WeeklyWorker

01.12.2016
John Major and Tony Blair: out to thwart Brexit

Remainers begin to fight back

The intervention of John Major and Tony Blair shows that Brexit does not have to mean Brexit, writes Eddie Ford

Quite predictably, we are now seeing the first signs of a real fightback from prominent remainers and those opposed to a hard Brexit - they were never going to passively accept the June 23 result. In the past week two former prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Major, have made a blessed return to lead the resistance - with others doubtlessly to follow.

Playing his cards carefully in an interview for the New Statesman on November 24, Blair said at one point that there is “just too much hostility” against him to stage a comeback to frontline politics. But then we discover that he is planning to launch a new organisation at the beginning of next year for the “millions of effectively politically homeless people” caught between a Corbyn-led Labour Party and the Brexiteering Conservatives - something that will “be more than a think-tank but less than a political party”; a technology driven “platform” that will allow people to debate ideas and formulate solutions “without the abuse or vilification that has become so prevalent in modern politics”.1

Anyhow, in the interview Blair openly mused about the possibility of Brexit being reversed “if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain, cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up”.2 This could happen in one of two ways, he argues, depending on how the Brexit negotiations pan out. Either you get “maximum access” to the single market, in which case, by definition, you will end up accepting a “significant number” of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European court’s jurisdiction, and so on - therefore people might say, “Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?”. Or alternatively, Blair continued, there is a hard Brexit out of the single market and the “economic pain may be very great because, beyond doubt, if you do that you’ll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring” - leading to discontent, or mass ‘regrexit’.

But we should keep our “options open”, argues Blair, even if this is “condemned as treason” by the Brexiteers. Ultimately, it is going to be about parliament and the country “scrutinising the deal” - just as we should know about what happened with Nissan, “because that will tell us a lot about what they’re prepared to concede in order to keep access to the single market”.

On the same day, John Major opened up a second front in a speech given at a private dinner - someone, of course, who had his own troubles with “the bastards” (ie, Eurosceptics). Whilst accepting that the UK would not remain a full member of the European Union, he hoped any Brexit deal would mean the country remained as close as possible to “the richest market mankind has ever seen”. Major went on to remark that he found it “very difficult” to accept that the 48% who voted stay “should have no say in what happens”, as this would amount to the “tyranny of the majority” - something that should never apply in a parliamentary democracy. The ex-prime minister finished by saying it must be parliament, not the government, that makes the final decision on any new deal with the EU - meaning there was a “perfectly credible case” for holding a second referendum on whatever is the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Article 127?

As our readers will know, Theresa May is due to appeal against the recent high court decision that parliament must have a say - or vote - when it comes to triggering the famous article 50. The appeal will be heard on December 5 and will last four days, with a decision expected at the start of January, and by most accounts the government is heading towards an 11-0 defeat in the supreme court.3 If the government loses it will immediately introduce a short three-line bill and ram it through the House of Commons in three days in an attempt to keep to its declared Brexit timetable.

However, May now faces another legal challenge. The think-tank, British Influence, formerly the Centre for British Influence Through Europe,4 has written to the Brexit secretary, David Davis, arguing - in a mirror image of the battle to trigger article 50 - that Britain will not automatically leave the European Economic Area (single market) if and when it leaves the EU: therefore that should be for parliament to decide as well. They point to the example of Croatia as a country joining the EU and EEA separately. Furthermore, the European Free Trade Association (Efta) consists of countries which are party to the EEA agreement and participate in the EU’s internal market without actually being members of the EU - current members being Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The UK was a founding member of Efta, but left to join the European Community in 1973 (Norway has already warned it could block any attempt by Britain to rejoin Efta).

Fairly obviously, the government will contend that EEA membership ends when Britain leaves the EU, which is expected to happen in 2019. But, if the courts back the latest legal challenge, then MPs could potentially vote to keep Britain within the single market, though outside the EU - arguing for continued EEA membership until a long-term trading relationship with the EU has been agreed, which almost inevitably will take far longer than the 2019 exit date. Differing strongly, Jean-Claude Piris - former head of the European Council’s legal service, who served as official counsel on treaties including Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon - thinks any UK withdrawal from the EU will mean an automatic cessation of its EEA membership: “In order to become an EEA member you have either to be an EU member or an Efta member”.

May’s problems do not end there, it need hardly be said. The supreme court has ruled that the Scottish and Welsh governments can intervene in the appeal, allowing them to make separate cases for the right to have a say over the triggering of article 50. This decision raises the possibility, albeit a slim one - though these days you can never tell - of the supreme court agreeing with the Scottish National Party that the Scottish parliament should have some sort of veto, on the grounds that Brexit is likely to have a “decisive impact” on the devolution settlement and the law in Scotland, potentially plunging the UK into a constitutional crisis. Additionally, the supreme court could also make a ruling on whether article 50 - therefore, Brexit itself - could later be stopped if parliament so decides. For these very reasons, some senior Tories have urged May to abandon the appeal and get parliament’s approval as soon as possible to avoid risking greater setbacks or even a political debacle. On the other hand, though, it could provide May with yet another excuse to call an early general election.

