May's numbers don't add up
Escape from a no-confidence vote in the Tory Party will not save Theresa May’s Brexit plans, writes Paul Demarty - hence the renewed talk of a national government
It is a dangerous sort of thing for a writer in a weekly paper to say, but it seems as if Theresa May will survive the last week’s rocky encounters.
Two cabinet resignations followed the much heralded crunch meeting on the latest transition deal agreed by May’s long suffering factotum, Olly Robbins, with Michel Barnier’s EU negotiators. It was always likely to go down like the proverbial shit sandwich with some people, whatever the deal’s contents (although it should be said that the Brexit crowd have, on closer inspection, found this to be a particularly fragrant example of the species). So farewell then, Esther McVey and Dominic Raab, the occupants of the two least comfortable seats in the cabinet. McVey hands the universal credit omnishambles on to the long-suffering Amber Rudd, who only just fell on her sword over the Windrush fiasco, but is at least a May loyalist. Stephen Barclay steps in as Brexit secretary - a noble gesture of comradely sacrifice from this old soldier, who will thereby take on the job of being undermined by Robbins until patience deserts him. (Perhaps it will be over by Christmas.)
On the back benches, things got a little more fractious, as could only be expected. We read that the water cannons Boris Johnson purchased as London mayor, but was never permitted to deploy, are to be sold off for scrap at a net loss to the taxpayer of £300,000. They might have come in handy to cool Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ardour. The spirit of Agincourt bade him hand in his letter of no confidence, but it looks like his band of brothers, his happy few, are too few to get anywhere near the 48 required to trigger a vote. We note the silence of Boris Johnson himself, who is happy to benefit from Rees-Mogg and his comrades’ enthusiastic spirit of patriotic sacrifice, while keeping his own powder dry.
Within the parameters of inner-party Tory politics, then, May has survived a test that she has put off again and again. Her trouble, of course, is that it is not enough. This deal - not the deal, remember, about the long-term future of Britain’s relationship with the EU, but the details of the transition period - has not got a hope in hell of getting through parliament. But the problems do not end there. The Democratic Unionist Party is aghast at provisions it views as tendentially separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK - the Scottish National Party positively envies the ‘special treatment’ of the Six Counties. To get over the line, May will need to keep hold of the ‘moderate’ Brexiteers (Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and co - ‘moderates’, indeed!) and win a large degree of support from Labour MPs.
The Labour leadership vows to vote down any deal that fails its ‘six tests’ - a vaguely worded, catch-all phrase for any conceivable deal to emanate from a Tory-occupied No10. The hope is to force a general election, and it would be foolish indeed to rule one out. Frankly, Theresa May could drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow and nobody would blame her; and whatever creature was left alive in the top job after the subsequent bloodletting would face an even greater crisis of legitimacy than she has since last June.
John McDonnell suggests that the monarch should invite Labour to form a minority government in the event of a defeat for May’s Brexit deal. What Labour offers on the EU is, in fact, more than acceptable for the capitalist class: permanent membership of the customs union, a “relationship” to the single market and a promise to stay aligned to EU laws on issues such as employment and the environment. But it is far from clear that the SNP or the Lib Dems would give their support to a Labour government in a vote of confidence. Let alone the DUP.
Despite that, Labour held official talks with Nicola Sturgeon. Such talks should be opposed by the left. The Labour Party should not seek the support of bourgeois parties. Better to be a strong opposition party than a weak party of government that is in thrall to the SNP and Lib Dems.
A minority Labour government could, however, be the gateway to the general election that Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for. Tory MPs are unlikely to vote for a general election at the moment. That would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Note, under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act an early general election can only be called if two-thirds of MPs vote for it. However, if May suffered a defeat for her Brexit deal and then suffered a defeat in a confidence vote ... it is possible, though highly unlikely, that Elizabeth Windsor would call upon Corbyn to form a government. He would have 14 days to give it a go. If he too could not win a vote of confidence in the Commons, then a general election would follow.
A Labour victory might well come, with the promise of putting things right with Europe and running capitalism in a way that is ‘fair to all’. But for key sections of the establishment Corbyn is completely unacceptable. He is anti-war, pro-trade union ... and under the terms of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition an anti-Semite (read ‘opposed to Israel and the Zionist colonial-settler project’). More than that - a Corbyn-led government could very well trigger a crisis of expectations, as people seek to make up for lost income, bad housing and loss of trade union rights, using their own - if necessary, illegal - methods. That terrifies the ruling class more than a no-deal Brexit.
