Brexit reality wall
Eddie Ford does not find it impossible to imagine a national government emerging from an EU-induced crisis
Her authority shot to bits, Theresa May is obviously living on borrowed time - dependent on the extremely unreliable Democratic Unionist Party and the continued sufferance of her traumatised party. There are swirling rumours of an autumn coup, the weekend seeing a frenzy of anonymous briefings and counter-briefings by various allies of cabinet ministers. All squaring up for a bloody leadership contest.
Hence the claim from one source that at a recent cabinet meeting the chancellor, Philip Hammond, said public-sector workers were “overpaid” and, oddly, that driving modern trains was so easy that “even a woman can do it” - with a later report in TheDaily Telegraph quoting an anonymous minister who complained that Hammond was trying to “fuck up” Brexit and viewed ‘leave’-supporting colleagues as “pirates who have taken him prisoner”.1
Unnamed supporters of Hammond immediately hit back, saying in TheSun that Michael Gove was behind the leaks - which sounds eminently plausible, as he is a notorious serial leaker. Remember the “queen backs Brexit” front-page headline last year in the same newspaper, which quoted a “senior source” as saying that people who heard their conversation “were left in no doubt at all about the queen’s views on European integration”.2 Another source from within the Tory Party has pointed the finger of blame squarely at Gove, together with foreign secretary Boris Johnson, as the two men are “so obsessed with a hard Brexit that they’re prepared to run the economy off a cliff”. Hammond himself has openly said that some of his colleagues are out to get him, because they are “not happy with the agenda that I have” on Brexit, which essentially is to strike a lengthy ‘transitional’ or ‘interim’ exit deal - that could turn out to be permanent.
Getting desperate, the prime minister ‘ordered’ her ministers to stop leaking details of their infighting over Brexit. It is widely reported that at a drinks reception she pleaded with MPs to “have a proper break and come back ready for serious business: no backbiting, no carping”. Sounding particularly cross, home secretary Amber Rudd told her colleagues to “get on with the job in hand” - the problem being that many of them think the “job in hand” is finding a way to ditch May as soon as possible without triggering a general election that could lead to the election of a Corbyn government: the nightmare scenario.
But the plotting continues. By all accounts there is a letter of no confidence circulating amongst the parliamentary party, though so far few have signed it. According to the rule book, it requires 48 Conservative MPs (15%) to trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Perhaps also telling you something, a poll conducted by the influential ConservativeHome website found that 65% thought the prime minister should go.3
One senior Tory MP has told press contacts that his colleagues divide into three main categories regarding May: “she made her bed and should lie in it”; “she is our prisoner and is serving at the leisure of the party”; and she must be “gone by Christmas”. Of course, MPs now have to be convinced that there is a better candidate available - none of the current contenders are especially appetising, it has to be said. Summing up the dilemma, one pro-Brexit MP has refused to sign the letter of no confidence because of extreme doubts about who would actually take over - the party could end up with an anti-Brexit leader almost by accident (another nightmare scenario). “If there was someone credible to take over I’d probably back them,” he remarked, “but I’m not convinced that where we are now is tenable” - frankly, “there is not a winning situation at the moment”.
Interestingly, this very same MP said that at the moment his preferred choice was the Brexit minister, David Davis. But the latter is less than popular with some, including Dominic Cummings, former head of the Vote Leave campaign and responsible for the brilliant PR masterstroke of claiming that Brexit could fund the NHS to the tune of £350 million a week. Less than flatteringly, Cummings said that the Brexit secretary - who was part of the rival Grassroots Out organisation - was “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”.4
True, Davis has acknowledged that Brexit makes “the Nasa moon shot look quite simple”.5 In which case, Rafael Behr responded cruelly in The Guardian, Britain has put a “schoolboy in charge of the moon landings” - maybe “not all the early signs point to the Brexit secretary being a reckless bluffer who is wildly out of his depth, but most of them do”.6 In reality, Behr writes, Davis is “an amateur trying his (and his country’s) luck against professionals”, and is now on a “collision course with a wall of reality in Brussels”.
Fantasy politics about having your cake and eating it now over, the British government and its negotiators are up against this stubborn “wall of reality”. In a statement to parliament on July 13, the British government finally admitted that the UK has financial “obligations” towards the European Union - Brussels will not have to “go whistle” for the money, as stupidly suggested by Boris Johnson, another arch-bluffer.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s smooth chief negotiator, has diplomatically declined to put a number on the UK’s ‘divorce bill’, but estimates have ranged from €20 billion to €100 billion gross - a “Brussels paper” speculating that the sum will be €70 billion. However, the final Brexit bill is unlikely to emerge until the last hours of negotiations, with veteran Brussels watchers thinking a deal is most likely to emerge at a late-night summit of EU leaders in the autumn of 2018.
Needless to say, whatever the eventual figure, it will be far too much for many on the Tory back benches - plus quite a few in the cabinet. That could bring down the May government, let alone a vote on this or that clause of the so-called Great Reform Bill - which in the feverish context of contemporary Brexit politics would effectively be a vote of confidence. Or maybe the DUP will have enough of internal Tory squabbling and start a campaign against post-Brexit custom posts in Ireland.
Gus O’Donnell, who served as cabinet secretary under three prime ministers of different political colours, has warned that the UK faces a “rough ride” unless ministers unite and back a long transition deal to soften the impact of Brexit - “there is no chance all the details will be hammered out in 20 months”. Similarly, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, former ambassador to the EU, told TheObserver that there was now a “one in three” chance of Brexit talks collapsing unless the UK drastically “reset” its plans - though this writer would put the odds a lot higher. Like O’Donnell, Sheinwald thinks there needs to be a “very substantial transition period”.
