relies more than its written cousins on good will, because if you can find a precedent, even one stretched wildly out of context, perhaps you can use it to your advantage. You can pull on a thread here and a thread there, and so long as you avoid pulling too many, you can keep the garment largely intact.
I would suggest that the breakdown of our unwritten constitutional story began long ago. Over the past two years, the Speaker has used procedures unconventionally in pursuit of an agenda that he believes in, while the former PM decided to hold a two-year sitting to avoid a confidence vote and attempted to use Henry VIII powers to deliver Brexit without Parliamentary scrutiny.
Before that the expenses scandal damaged the ruling class in the eyes of the masses, and before that there was the decision to go to war with Iraq on the basis of flimsy evidence with poor scrutiny. All of it has moved us away from a system founded on gentlemanly conduct and respect for the unwritten rules.
In the past, individuals suffered greatly for tampering with these rules - think Eden after Suez or Blair after Iraq. But what if this time, playing with convention is seen as a virtue because with Brexit the end justifies the means? Will the tweaking ever stop, and will it ever be possible to go back to how things used to be?
If the constitution does start to unravel, then all sorts of radical outcomes become possible, even the end of liberal capitalism.
In this important week let’s look out for signals in the decisions made, to understand whether the commitment on both sides to winning at all costs is tempered by concerns for the constitutional consequences and the legacies they will leave.
If faced with a Commons defeat, does the Government purge its own ranks and seek an election or does it allow a law to pass and then have the monarch block it? If faced with an election, does the opposition seek binding assurances that it must occur in October or does it focus on the election and a chance to grip power, irrespective of the consequences? Does either side hold back from the brink or do they go all out? And are we ready to live with a political system where the rules lose their meaning?
Image credit: Jorge Láscar/Flickr (Creative Commons)