May is not irreplaceable
More is needed than a removal van outside Number 10, argues Paul Demarty
All around us, the deafening cry is raised: Theresa May must go!
Ever since her electoral gamble (which initially seemed barely worthy of the word) backfired so spectacularly, the message from the Labour front bench has been consistent: May went to the country for a mandate, and the country has answered. She is unable to govern with any authority, and clinging on damages the ‘national interest’. She should resign immediately, and if no Tory can build a government without her, Labour is a government in waiting. This narrative enjoys, for the time being, the support of even the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party, since they can hardly be seen to dissent from it with their party riding higher in general public approximation than for years.
Those to the left of Labour are hardly less ebullient. “We need to ramp up the fightback to drive the Tories from office,” declares a Socialist Worker front-pager of the usual type, and, though our predictive powers have suffered a few bruises recently, we have confidently expected that this weekend’s People’s Assembly demonstration will be awash with SW-branded placards demanding that May leaves office and that the Tories are driven out. On this point, the left is united with much of the right, with Tory journos in large numbers horrified at the liability that their erstwhile saviour has become. Among the more Machiavellian of this caste, there is George Osborne, who may not have much in the way of journalistic acumen, but has a Dacre-esque instinct for exploiting his media power to settle his political grudges. Sure enough, the Evening Standard is a volcano of anti-May score-settling.
Among the many reasons for such unanimity, there is the fact that toppling May has the real sense of an objective that might actually be achieved very soon, with enough of a push. All about her hangs the smell of the revenant corpse. One crisis begets the next; every day, it seems, a new frontbencher is forced to demur, coyly, from the suggestion that the coming weeks might find them lurking in the gloom outside Downing Street, dagger in hand. If they were all being honest, then they would be most atypical of the general population of Tories.
She has her ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, which ought just about to keep the wolves from the door for a little while; but the latter’s Presbyterian Poujadism is as much a liability as an asset. In Ulster, the DUP can survive almost in the same way as Hamas, or an American prison gang - picking up popular support only incidentally in relation to its stated programme, but above all as sources of some level of material comfort. Ulster is not Gaza, by any stretch of the imagination, but the perverse incentives of the Good Friday regime have made a lot of work for political movements prepared to start from their constituents’ wallets. The size of the billion-plus pound deal, widely and accurately described as a ‘bung’, is plainly the matter that has been holding things up for the last few weeks - surely even a pope could be bribed for less.
Outside of the dysfunctional six counties statelet, the many unpleasant features of the DUP - the Ulster Defence Association links, the religious fundamentalism - are usually ignorable (out of sight and out of mind). Now, our ‘strong and stable’ prime minister has made a hostage of the smooth functioning of government to these lunatics. Who could resist a shot at this wide-open goal?
Merely keeping tabs on such ‘confident suppliers’ would be trouble enough, but there is the additional source of chaos that May chose as the reason for her disastrous snap election - the Brexit negotiations. No doubt certain Greek leftish ministers will smile in grim recognition, as they watch Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Guy Verhofstadt and co licking their lips at the morsel before them. Their pleasure at telling May to go back and try again over the rights of EU nationals in Britain was almost libidinous. The results of any such process must be legislated. We look forward with not a little morbid anticipation to the thankless task of party whips in getting anything like a ‘great repeal bill’, under circumstances of sustained national humiliation, through two houses of parliament, with the numbers as they are.
This cannot end well. A mere seven rebel votes can deprive May of her effective majority. The Scots Tories alone, whose caginess about Brexit is widely noted, can muster double that - add to their number the remaining members of David Cameron’s braying yuppie clique, and set against them the dozens of Eurosceptic headbangers who did for her predecessor, and there are countless routes to deadlock and parliamentary defeat.
Given all this, the clamour for May’s departure is quite understandable. Indeed, there cannot be a more obviously illegitimate leader of government outside the green zone of Kabul. We must introduce a note of caution here for two reasons: firstly, that the Tories are stronger than May, and indeed any one of their leaders; and, secondly, that the goal of toppling the Tories is insufficiently ambitious.
The Conservative Party - nay, the Conservative and Unionist Party, as its full name reads and as May has begun again to call it as a gesture to her new Scottish colleagues and Northern Irish mercenaries - is a party of power, of the state. Its calculus is based, above all, by its role as the defender of the honour, power and dignity of the crown. A weak Tory leader, indeed, is more or less a contradiction in terms - one does not have to be very much weakened as Tory leader for the party’s immune system to kick in to one’s great disadvantage. The grubby ambitions of actually-existing Tory politicians, as they devour each other on the way to the top job, is part of how it works; no better illustration can be found, in fact, than the fact that last year’s Brexit vote saw May herself rapidly established as the anointed successor, while the Labour Party, whose fault it all certainly was not, was subjected to crisis and coups.
From the left’s perspective, things are perhaps counterintuitive. At present, the Tories, and indeed her majesty’s government, are headed by a politician denuded of moral and political authority, known to be defeated and a lame duck. If she resigns, or is got rid of by means of a vote of confidence or suchlike, then we should expect the next Tory leader to be in a stronger position, to begin rebuilding the trust of a hostile media and sections of the public, to assume more convincingly the mantle of the national interest. By no means would such a leader be invulnerable - May certainly turned out not to be. But operating conditions for the left would be worse. We do not want a Tory government, with any leader, from any faction of that party. If there is to be a Tory government, however, its attacks are more easily repelled, and indeed even positive reforms won, when it is bedevilled with internal divisions, than when it is united.
We are already onto Socialist Worker’s territory, then, when it is more a matter of ‘Tories out’ than ‘May out’. We could ask the question - sure, the Tories could organise a clean coup and get themselves a new leader, so why don’t they? Precisely because it could fail, and under the current circumstances, with Islington’s most famous allotment-keeper sniffing at the door of number 10, stumbling into a losable general election is not high on any sensible Tory’s agenda.
Here we meet the lack of ambition. It is not the case, unfortunately, that only the Tories can find themselves stranded in government. Say, then, we got rid of the Tories tout court, and Labour came to power on the manifesto it put to the electorate on June 8. Widespread mockery has accrued to May’s talk about the ‘magic money tree’, now that she herself has found a cool billion in the shade of its boughs; however, there certainly is a ‘magic money funnel’, through which capital will pour out of Britain in the event of (likely) even modest incursions on the property of the ruling class. Preventing such sabotage requires a willingness to use coercion and expropriation, and indeed to fight for a new international regime, whereby capital is disciplined by democratic power. None of this was in Corbyn’s manifesto; he would no more have a mandate for it than May has for ... whatever it is she thinks she is doing.
There is no point bringing down a weak Tory government only to replace it with a weak Labour government. Our policy must instead focus on transforming Labour into a party with a programme and political resolve fit for power.