General election now?
Whatever the SWP might think, argues Eddie Ford, the Tory Party is not about to split
The Tory leadership battle is well underway, with Theresa May clearly ahead. At this stage, however, it is important to recall why the referendum that provoked the contest took place. It was certainly not because the dominant section of the elite decided that they needed to fundamentally reorientate a well-established British foreign policy going back many decades - which, post-Suez debacle, was to act as an agent or proxy for US imperialism within Europe. Ever since Britain gained entry in 1973, as we all know, Europe has acted as a lightning rod of discontent - it is blamed for just about everything you can think of from lack of school spaces to ‘uncontrolled immigration’.
No, such strategic considerations never entered David Cameron’s mind when he called the referendum. Rather, ‘call me Dave’ thought it would be a clever wheeze to check the growth of the UK Independence Party (which was riding high in the polls at the time) and pull a fast one on Ed Miliband, who was rejecting demands for a referendum - not to mention placating his own right wing: throw some juicy red meat to the backbenchers. Then, hey presto, he would remain prime minister, on the calculation - which seemed pretty reasonable at the time - that he would never have to deliver the damned referendum because he would still be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who would obviously veto any such suggestion. Poor Cameron would sigh in front of the cameras, shrug his shoulders and say that he did his honest best, but no banana on the referendum.
As it turned out, of course, he won a parliamentary majority - albeit a narrow one. Cameron was not alone in being surprised by the result: everyone from the markets to the Financial Times to the Socialist Workers Party thought there would be another coalition government. But, again, hope springs eternal: Cameron thought he would win the referendum. Just get a load of business people, bankers, pop stars and the US president to implore Britain to stay in the EU - then job surely done, particularly as referendums tend to favour the status quo: you ask the question, you get the result you want. Nevertheless, Cameron managed to lose it - although curiously, the British public were not desperately concerned about him keeping his job.
The referendum result (and therefore the ensuing Tory leadership contest) was also unexpected - as was the non-appearance of Boris Johnson as a contender to replace Cameron as prime minister. Johnson’s supposed moment of triumph became an exercise in humiliation - he was stabbed in the back by his sidekick, Michael ‘Brutus’ Gove, who in turn, quite obviously, had not planned this act of ‘treachery’.
Having said that, Gove’s dirty deed did not come entirely out of nowhere. His commitment to the Brexit cause was evidently sincere -not something you can necessarily say about Johnson. After all, previously nothing indicated that he had Eurosceptic inclinations - as mayor of London he loyally protected the interests of the City, which was overwhelmingly for ‘remain’.
Indeed after the result was announced, there was his slightly strange Daily Telegraph column, which denied that immigration was the “number one issue” - tell that to many of those who voted for Brexit.1 Rather, we read, it was about “control” - a “sense that British democracy was being undermined by the EU system, and that we should restore to the people that vital power”. Johnson went on to say that “the only change” from the referendum - which “will not come in any great rush” - is that the UK “will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation”. He finished by ruminating about how he “cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be”. Does this sound like a man determined to take Britain out of the EU?
Well, it certainly did not to Gove - he wrote in the same newspaper that “my confidence in Boris Johnson evaporated after the vote for Brexit” (July 2 - my emphasis). Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times was even blunter, describing the former mayor of London as a “perfidious bluffer” whose “body of work as a writer suggests that he never really favoured the exit from the EU”, but rather was “counting on a slim defeat that would leave David Cameron a nominal victor but a tarnished prime minister” (July 1).
Then there were two
Cameron immediately announced he would step down in October. The first round of voting in the leadership contest took place on July 5 and, fairly unsurprisingly, Theresa May - who backed ‘remain’ - won by a comfortable margin. She got the support of 165 MPs, while Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and firm Christian, came second with 66, with Gove third on 48. As for Stephen Crabb, he won 34, and Liam Fox finished last on 16 votes - hence he was eliminated. However, just over an hour after the result was declared, Crabb said he was standing down and offered May his “wholehearted support” on the basis that her ability to secure the backing of so many MPs showed that she was the only candidate who had any hope of “unifying” the party and country. Fox too is backing May, despite the fact that they were on opposite sides of the referendum debate. The result means that May won just over 50% of the 329 votes cast by MPs.
Of course, just two candidates go forward into the final postal ballot of the entire party membership (150,000). David Cameron’s successor will be announced on September 9. Various polls show that May has opened up a commanding lead. Interestingly, she kept an extremely low profile during the referendum campaign, almost to the point of invisibility - something noted by many media commentators and fellow remainers.
Of course, there is a certain irony in this, as Jeremy Corbyn has been relentlessly attacked for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the EU - rating it “7.5 out of 10”. He lost the referendum. Yet some of these very same papers taking chunks out of Corbyn are now backing May - surely she is just as much to blame as Corbyn, if not more so, for the Brexit defeat?