Causing further irritations for the prime minister, Lady Brenda Hale - one of the 11 judges sitting on the government’s supreme court appeal - has suggested that a “simple act of parliament” might not be sufficient to start the Brexit process (May has promised a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to end the supremacy of that 1972 act that took Britain into the EU in the first place). Simply put, according to Lady Hale, it could be legally impossible to kick-start Brexit next year, because repealing the 1972 act will be such a diabolically complex process that it will not be complete until 2019 or later. Iain Duncan Smith was none too pleased with Hale’s contribution to the debate, telling Sky News that the supreme court deputy president had “always been opposed to Britain leaving EU” and should mind her own business - or does she want to provoke a constitutional crisis?

Theresa May might have said back in July that “Brexit means Brexit”, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what that means or whether it makes any sense at all. Something she must be only too aware of - maybe accounting for her “sleepless nights”, wrestling with the “really complex issues” of Brexit.5

Black hole

Philip Hammond’s final autumn statement last week was also yet more bad news for the Brexiters, outlining the “economic pain” that Blair mentioned in his interview as a possible basis for Brexit reversal. We all remember the crap from the likes of Nigel Farage and Michael Gove about the £350 million ‘windfall’ for the national health service that would come from leaving the EU - all part of the sunny uplands that we would enjoy in a post-Brexit Britain. Well, none of that from Hammond - quite the opposite. In fact, quite remarkably for a Tory chancellor, Hammond essentially told the truth: the economy will grow at a far lower rate than previously projected, we are not going to balance the books in fixed time frame, the idea of a surplus by 2020 is a joke, etc. Talk about generating a ‘feel bad’ factor.

Rather, said Hammond, the UK needs to steel itself for a £122 billion budget black hole and generally post-Brexit gloom stretching into the late 2020s - the budget deficit could hit nearly £2 trillion in the early years of the next parliament, with many economists believing these figures are based on optimistic forecasts. The chancellor told parliament that there was no escaping the fact that quitting the EU was a “decision that also makes more urgent than ever the need to tackle our economy’s long-term weaknesses”, quoting statistics from the nominally independent Office for Budget Responsibility that the potential growth over the forecast period is 2.4% lower than would otherwise have been the case. Almost half of the extra £122 billion that will have to be borrowed over the next five years - some £58.7 billion - is directly related to Brexit, in the opinion of the OBR. About £16 billion was the cost of lost income due to falling migration, the Brexiteers will no doubt be delighted to hear.

Or, to put it another way, living standards are going to flatline - the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimating that real wages are expected to remain below pre-recession levels until at least 2021, as the workforce suffers the longest period of wage stagnation in 70 years or more. You can say that now in a way you could not in the 1960s and 70s, when the trade unions would have rebelled against a wage freeze, as they did first against the Conservatives’ Industrial Relations Act and then Labour’s ‘social contract’.

It is virtually impossible to imagine this happening again in the same way. For example, look at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, the biggest in Europe. But only about 6,000 are employed directly, the rest being subcontractors and agency workers - a pattern repeated throughout the entire British economy, and beyond. It would take a massive political movement to cause an explosion like we saw in the 1970s. We are now in a very different set of circumstances, alas, having a workforce that is larger than in the 1970s but a trade union movement that is half the size. Market forces are exerting a pressure on us as individuals in a manner that we have not seen for a very long time, and the unions’ ability to collectively bargain has been severely curtailed.

Meanwhile, Momentum has announced that it will be campaigning under its The World Transformed alter-ego from March 2017 onwards, using the slogan so beloved of the Brexit right: ‘Take back control’ - no doubt following John McDonnell’s advice about how the left should “embrace the enormous opportunities” of EU withdrawal. Or, as The Express not inaccurately put it, “Corbyn’s remoaner lefties group vows to ‘take back control’ of Brexit” (November 26). Excruciatingly, Lotte Boumelha, described as a Take Back Control organiser, gushed about how there will be a series of “exciting events” over “reclaiming the narrative” and “opening up the negotiations” - after all, “this is our Brexit” and “we should get to decide what it means and what it will look like”. Very empowering.

Sorry, but when did we ever have control? This is a ridiculous, backward-looking slogan and statement - a nationalist lie, frankly. Whatever Jon Lansman and his cronies might think, it is not clever to steal the slogans of the reactionary right - especially when you have no strategy or programme of your own. ‘Takecontrol’ - now, that would be a different matter. Incredibly, we have a Labour Party that campaigned for ‘remain’ - quite incorrectly - but is now saying we should “accept” the result of referendum. Why? What if there was a referendum on hanging and a narrow majority voted in favour - would we have to accept that too? Maybe even “embrace the enormous opportunities” presented by the reintroduction of the death penalty?

For Marxists, our first and foremost duty is to stay true to the programme. The latest Momentum turn is an act of opportunism that can lead nowhere.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/27/tony-blair-john-major-dont-deserve-venom-brexit-debate.

2. www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/tony-blair-s-unfinished-business.

3. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-legal-challenge-theresa-may-supreme-court-article-50-vote-defeat-unanimous-warning-a7445851.html.

4. http://influencegroup.org.uk.

5. www.thesun.co.uk/news/2272817/theresa-may-admits-to-being-kept-awake-at-night-by-complex-issues-of-leaving-eu.