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How do you solve a problem like Theresa?

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

April 12, 2019   4 mins

Parliament is panicking. A full-blown constitutional crisis is underway. The opposition see the chaos as their chance to seize control. The government is using any tactic it can to stall for time – even a brief parliamentary recess feels like a reprieve. And all because the country’s leader has gone mad, and no-one knows what to do about it.

It is December 1788. George III is experiencing a protracted period of serious mental illness, and his physicians are unable to say if he will ever recover. He has retreated to Kew, in the care of his wife Queen Charlotte; the opposition, under Charles Fox, is working to install their ally, the king’s son Prince George, in his place as regent. After endless parliamentary negotiations, a bill is finally passed in the House of Commons, but the King recovers before the House of Lords is able to finalise the legislation.

This period, known as the Regency Crisis and chronicled by the film The Madness of King George, disrupted and disturbed the constitutional norms of the United Kingdom.

What the rhetoricians and cartoonists of the age were most struck by, was the sudden reversal in the two parties’ positions. Fox’s Whigs were traditionally in favour of shifting the balance of power away from the monarch, and towards parliament – but they found themselves arguing for the Prince’s prerogative right to assume his father’s throne during his incapacity. Pitt, the Prime Minister, was by contrast a Tory, and was as such expected to back royal rule. Instead, he acted to put parliament in charge.

George III’s mental illness was serious, and real. His symptoms are variously described as including ranting, foaming at the mouth, psychosis, delusions and rage. Some historians still believe it was caused by a genetic metabolic disorder called porphyria, which famously turns the sufferer’s urine blue.

The mainstream view, however, is now that Mad King George suffered from a mental, rather than physical, illness. Whatever the truth, the symptoms recurred throughout his lifetime, and by 1811 settled so profoundly upon his mind that he never recovered. At this point, the Regency Bill was finally approved: his son took to the throne.

So, if you think our current constitutional crisis is dragging on, remember that we lasted 23 years with a King upon whose sanity no one could rely. The British ability to postpone, delay and muddle through is perhaps our most dependable national trait.

Theresa May is not mad, in any clinical sense; she certainly doesn’t suffer from porphyria. But she has been accused of madness by at least one of her MPs, and far more have railed to the press with the question: “How the hell do we get rid of her?” – a question that seems to be echoing through history from the lips of countless 18th and 19th century politicians and constitutional experts.

The Conservative Party’s constitution has – at least until December 2019 – given us a Prime Minister who cannot be removed from office by her party, no matter what she does. And, as in the Regency Crisis, an endless barrage of projects have been launched to try to navigate around this constitutional outrage.

Any number of efforts are being made to prevent a Prime Minister so many believe incompetent from continuing to govern. Examples include a party members’ petition to change the party’s constitution and enable a new vote of no confidence; a plot to steal the mace from parliament to prevent it from sitting; and a plan for the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs to hold an indicative vote that reveals how much they hate her.

Most of these conspiring MPs claim that they’re acting according to principle when they pursue their plans. But as in the winter of 1788, individual and party interest is the driving force behind most of these apparent principles. Fox was suddenly in favour of hereditary monarchy and royal power because Prince George was an ally and friend. Pitt became a sudden convert to the cause of Parliamentary sovereignty because he knew that the Prince would sack him the moment he took the throne. The Prince’s obvious partiality was a decisive factor in enabling Pitt to secure a delay.

But it was the Prince’s character which made his father – in periods of lucidity – an intransigent opponent to his appointment as Regent. Perhaps Blackadder wasn’t entirely fair to the Prince of Wales, in its portrayal of him as a brainless dandy, but history offers us little evidence of the Prince’s good character. He seems to have taken every opportunity to annoy his father. He drank and ate to excess; he gambled and expected parliament to settle his debts; he conducted endless affairs, married illegally and against his father’s will and then, when forced by parliament to marry a Protestant, he effectively became a bigamist.

Parliament knew all this about him when they finally appointed him Regent in 1811. They put some controls on his Regency: he couldn’t confer peerages for the first year, for example. But they appointed him, nonetheless.

In the context of a hereditary monarchy, you could argue that they had little choice. But parliament had taken an aggressive approach to choosing monarchs they liked ever since the Restoration: the Glorious Revolution replaced James II with his daughter Mary; when Mary’s sister Anne died without a living heir, it was her second cousin George I who inherited the throne, despite there being 50 living relatives ahead of him in the line of succession. Parliament effectively gifted the throne to the Hanoverian princes simply because they wanted a Protestant. Given this precedent, they didn’t need to choose Prince George to replace his father.

It seems that when your leader is mad, your standards drop. The Regency is a cautionary tale for those dreaming of replacing Theresa May. Don’t measure the replacements against the woman in Number 10. Measure them against history. Yes, she needs to go. But let’s not land ourselves with someone as inadequate as George IV.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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