May's deal is dead as a dodo
Paul Demarty asks what comes next after the crushing rejection of May’s Brexit deal by the Commons
So it has come to pass, Theresa May’s hopeless Brexit deal has finally met its Waterloo.
Her reckoning in parliament on January 15 - delayed far beyond the point that bourgeois propriety can possibly deem responsible - went the only way it could have done (only, if anything, more so). Defeat by a margin of 230 is quite unprecedented for a serving government. At that point, and on a matter about whose importance - if nothing else - all are agreed, you have really got to wonder whether what you have is a government at all, rather than 202-odd people in a giant government-shaped suit.
It was no surprise, then, that a no-confidence motion was tabled immediately afterwards: though that was a very different matter than a vote on a Brexit deal, even the most loyal of May loyalists must have been shaken by their brush with history the night before. Nevertheless, as expected, they all fell in behind the prime minister on January 16 - after all, however much they despise May’s deal, that is nothing compared to the possibility, however slight, of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Watching Theresa May’s progress as prime minister is bizarre. The oddity of it consists in her behaving as if she has some clever move saved up for later, except that she does not - like a poker player going all in on a pair of twos. Except that everybody knows she has no way out, so it is as if our poker player, before betting, had inadvertently dropped their cards face up on the table, picked them up, and wagered the family silver anyway.
Thus this ‘meaningful vote’, cancelled at the end of last year, took place as expected this time, with an historic humiliation for the government. For someone who still somehow insists on portraying herself as a “safe pair of hands”, this is really quite an extraordinary waste of parliament’s - indeed, the country’s - time. The idea is apparently that this will put pressure on the Europeans to make a deal. Quite apart from the obvious deficiencies of this notion - being that a deal acceptable to the Irish government and the Democratic Unionist Party (who both have to be satisfied) remains a logical impossibility - surely this was just as true in December as it is now. Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and co wasted no time in dousing any hopes that the 27 other European Union countries would agree (or even bother trying to agree) some new arrangement with May (given her red lines). One thing is for certain, though, her deal is as dead as a dodo.
Easy as it is to mock May’s near-psychotic stubbornness, it takes two to tango - or, in the Commons, 650. While May’s grim countenance, her coughing fits and disagreements with car doors make her the embodiment of Britain’s political stalemate, the latter is really the emergent result of the whole political layout. The Tories govern as a minority supported by a restive DUP, but are internally divided between the ‘remainer’ City neoliberals and the blood-and-fire Thatcherite-Brexiteer head-bangers, with the usual rump of careerist creeps between the two. All bide their time, with the expectation of offloading May, when it gives them their greatest advantage. Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab have both been flying the flag for their own leadership ambitions - which, of course, they do not have (honest, guv - let’s allow the prime minister to get on with the job …).
Across the floor, the picture looked pretty similar until the evening of the Brexit vote. Jeremy Corbyn muttered about calling a vote of confidence in the government, but did not want to until victory was likely. Many of his Labour colleagues - and people on the Scots and Welsh nationalist benches - wanted him to go ahead anyway, because if the motion failed, he would be more easily bounced into supporting a second referendum. It seems that a defeat by 230 was promising enough for him to show his own hand.
May is widely expected to announce, in the next few days, that the article 50 period will be extended at least to July. Leaks from the continent suggested that our friends across the Channel already expected that outcome and the hysteria around the Brexit vote prompted Jean-Claude Juncker and co to clear their diaries for the inevitable emergency visit of Theresa May. (We would not be surprised to discover that, with the ingrained prudence of the vicar’s daughter, she had booked her flights well in advance of the vote.) The law of diminishing returns is surely in full effect with such ‘emergency’ talks, however - cabinet office minister David Lidington’s acid line about his colleagues expecting a better deal to spring out of a cupboard in Brussels is more than adequate.
We have said before that a way out of the deadlock is surely impossible as long as Theresa May clings onto the keys to number 10. At least part of her reluctance to delay article 50 must be put down to the fact that it makes her quite a bit more replaceable. She is immune from another confidence vote of her own MPs; but her cabinet could effectively force her hand if they wanted to. A ‘unity’ leader could then emerge, and - with a bit of breathing room - get his or her feet under the table; a general election may then not necessarily go the wrong way for the Tories.
The problem is, of course, who? Raab is flying the flag for himself, but his resignation as Brexit secretary will surely have gone down as treachery in the minds of Tory ‘moderates’; a fortiori the merry prankster, Boris Johnson. But perhaps the same is true of May loyalists like Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and so on with their Brexiteer opponents.