Now, Theresa May’s recent invitation to the Labour Party “to come forward with your own views” and help create or share policy ideas for the UK’s post-Brexit future may have been near universally derided - with Jeremy Corbyn offering to send her a copy of Labour’s election manifesto. But with a Brexit crisis about to hit the country sooner rather than later - that could be more of a rough crash than a rough ride - communists should try to locate something else behind it, not just engage in Pavlovian mockery. That does not necessarily mean that that there was a cunning plan hatching in May’s mind when she made the call - far from it, but it is certainly worth noting that in ruling class circles the idea of a national government (or something along those lines) is a serious one; not just something dreamt up on the spot by a floundering prime minister running out of options.
For instance, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has vigorously backed a cross-party Brexit commission, which “could draw much of the poison from the debate”. The future of this country, implored Welby, should not be a “zero-sum, winner-takes-all calculation”, but instead “must rest on the reconciled common good, arrived at through good debate and disagreement”.7 You can hear very similar noises from the likes of Lord Peter Mandelson.
Now Tony Blair has intervened in British politics again, in his own way and for his own reasons, making the point that the rules of the game have been overturned - he now accepts that Jeremy Corbyn “could become prime minister” on an “unreconstructed far-left programme”: something that only a year ago he thought was “impossible” (though in his opinion Brexit followed by a Corbyn government would leave Britain “flat on our back” and “out for a long count”).8 Brexit has changed everything, generating sharp contradictions and paradoxes. From Blair’s point of view, traditionally, it was always about producing a ‘moderate’ manifesto and then single-mindedly targeting Mondeo Man9 or Worcester Woman’10 or whatever infernal focus group-construction it was at the time: ie, you triangulate into the centre and basically separate yourselves from the Tories by the proverbial thickness of a cigarette paper. Therefore you had to present or disguise your programme as rightwing, meaning that you did not highlight or boast about how actually the Blair and Brown governments spent large amounts of money on the NHS and education, as that would not be politically expedient: distinctly off-message. A logical correlation of this approach was that you had to be in power, not opposition - also a tenet of common sense on the Labour left, of course.
Obviously, we do not think for a minute that Labour’s For the many, not the few manifesto was an “unreconstructed far-left programme” - the idea is a joke. If only. Then again, it is certainly not Blairite - just ask the man himself. It represents a Keynesian wish-list that was nevertheless previously deemed electoral suicide by the Blairite right and other concerned members of the establishment - but who now recognise aghast that it is conceivable that Corbyn could soon be leading some sort of government.
The latest opinion polls have Labour consistently ahead of the Tories. On July 18 Survation had Labour on 45%, six points ahead of the Tories and a swing of eight points since the general election. YouGov on July 17 put Labour on 45% and the Conservatives 40%, whilst a survey it conducted a few weeks earlier had 35% saying they would prefer to have Corbyn in Number 10, as against May’s 34%. This shows a humiliating fall from grace for the Tory leader, who up until the last week of the general election campaign enjoyed a massive personal ratings lead over the Labour leader.
More modestly, an ICM poll taken on July 18 has Labour only one point ahead on 43% to 42%. Yet the overall trend is clear: we had a Corbyn surge during the election and then a Corbyn bounce after the election - the ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ chant could be heard everywhere from Glastonbury to the Durham Miners’ Gala. On the other hand, whatever Theresa May does is wrong - and gets more wrong by the day. She is a zombie prime minister.
OK, imagine this scenario - another general election is called and Labour ends up with the most seats, but fails to win a majority. By convention, not law, the queen is meant to call the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, and ask them if they can form a government. But, under conditions of an EU crisis, talks collapsing into the dust, it should not be taken as automatic that the queen would summon Jeremy Corbyn to Buckingham Palace. Rather, she might take advice from the privy council or other establishment bodies and - given the emergency situation - call upon the far more respectable Sir Kier Starmer or Tom Watson instead to form a nationalgovernment with the Tories and any other party prepared to play ball. Needless to say, opinion polls always show that national governments - or at least the idea of one - are highly appealing: they mean everyone pulling together, community spirit, stop the squabbling, etc.
We raise this possibility not only in the context of May’s offer of cross-party discussions on a post-Brexit Britain, but also to underline the point that - while we utterly reject the patriotic platitudes about Dunkirk, the Blitz, Battle of Britain, etc - it is nevertheless true that in terms of peacetime politics a Brexit-induced crisis would be of the same sort of epochal importance. Thus we really should not be too surprised if the ruling class, under these highly abnormal circumstances, would actually think it advisable to go for a government of national unity and pull the strings to make it happen. Labour might win the general election and Corbyn could still be leader of Labour Party, but not necessarily the leader of the government. Stranger things have happened.
Having said that, it is also quite possible that Jeremy Corbyn will end up forming a government of some description. The most likely outcome then would not be a Chile-style coup, but when he tries to implement For the many he will be forced by the very nature of the international capitalist system - like Syriza in Greece - to attack the working class despite himself. Imagine the ‘iron chancellor’ of the day saying that Britain cannot afford a pay rise due to the worsening situation and that people going on strike are being irresponsible, playing straight into the hands of the Tories. For the British left to constitute itself as a Corbyn fan club - exactly how Jon Lansman sees Momentum - would be to betray the working class. We need to be on our guard against that possibility.