Straws in the wind
We are left, then, with a comprehensively disastrous situation for the British bourgeoisie. The main option on offer is not a flier, plainly; the leader of the opposition offers nothing of substance, and is in any case comprehensively distrusted. Remainer politicians place all their faith in a second referendum, which they hope will allow them, by means of various deceits and threats, a way back to the status quo ante. But their real motives are transparent and their cynicism is detested in wider society, making it unattractive to many of those MPs prepared to rebel against their respective whips, who have only their constituents to fall back on. The cliff-edge Brexit is eminently achievable, but obviously a disaster for British capital.
There is a need, then, for a game-changing step outside the existing political arithmetic, and there are certainly those who would provide it. Straws in the wind: first of all, Gordon Brown, in the Financial Times, lays out much the same sort of doomy disaster landscape that we have developed here. The underlying problem, so far as he is concerned, is the need to “reunite a now bitterly divided country”. The immediate political hopes of remainers and Brexiteers merely defer the issue to a later date, when “parliament could again be in stalemate - in exactly the same way as today”.1
There is a need instead to heal the underlying divisions. Brown has a wizard wheeze to do so, which he calls a “platform”, presumably in deference to the prevailing social media jargon. Regional committees of lay citizens are to be formed to interact in dialogue with various experts. This, it is hoped, will lead to an outbreak of sanity all round. He writes:
Such deliberative hearings need to be credible, authoritative and impartial. That is why I suggest creating a new kind of royal commission. If the government is unable or unwilling to sponsor such a platform, then perhaps a bipartisan advisory group, representing respected national institutions, can lead such a unique consultation.
The government is possibly unable and certainly unwilling, which moves us onto the idea of a “bipartisan advisory group”. And that is the nub of it - that little word, bipartisan. Here we have a proposal that would get elected representatives prepared to rise above “the same old party bickering and incestuous power games”, and a ready-made demos in the form of these committees urging them on to get together and ‘sort things out, for Britain’ … A second straw in the wind - a Daily Telegraph report that “senior Tories” are sounding out other MPs on a ‘Norway solution’, whereby Britain will be fully economically integrated into Europe, but without political rights, and finding that perhaps those numbers do add up.2
These roads lead to a government of national unity. The numbers in parliament - even as it exists! - certainly add up for that. Pro-imperialist, pro-capitalist Labour MPs; self-serving sectional nationalists; Tories with their ‘national interest’ hats on; even DUP members prepared to pay more attention to the funds they disburse to their clients than the angry shade of Ian Paisley telling them no! no! no!
Such an outcome is hardly inevitable - there is little inevitable these days, when it comes to concerted and effective action on the part of the ruling class and its diverse castes of paid agents to secure its interests. It is, however, the only reasonable way out, starting from where we are.
The left is woefully underprepared for such an outcome. Those who have hurled themselves with gay abandon into remainer activism have in practice gotten far too close to the establishment figures they platonically oppose in their ‘socialist’ moments. Standard issue Corbynistas shackle themselves to the leadership line, which is, after all, that we must get the right deal for Britain and May’s deal is not that deal at all; only a Labour government can deliver that. The problem arises exactly when there is a concrete available alternative. The extra-Labour left looks hardly capable of raising the alarm; we note that all the Socialist Workers Party’s national secretary Charlie ‘Mr Kimble’ Kimber could think to say about May’s travails last week was that it made it all the more important to turn out on Saturday’s demonstration against racism.3
There is an assumption that the cobbling-together of a national government in this way will lead to protests of a size and scale unseen for decades. Perhaps that assumption is true; but the sad reality of such governments - in the absence of a critique of ‘bipartisan’ initiatives and national unity as such, understood and accepted by broad masses - is that they tend initially to be very popular. Gordon Brown is not wrong to say that people despise bickering , or to draw the link with the present global drift towards Bonapartism. However, he is wrong - culpably wrong - to imagine that his little scheme is an alternative to Bonapartism, rather than merely a Bonapartism of the centre after the fashion of Emmanuel Macron; and so would be a government of national unity.
As in Macron’s case, such popularity is typically short-lived: when the reality of the business of government dawns, compromises are made, leaks and malicious briefings resume, and so on. It will only be replaced by something better, however, if its motivating myths are confronted directly. The Labour leadership and its loyal servants directly repeat the myth; the likes of the SWP imagine that monomaniacal focus on street demonstrations absolve them from even admitting it exists. Both are setting themselves up for a rude awakening - if, that is, the capitalist class can ever get its act together.