In both senses of the word, confidence lies at the heart of politics. It is certainly the preference of this habitual voyeur of Westminster life. Yet the concept has been distorted beyond recognition by the stresses of Brexit.
Brexit positions cut across most parties, and MPs are clearly torn between their loyalties to their party, their electorate, their local members, the nation, the referendum result, and their consciences. But it is hard not to be cynical about how a number of them have voted.
confidence n. 1. The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.
On January 16th 2019, the House voted by 325 to 306 against a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. Yet the day before, a huge chunk of those 325 (including the DUP) had voted against the Government’s central policy and purpose, namely the Withdrawal Agreement, when that went down to its historic 230-vote defeat. In previous times a vote of that magnitude would have been framed as a matter of confidence in the government itself, and thus treated with the seriousness it deserved.
It is clear from subsequent developments that a number of MPs could have accepted the deal but preferred not to vote for it. This may have been in the reasonable hope that they could get closer to their own position. Indeed the EU did provide some further legal assurances as a result.
However my overriding impression from both MV1 and MV2 is that these MPs – most of the ERG and many Labour MPs sitting in Leave seats – wanted the deal to pass (eventually) but without getting their own hands dirty by actually voting for it themselves. This is a failure of salesmanship on the part of the PM and a failure of whipping, but it’s also a failure of those MPs to face up to their own responsibilities.
confidence n. 2. The telling of private matters or secrets with mutual trust.
Another casualty of Brexit is this second sense of confidence. To be fair, leaks and briefings have always been integral to politics, but in recent times Cabinet has been practically live-blogged by lobby journalists, as have meetings of the PLP and the 1922 Committee. And Labour’s deputy leader attempted to set up a parallel complaints process, because of his lack of trust in their General Secretary. The EU has also been prone to leaking sensitive details of the negotiating process.
When leaders cannot trust a wider group to keep confidences, then they retreat into their bunkers. This heightens the risk both of groupthink and also PR disasters: the lack of an outside perspective leads them to choose words or actions which can cause unnecessary offence. This in turn makes securing trust from those outside their parties even harder.
“Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” – Vince Lombardi
It would be foolish to deny that Theresa May and her team could have managed the Brexit process better. Notably, she ought to have sold her deal much more assertively, and made a virtue of the all-UK nature of the backstop (a genuine negotiating win) rather than apologising for it. Given the structural difficulties of negotiating under Article 50 – perhaps something she and others ought to have been more upfront about – I think the deal itself is pretty reasonable.
But many of the criticisms of Theresa May are themselves cynical. To quote Danny Finkelstein in Tuesday’s Times: “they are all easy to say now, while not having been practical to do at the time. Even Labour was against a soft Brexit for a year or two after the referendum. And none of them were advanced by the hard Leavers. Those who argue that Mrs May’s departure is necessary if they or their friends are to back the deal are the same people who supported, indeed urged, her hard line.”
We have now ended up in a position where Theresa May appears to have no confidence in the nation’s MPs, and the feeling is clearly reciprocated. The Speaker has clearly lost the confidence of a substantial proportion of the House: enough that he ought to be considering his position too. And the fact that our exit has been allowed to go this close to the wire has damaged the confidence of the country at large in our political processes.
Whichever outcome we get will polarise the electorate still further, with a sizeable minority likely to feel that something has been stolen from them. There is going to be a lot of work – for the next Prime Minister, but also for everyone involved in politics – to restore confidence in the system.
Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election in 2017.