LONDON — Back in the Obama years, when a recalcitrant Congress was obstructing any major piece of legislation the president put forward, his adviser David Axelrod used to look envyingly across the pond at his British counterparts, who seemed to find it so easy to get things done.
“We used to sit in the White House thinking it would be great to have a parliamentary system, where you’re guaranteed to rule with your allies,” he said.
Then he laughed. “It doesn’t look very appealing now.”
On Wednesday, the authority of Britain’s executive branch was diminished to a point not seen in recent history. The country watched an increasingly empowered group of backbench legislators take control of the government’s principal piece of legislation on the country’s exit from the European Union, suddenly altering the negotiating strategy sustained for more than two years by Prime Minister Theresa May.
No more can Britain boast about its streamlined, predictable “Westminster model,” in which a strong executive presides over a unitary state.
Fresh from her latest humiliation on Tuesday at the hands of rebel lawmakers, Mrs. May, during Wednesday’s parliamentary debate, learned from John Bercow, the pugnacious speaker of the house, that he might not allow her to bring her deal for Brexit, as the departure from the bloc is known, back to Parliament for another try.
Then rebel lawmakers unexpectedly won a vote of 312 to 308, passing an amendment ruling out a no-deal exit — a not legally binding act, but putting moral pressure on Mrs. May to delay Britain’s long-promised exit from the European Union.
Several members of her cabinet abstained in the vote, effectively turning against her.
Welcome to something Americans know about: gridlock.
“What we are seeing is a direct challenge to the Westminster model,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent.
Asked when Britain’s Parliament has last wrested control over policy from the government in this way, Mr. Goodwin said “crikey,” and guessed that it dated back to the Second World War.
“What we may end up seeing is the legislature asserting control,” he said. “It’s not entirely clear how the executive in British politics can regain momentum without going back to the country” for another referendum or general election.
Mr. Axelrod’s three years as President Barack Obama’s senior adviser coincided with one of the longest stretches of severe gridlock in recent American history.
After Mr. Obama’s early signature accomplishments, like the Affordable Care Act, Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and he struggled to muster any legislative victories.
“It makes it hard for anything big to happen, any large decisions,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview on Wednesday. “You can occasionally move things, but it’s very hard to get consensus around any big things, and that’s what they’re dealing with in Britain.”
But he said gridlock also served an important purpose, restraining rash actions supported by a governing majority.
“Here’s the thing: The founding fathers devised a system meant to move slowly when the country was deeply divided,” Mr. Axelrod said.
The best way to survive a period of sustained gridlock, he added, is to incentivize lawmakers to compromise and reach consensus — a challenge in Britain, he acknowledged, in the current polarized political environment.
He added, “I’d say a good belt of scotch would be helpful.”
Another survivor of American gridlock is Alan K. Simpson, 87, who served for 18 years as a Republican senator from Wyoming.
“Gridlock is a part of any democracy, and a very important part,” Mr. Simpson said Wednesday, in a telephone call from his hometown, Cody. “It forces compromise. You have to force it sometimes.”
A salty, congenial elder statesman in Washington, Mr. Simpson was often consulted as a kind of guru on breaking out of partisan gridlock.
He always gave the same advice: To get things done in a rigidly divided capital, lawmakers must seek each other out in person, and build trust far away from the glare of the media.
“We had to meet in total privacy and then, sure enough, I’d say, ‘Don’t say anything, because we’re getting close,’ and then here come the camera lights, the camera lights were like moths, and then everything goes downhill,” he said. “Then you don’t trust anybody who was in the room. Trust is the coin of the realm, and now it is tarnished beyond polishing.”
He allowed that this kind of trust-building has become more difficult, as social media has all but eliminated space for durable private relationships.
“Now you don’t have time to do that, because you’re twittering, you’re tweeting, you’re instagramming, you’re over in the corner hitting your keys, and you become shriveled and testy,” he said. “People have lost the ability to talk to each other.”
It cannot be said that gridlock encourages boldness in statecraft. The great legislative acts of American history — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs — were enacted under large single-party majorities, said Norman Ornstein, a specialist in American politics at the American Enterprise Institute.
“The American culture has been that we don’t do major social policy without finding a broad leadership consensus,” Mr. Ornstein said.
In recent decades, periods of sustained and severe gridlock have become more common, he added. He pointed to Mr. Obama’s election as a dividing line, when routine opposition in Congress turned rigid and maximalist.
“It’s a growing tribalism, not just polarization,” he said. “If you’re tribal and you view the other side as evil, working with them is a different challenge.”
That said, he added, divided governments have proved “at least as effective at delivering reform.”
“The system was built to have — not so much gridlock, a term that would not have meant anything to the framers — but to keep from impetuous action that comes from an inflamed majority,” he said.
It was not clear what sort of system was being created this week in Westminster, as party discipline seemed to dissolve in real time and new groupings began to take shape around alternate Brexit policies.
But the Tory lawmaker Kenneth Clarke — known as the Father of the House, because he has served in Parliament longer than any other member — spoke with mild amazement about the predicament in which Britain has found itself.
“It’s almost three years since we had the referendum, and we have reached this quite extraordinary moment,” he said.
“Effectively, we’re back to square one,” he continued. “There is absolutely no consensus, within the government, within the opposition party, within this Parliament or within the public, on exactly what ‘leave’ means. We’re having a debate today over whether, after three years of futility, in 16 days’ time we just give up and leave and see what happens.”
“This is quite bizarre,” he concluded.
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