The closest comparisons are the Commons manoeuvrings which saw Neville Chamberlain replaced by Winston Churchill in 1940 and the convulsion when Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990.
Mrs Thatcher announced her decision just hours before having to defend her Government in a no confidence debate triggered by Neil Kinnock, the then Opposition leader.
And there is, in some respects, a certain familiarity between past and present clashes after Mr Kinnock suggested that “there is not much of a Government in which to have no confidence” before Mrs Thatcher argued that Labour offered “no alternative policies – just a lot of disjointed, opaque words”. Much the same can be said today.
Yet, even then, political and policy fault lines over European integration were self-evident after Mrs Thatcher’s speech in Bruges set Britain on a collision course with Europe that eventually led to the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and its subsequent fallout.
As such, it is Mrs May’s misfortune that she is not only having to neutralise the enmity that has existed since Britain joined the then EEC in 1973, but at a time when there is such a divergence between the stance of MPs – around three-quarters voted to stay in the EU – and voters.
And while it is regrettable that she did not reach out to business leaders and opposition parties at the start of her premiership – Tory turmoil continues to mask Labour’s splits on Brexit – she has never shirked her responsibilities.
However, as MPs enter the division lobbies for a series of momentous votes which have the potential to bring down the Government and thwart Brexit, they need to remember this. Most MPs backed the legislation which preceded the 2016 referendum. The vast majority then stood on manifestos in 2017 promising to uphold the outcome. And most endorsed the triggering of Article 50, paving the way for the UK to leave the EU on March 29.
To effectively put this process on hold, or reverse it, will, therefore, irrevocably fracture the relationship between Parliament and the public after David Cameron chose, rightly or wrongly, to sub-contract responsibility to the electorate. He did so in the complacent view that levels of support for EU membership in the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’, and London, were emblematic of the whole country.
They were not, hence regions like Yorkshire voting 58 to 42 per cent – a significant margin – in favour of leave. And while the different stances taken by the county’s 54 MPs are indicative of the political splits at Westminster, MPs are the servants of the people, not Parliament, and they’re honour-bound to deliver an effective Brexit, one which does not risk the “subversion of democracy” that Mrs May now fears.
In recent days, some MPs have shown a willingness to work across the political divide and others should be encouraged, even at this 11th hour, to do so. If not, it will become even harder for Mrs May, and her successors, to bridge the chasm that has been growing between Westminster – and the country at large – for a generation, a divide which will widen further, and with damaging consequences for democracy’s future, if MPs, either deliberately or inadvertently, end up defying the public.