Hard Brexit or no Brexit?
Unless there is a traumatic economic crisis, argues Eddie Ford, Theresa May looks set for a landslide victory in an early general election
As exemplified by her unpleasant speech to the Tory Party conference in Birmingham, Theresa May has acted decisively to take ownership of the Brexit campaign. At first you could regard this as a bit odd, considering that the margin of victory on June 23 was very narrow (51.9% to 48.1%) and that the prime minister played a very heads-down role during the referendum campaign - almost to the point of invisibility. By comparison, Jeremy Corbyn was near hyperactive in his support for the ‘remain’ side - yet curiously it was he, and not May, who was roundly condemned for supposedly losing the campaign.
Clearly though, May is engaging in a devious form of triangulation - she has obviously learnt something from Tony Blair. She is making a play both for the UK Independence Party vote and that significant minority of Labour Party supporters who voted Brexit as some sort of anti-establishment protest, whilst calculating - surely correctly - that Tory remainers will continue to vote for the party, come what may: can you really imagine them voting for the increasingly irrelevant Liberal Democrats, let alone Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party? In other words, May is going for the traditional chauvinist voter, who is anti-foreigner and definitely anti-migrant - whether they live in the home counties or the post-industrial north-east.
With this is mind, there was a great deal of truth to the headline, “Theresa May consigns Cameron to history in populist conference speech” (The Guardian October 6). May made a naked pitch to the right by combining anti-migrant sentiment with the populist, anti-elite rhetoric of being ‘for the many, not the few’. She told us that the “new, modern Conservatism” will “never hesitate to face down the powerful when they abuse their positions of privilege” and warned tax-avoiding companies and greedy executives that these practices “can’t go on any more”. More significantly still, her Birmingham speech was peppered with references to “ordinary working class families”, “working class people”, etc - not the usual vacuous, US-style guff about “hard working families” and such-like. Indeed, according to May, the Tories were “truly the party of the workers”. If someone had told you a couple of years ago that a Tory prime minister would come out with such language you would not have believed them - don’t you know that we’re all middle class now?
With regards to Brexit, May has been quite explicit - the referendum result legitimised a tougher line on immigration. The Brexit vote, as she said to conference, was a message that the British people “were not prepared to be ignored any more” - for “someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair”. But now the downtrodden underdog has the Conservative Party to stand up for them. May reassured her audience that “we are not leaving the EU only to give up control of immigration again” and “we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”. So it is not going to be a Norway or Switzerland model. It is going to be “an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the EU”. Rapturous applause, rule Britannia.
Repulsive as her anti-migrant rhetoric is, this hard Brexit approach could pay off big time for the prime minister - it cannot be denied that her timing is near perfect. Ukip is in spectacular meltdown before our very eyes, providing much entertainment. Circumstances
At the Birmingham conference, May also announced that she will be triggering article 50 in March. I would not be surprised if this is followed by an announcement on an early general election. This should present no problem for May, as it requires only a simple parliamentary majority to scrap the Fixed Term Act, with the Labour leadership suicidally saying that they would back any such move.
Of course, May will have to plead ‘special circumstances’ to avoid being accused of hypocrisy or downright deceit - up until now, she has repeatedly rejected the call for an early election on the specious grounds of “stability”. More generally, fixed general elections were agreed to in order to avoid the governing party calling one when it suited its own narrow interests. But you can easily imagine May’s ‘special circumstances’ being the need to get a mandate for her current hard Brexit line - or whatever position emerges in negotiations with the EU.
Frankly, May would be dumb not to go early and take ruthless advantage of Labour’s turmoil - why on earth wait until 2020? At the moment, she has an uncomfortably small majority of 12. All it would require are 12 Kenneth Clarkes and she loses a parliamentary vote: say, for example, on the reintroduction of grammar schools or the need for a “full and transparent” parliamentary debate before activating article 50. This question has been brought into sharp focus by the high court challenge led by Gina Miller which is challenging Theresa May’s stated intention to start the process of leaving the EU without a parliamentary vote - it being argued that she does not have the legal authority to use royal prerogative powers to trigger Brexit, ‘hard’ or otherwise.3 Lord Pannick QC, representing Miller, said formal notification by ministers alone would “undermine” parliament and “deprive people of their statutory rights”. As for Dominic Chambers QC, representing another claimant, he told the court that the referendum “did not replace” the system of parliamentary representative democracy and therefore for the government to trigger article 50 it would be setting itself up as a “de facto legislature” - it should be about “what is legally required, not what is legally expedient”.
Some Tory MPs too have accused May of “tyranny” for ruling out a vote on the Brexit terms. On October 10 in a House of Commons debate a string of Conservatives voiced extreme discontent with the government’s Brexit strategy. What are the government’s plans apart from the meaningless claim that “Brexit means Brexit” and that the UK is seeking a “bespoke” deal with the EU? Stephen Phillips, Tory MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, said: “I and many others did not exercise our vote in the referendum so as to restore the sovereignty of this parliament, only to see what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union replaced by that of a government that apparently wishes to ignore the views of the house on the most important issue facing the nation.”
