|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 226 March 2019
The end of the road
Two years ago this month, as the Tories’ celebrated their victory in the Copeland by-election, The Economist magazine gloatingly referred to Theresa May as the "monarch of all she surveys". Copeland was the first time a governing party had won a seat from the opposition since 1982, and in a northern constituency held by Labour since 1935 too.
"The beginning of the end of the Corbyn era seems nigh", sneered the ideological champions of capitalism. "Not since Tony Blair at his peak has a prime minister seemed so dominant", they wrote (4 March 2017). With May’s premiership now hanging by a thread, brought to this pass by the irreconcilable Tory divisions over Brexit, they, and the rest of the capitalist establishment, are not so bullish today.
As our lead article on Britain’s historic political crisis explains, May’s approach to the Brexit negotiations has been to do everything possible "to avoid going down as the women who destroyed the oldest party in the world", to the point even of "risking a disorderly no-deal Brexit, with all the problems that would mean for the capitalist class".
Following January’s crushing parliamentary rejection of the withdrawal agreement treaty that she had negotiated with the EU27 countries at the November European Union summit – at 432 votes to 202, the biggest ever margin of defeat for a government motion – May restored a semblance of Tory unity two weeks later. By supporting at the last minute a motion to re-open negotiations with the EU to what she had previously declared was an ‘unamendable’ treaty – the Brady amendment seeking unspecified "alternative arrangements" to the Irish backstop – she managed to take another big step in running down the clock to Brexit day, in the hope of scaring enough MPs to back whatever is on offer in the days before 29 March.
That this is her strategy – if such day-to-day expedient swings can be termed as such – seems clear. The reports that the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator civil servant, Olly Robbins, had been overheard speaking of a plan to delay the final ‘meaningful vote’ on a Brexit deal until the week beginning the end of March, were reinforced by the refusal of the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, parliament’s business manager, to discount holding the vote until after the next scheduled EU council meeting on 21-22 March.
Other signs of taking things to the wire are the moves by the government to bend the rules on approving statutory instruments, the means by which the secondary legislation needed to import expiring EU regulations can be pushed through parliament. The requirement of 21 parliamentary working days to ratify international agreements is also to be waived for the 80 or so outstanding EU-related rollover treaties.
Formally, parliament’s sovereignty is managed by ministers on behalf of the crown – today as it has been since the so-called Glorious Revolution constitutional settlement of 1688. But this does in fact give the executive great freedom to manoeuvre. In its own way, the display of the persisting power of ‘the crown in parliament’ during the Brexit process provides a warning of the obstacles that would be placed before a possible future Corbyn-led government – and the need to prepare to mobilise the labour movement in extra-parliamentary action to implement socialist policies.
Notwithstanding May’s parliamentary manoeuvring, however, as 29 March draws ever nearer, there is no certainty that she can push through a withdrawal agreement or that a no-deal breakdown can be averted. This is an historic crisis of capitalist political representation.
Gang of seven
Many of the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteer back-benchers are happy to go along with May in running down the clock. The 2018 European Union (Withdrawal) Act means that, at 11pm UK time on 29 March, Britain will formally withdraw from the EU structures and treaties, which is the ERG’s goal. Even if the government was to seek an extension from the EU, which itself can only be agreed at an EU heads of state council meeting – either a special summit or the scheduled 21-22 March meeting – it would still require a parliamentary vote to change the exit date. It is the Tory remainers – now all but resigned to Brexit but aiming to prevent a no-deal exit – who have to make the first move in the intra-Tory war.
They have not been short on words. At least four cabinet ministers have reportedly threatened resignation rather than facilitate a no deal, while pro-remain backbenchers have declared they will renounce the Tory whip. Business minister Richard Harrington denounced the "treachery" of the ERG for "drinking champagne to celebrate her [May] losing her deal", and called on them to join the new Nigel Farage-backed Brexit Party, "because in my view they’re not Conservatives". (The Guardian, 15 February) But when it came to January’s no-confidence vote in Theresa May’s approach to Brexit they all rallied round rather than risk preparing the ground for a Corbyn-led government.
A new development as we go to press has been the announcement by seven Blairite Labour MPs that they have left the Labour Party and will now sit as the Independent Group in parliament. There is speculation that Tory remainer MPs Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and others may join them, adding momentum.
On the other hand, a gang of even a dozen or so may well not be a significantly attractive catalyst force. The Blairite Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, who was a member of the 1981 split-away Social Democratic Party, dismissed the move: "seismic rupture didn’t happen yesterday when seven MPs walked out of the Labour Party". (19 February) "Those other MPs who tried to oust Corbyn [in 2016] still think much the same of him now as they did then", she went on. "But they have not quit, not at this catastrophically inappropriate juncture".
Our lead article, extracted from a Socialist Party congress statement prepared in mid-February, anticipated that a pre-election Labour split, if it materialised, would be "only a small one, as a majority of Blairites stay in order to be best placed to sabotage a future Corbyn-led government". Nonetheless, the long-gestating political fragmentation inherent in the situation in Britain since Corbyn’s Labour leadership election victory in 2015, and the 2016 EU referendum, is underway.
Age of volatility
The 2016 victory for leave was, as Socialism Today has argued before, at bottom a mass working-class revolt against the capitalist establishment, eight years after the financial crash of 2007-08. Unsurprisingly, the age of austerity ushered in by the subsequent recession has also been the age of rage and a new era of political fluidity. That is so despite the fog of Brexit tending to blur the relationship between the current unfolding crisis of capitalist politics and the alienation and anger of workers and big sections of the middle class.
The Tories’ Copeland triumph in early 2017 was one factor in encouraging Theresa May to call the June general election of that year, amidst a confident media narrative of a 100-seat plus Tory majority. Instead, it should not be forgotten, the election witnessed the biggest increase in Labour’s vote between elections since 1945, with young people in particular inspired by Corbyn’s radical manifesto (see Politicised Youth article).
The Tories’ chief executive, Sir Mick Davis, has recently been reported as placing local associations on a ‘war footing’ and there is speculation that May would prefer to ‘go to the country’ with her Brexit deal, if the EU27 refuse meaningful renegotiation, rather than preside over the disintegration of the Tory party. She may hope that she could hold the Tories together in such a contest by blaming the EU for a breakdown of relations and posing her campaign as getting a mandate to renew negotiations.
However, so long as Corbyn does not capitulate to the clamour from the Blairites to accept the neoliberal policies of the EU bosses’ club, the class issues will not be so easily buried. A socialist and internationalist alternative to the EU could unite working-class leave and remain voters, and open up new vistas at the end of the Brexit road.