Thus the louder mood music seems still to be that of a government of national unity. Nobody will say so, of course; but the groundwork is being laid. Labour and Tory remainers alike are becoming more assertive; talk is always of a second referendum, but if somehow legislation for one made it through parliament, the current government could hardly implement it, so one must be found - without a fresh election.
There is also Gordon Brown’s wizard wheeze - supported by sundry bishops and other well-meaning niceniks of the national elite - to convene a citizens’ assembly to decide between various options, on the basis that a properly selected jury will produce decisions with some sort of legitimacy. The trouble is - at least in the case of the supportive politicians - that the motives are too transparent. The Brexit referendum was a grubby affair, of course, but a second referendum would be flagrantly illegitimate; we know that, and Brexiteers in the shires and the northern rustbelt know it too. We also all know that is why the assembly idea is such a source of hope to them; thus the illegitimacy spreads from one to the other, as the Spartacist League used to say, in a syphilitic chain. The importance of the second referendum and the citizen’s assembly alike is not so much for their own inherent charms as means of political decision-making, but as an occasion for a cross-party love-in in the Commons.
What the consequences will be of any of these little wheezes is hard to say. Sure, an overthrow of the referendum result is quite possible, albeit not at all likely to be done openly. The cowardice of the remainers is easily observed by their usage of ruses like a second referendum - oh, pardon me, a ‘people’s vote’, the previous vote having apparently been conducted among chinchillas, or sentient Roombas, or whatever.
And that is surely the problem: their cowardice and dishonesty is obvious to the people on the other side. Chris Grayling was roundly condemned by establishment types for saying that the result of an overthrow of the Brexit vote would be a rise in support for the far right. Saying anything positive about such a degenerate, small-minded serial incompetent as Grayling is a hanging offence chez Demarty, but here he is surely stating the obvious. The fact that people are even plotting it has already given a boost to the far right, as Anna Soubry could no doubt tell you in the brief moments she has between crocodile tears about all the ‘abuse’ she suffers.
For readers on the left, as I suppose most of you are, that may seem to be merely a counsel of despair. Yet it is worth a wide-angle view of the matter. We are in this mess primarily because the left was utterly marginal in the years leading up to and following the financial crash of 2008, which had, as one of its many consequences, the result that David Cameron had the opportunity to indulge his idiotic self-image as a master political strategist. Struggling to get an angle on the issue, the left had two competing guiding ideas. The first was historic opposition to the EU, inherited ultimately from cold war-vintage Communist Party politics. (This was quite as true of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales, which accommodated to the trade union and Labour lefts, who were in turn primarily taking a lead from the ‘official’ CPGB.) The other was fanatical hostility to the far right.
We hope it is not necessary to motivate opposition to Stalinism, although in this new age of Red London (a gang of toffee-nosed, flatcap-wearing Trot-trollers) and adolescent-hipster Mao-worship, perhaps we should. Priority-one opposition to the far right, however, seems the right sort of attitude to have. It goes with the grain of our politics - radically egalitarian, radically democratic, opposed indissolubly to bigotry and oppression. That is what makes it so dangerous - we observe people who seem to be our very opposite, and make a fallacious leap to viewing them as the main threat to our success.
In truth, anti-far-right politics has triumphed in most cases over anti-EU politics. There just isn’t the same level of passion involved when it comes to EU state-aid laws as there is when people are muttering that our neighbours, or those who might have been our neighbours, are being told to ‘go back where you come from’ and so on. The SWP only occasionally even refers to its pro-Brexit line, for example (and it is now even considering an “active abstention” in the event of a second referendum). Even the Morning Star occasionally grumbles about how it does not want a Tory Brexit, which rather begs the question of how it failed to notice who the government was when the 2016 vote rolled around.
This paper has argued for years - decades, in fact - that an overriding commitment to ‘anti-fascism’ or related matters must necessarily involve blunting the left’s critique of the bourgeois establishment. Surely this has never been clearer, with left remainers - in the name of fighting the evil far right - cashing cheques from billionaires like George Soros and acting as Tony Blair’s frontmen. The tragedy is no more than that Chris Grayling is right - this stuff is catnip to the far right, and for once, it really is not his fault.
The way out is only to call Blair’s bluff - and Rees-Mogg’s. Not only was the 2016 referendum a fraud on ‘leave’ voters; it was also a fraud on remainers, cutting their working class majority off from their brothers and sisters over - what? - a dick move in internal Tory politics. The left has no interest, even now, in choosing between two modes of managed decline for British imperial afterlife, for no other reason than that the working class has no historic interest in it either. The point is to remove the possibility of such games altogether, which requires courage in the face of far-right advance, rather than panic, and better resilience to the ultimatums of our enemies.