The obvious solution to these mounting legal and political difficulties would be for May to go for an early election on an anti-migrant, nationalistic, ‘pro-working class’ platform and convert her slim majority into a massive one - enabling her to bargain in Europe from a position of strength, with a bumper new crop of Tory MPs staunchly behind her.
Given the civil war raging in the Labour Party, there is no way it can win a general election - in all likelihood, it would suffer a humiliating defeat. Just imagine the relentless questioning of the 172 Labour MPs who expressed “no confidence” in Corbyn as a leader - let alone prime minister. What has changed since June? It will be a field day for the media, not forgetting the piles of ‘dirt’ they must have on Corbyn going back decades.
Labour will only have a chance of winning if something exceptional happens like a global economic depression or a collapse of the pound. Obviously, you cannot entirely rule out such a scenario, but, in its absence, Labour - and the left in general - needs to prepare itself for an historic defeat, which could bring widespread disillusionment.
At this point, it is important to emphasise that May is promoting hard Brexit for purely electoral reasons - but it does not necessarily mean that a withdrawal from the single market will be the actual outcome of the negotiations. Indeed, we in the CPGB are still highly sceptical about whether we will see Brexit at all, ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ - a scepticism reaffirmed by the recent comments from Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.
Last week at a conference in Brussels he strongly rebutted Boris Johnson’s campaign trail claim that a post-Brexit Britain would “have the EU cake and eat it too”. Tusk said that Brexit “will be a loss for all of us” and “there will be no cakes on the table for anyone” - only “salt and vinegar”. To think anything else, was “pure illusion” and it was “useless to speculate about soft Brexit” - it will never happen.
Therefore, Tusk reasoned, the “only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit” - even if today “hardly anyone believes in such a possibility”. Indeed, he suggested, there was still the possibility that the referendum decision could be reversed - it was up to the UK to “assess the outcome of the negotiations” and “determine if Brexit is really in their interest”. The council president added that other EU leaders would be “sympathetic” if the British government finally decided to climb down from the Brexit brink - “If we have a chance to reverse this negative process, we will find allies.” Tusk added that the “so-called” article 50 procedure in the EU treaties could be halted by May even after it had been triggered - especially as he expected the exit talks to last “considerably longer” than the two years foreseen.
Big business, of course, does not want a hard Brexit - not on your life. You can see why. At a recent meeting of Theresa May’s special Brexit cabinet committee, a paper was circulated predicting the effect on the British economy if the UK were to opt for a Norway-style model that involved remaining inside the single market, but without commissioners, MEPs, etc). The joint study by the treasury, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research think-tank, the Centre for Economic Performance and the London School of Economics concluded that the UK pulling out of the EU customs union could lead to a 4.5% fall in GDP by 2030 and the clogging up of trade through Britain’s ports. The paper also warned that to “stand still” in trade terms after a withdrawal, the UK would need to grow trade with its 10 largest partners outside the EU by 37% by 2030 - how likely is that?
Even more pertinently, the stark realities of the interconnected global capitalist system make the semi-autarkic dreams of the hard Brexiteers a complete nonsense - something alluded to by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times, where he notes that “the markets have taught Theresa May a hard lesson on sovereignty” (October 11). In the real world, writes Wolf, “politicians propose; markets dispose” - last week after May’s statement on Brexit the “foreign currency markets responded by writing down the value of UK assets”. In the end, continues Wolf, “formal sovereignty is not power” - the UK government “announces its intentions”; the “reaction of others determines results”.
For Wolf, the plans envisaged by May would put the country on a “timetable” to exit not just from the EU, but from the “preferential terms of access to EU markets, on which investors, both foreign and domestic, rely”. Furthermore, he argues, UK trade negotiators “simply could not negotiate offsetting agreements with the rest of the world” - partly because “no such possibility plausibly exists”, since the EU takes almost half the UK’s exports, and also because the UK “will not be deemed a credible negotiating partner until its EU deal is finalised”. The upshot being that by March 2019 the UK is “likely to find itself without preferential access to any markets”. But, now that the UK government’s “extreme goals” are clear, as Wolf puts it, investors have “duly marked down the value of the country’s assets in the simplest way, by selling the pound” - That was “inevitable”, as it “reflects investors’ correct belief” that the UK’s “economic prospects have worsened”.
But, like Tusk, Wolf does not think Brexit is inevitable. Stopping the Brexit train from departing on its journey “would take a miracle” - or, rather, to be more exact, “a crisis”. He asks: “Is that likely? No. Is it possible? Yes.”
Meanwhile, hard Brexit or not, economic disaster or not, Theresa May’s eyes are on the prize of a hugely enhanced Tory majority and a humbling defeat for Labour.
1. Slightly bizarrely, it has been reported - or claimed - that the Electoral Commission, when receiving documentation confirming James’ election, discovered that she had signed by adding, in Latin, the words “under duress” after her name, suggesting that she had been bullied into standing by Nigel Farage.