Anyway, Boris Johnson is now backing Leadsom, as she apparently has “the zap, the drive and the determination” to lead the country. She is a self-declared Thatcherite, praising the late prime minister’s ability to “mix toughness with personal warmth”. Displaying her ideological fervour, she told the House of Commons in 2012 that she envisaged a time when there would be “absolutely no regulation whatsoever” on small companies - “no minimum wage, no maternity or paternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights”.2 Maggie would be proud.
Charmingly, she linked the death of a baby to the fact his parents were unmarried, blogging in 2008 that “the self-indulgence and carelessness of non-committed adult relationships is, as we’ve just seen in the extreme case of Baby P, proving fatal to the next generation”.3 Maybe Frankie Boyle was not too far off the mark when he ventured the idea that Leadsom “was created by Nazi scientists as a response to Dame Vera Lynn” (The Guardian July 5).
Then we have Michael Gove. His candidacy was nothing about him becoming leader of the Tory Party and prime minister. His leadership bid was about stopping Boris Johnson. Something he brilliantly succeeded in doing ... but after that who would trust him? He surely must have known that. After all, he freely admitted that he has no charisma and had just days before pronounced himself unsuited for the role of prime minister. In a 2012 interview with the Standpoint magazine, he confessed that he is “constitutionally incapable” of being a prime minister - there is a “special extra quality you need that is indefinable, and I know I don’t have it”. In fact, he continued, there is “an equanimity, an impermeability and a courage that you need” - meaning “you know it’s better not to try”.
Following a hustings on July 3, one MP said Gove was “toast”, as the reception he received “was so chilly, the temperature dropped by 10 degrees”. Twisting the knife, Ben Wallace - Johnson’s former campaign manager - accused Gove of having an “emotional need to gossip”, especially “after a drink”. He was even described as a “political psychopath” akin to a “Westminster suicide bomber” by Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris (The Independent July 3).
But you must not automatically assume that May has it in the bag. We should remember that in 2005, the favourite, David Davis, was beaten by the “inexperienced” David Cameron.
Some of those who advocated a Brexit vote did so in the belief that it would deliver a blow to the establishment and shatter the Tories - enter the Socialist Workers Party, quite predictably. Hence we have been showered with breathless articles in Socialist Worker and online about the excellent referendum result. For example, a recent article carries the awkward headline - ‘Eton mess: David Cameron’s reign of error has left the Tories weaker than ever’ (June 28). We go on to read that the EU referendum that was “meant to reunite the split Conservatives” actually “did the opposite”, and now the British political establishment is in “chaos” - the Tory Party, it seems, is “so deeply split, it cannot guarantee it can implement any policy”. A few days earlier we were told that the ‘leave’ vote has “hurled” the Tories into a “profound crisis”, as Cameron’s party is now “split in half” (June 24). Alex Callinicos repeated the same message at this year’s Marxism: the Tories are in deep crisis following the referendum.
Comrade Charlie Kimber has been getting particularly excited. In a typically one-sided argument, he writes that the Brexit vote was a “revolt against the rich” by “people who are generally forgotten, ignored or sneered at” - they delivered a “stunning blow against the people at the top of society” that left the establishment reeling. (June 28). Yes, Charlie, up to a point - but it was also a vote for national chauvinism and reaction: an exercise in manipulation by a section of the elite.
Kimber admits that the “reasons for that rebellion are contradictory”, but that “does not change the essential character of what has taken place”. He goes on to say that it was a “tragedy that Labour did not back ‘leave’”. That, he argues, would have “transformed the debate to be far more about democracy, breaking from austerity and resisting corporate control than about racism”. Nevertheless, the urgent necessity is that “everyone on the left unites to bring down the Tories and to fight racism ... We must not let the Tories recover, and have to fight to make sure this crisis ends with the right shattered and the anti-racist left stronger” (June 24). Yes, you guessed what is coming next: the “more strikes and protests and occupations there are, the better will be the outcome” of the ‘leave’ vote - “We say, Tories out, austerity out, migrants in, general election now!”
One slight problem though. The Tories are not going to magically fall apart, nor is its leadership contest the sign of a terminal crisis - the very idea is silly. The latest issue of Socialist Worker gloats about the Tories’ “chaotic leadership campaign” (July 5). But fairly shortly there will be a solidly rightwing Tory leader-cum-prime minister. You can more or less guarantee that the party will unite behind the new leader, this or that grumbling aside.
Both May and Leadsom are currently saying they are not in favour of an early general election, but we should treat that with a very large pinch of salt. If you a new Tory prime minister, presumably after notching up a reasonably clear victory amongst the rank and file, the fairly obvious thing to do is to take advantage of Labour’s very real problems and go for a snap election. The Tories could well secure a bigger parliamentary majority.
If anybody is going to split post-Brexit vote it will be the Labour Party, not the Tories - as we are already seeing. Sections of the Labour right are openly talking, or at least muttering, about the Parliamentary Labour Party appointing its own leader in opposition to the ‘official’ Labour Party led by Corbyn - effectively splitting it into two competing parties.