National government real danger
With Theresa May paralysed, neoliberal MPs are preparing to ‘take back control’. Paul Demarty looks at Britain’s unfolding constitutional crisis
Insanity, it is said, consists in doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.
There are, no doubt, many uncharitable souls who, observing the absurd course of bourgeois politics in this country, will convict Theresa May of madness on just that basis. Having cobbled together an offer to the European Union negotiators, her fragile cabinet disintegrated when she put it to them at her Chequers retreat in July 2018. By that time, with the rapid-fire resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson, the thing was already a dead duck. But she soldiered on, deciding to put it to parliament before the Christmas recess, and was so convinced of inevitable humiliation that she cancelled the vote at the last minute, humiliating half her ministers, who were sent off around the media circus to argue that the vote was going ahead when they knew full well - as, even, did the Europeans - that it was already cancelled. Surely that was enough, but no - the same deal finally faced the music last week, and suffered an historically unprecedented defeat.
So what now? Well, we already knew, didn’t we, dear reader? A much trailed statement to parliament on January 21 turned out the only way it could possibly have done - with no movement or tactical adjustment whatsoever on the part of the doughty, robotically reliable PM. She laid out six ‘lessons’ she had allegedly learned as a result of the vote the previous week, but no less than five of them were merely restatements of her existing policy. The remaining one - the waiver of a £65 fee for EU nationals applying for permanent residency in Britain after the Big Day - was a gesture so miniscule that it cost her nothing whatsoever: even Jacob Rees-Mogg, knight-errant of true-believer Brexitism, argued in favour of it a few hours before on an LBC phone-in. Because it cost her nothing, it will get her nothing either, although it may annoy ‘Spreadsheet’ Phil Hammond - we assume doing so remains a hobby of hers. Another parliamentary showdown looms on January 29, and there are no signs that May is prepared to relent from any of the rules she has imposed on herself.
Having raised the possibility of mental imbalance, however, we must insist that there is - as is often the case - more than crazy stubbornness at work. The primary mitigating circumstance is that the government is always far more disadvantaged by an ongoing shit-show than opposition parties. The latter have the luxury of not having their plans put immediately to the test; but that luxury has long been converted, by all parties in their wilderness periods, into a very good reason to hold back on having any remotely concrete plans at all. It is sufficient merely to project the image of greater competence; and, by the nature of events, hardly a challenge usually to do so. It is the government of whom action is demanded, with the ever cruel turn of the political screw; their failures must turn out more frequent and obvious than those in the hostile Greek chorus on the other side of the Commons.
Theresa May does have plans; or, rather, a plan. For all its obvious deficiency, it must be said that the demands on any such plan are very severe; something that satisfies the core EU powers’ view that no advantage must fall to Britain on account of Brexit. Then there is the Irish government (backed by the EU) and its need for unrestricted access to its oldest foreign market, the Democratic Unionist Party’s fanatical loyalism, City-loyal Tories’ concerns about a hard Brexit, Rees-Mogg types’ concerns about soft Brexit … If May has failed, it is surely no more than inevitable. She failed the moment she effectively lost the 2017 election, leaving her hostage to a great many people who were happy to take hostages.
That 2017 election strategy, it will be remembered, began with pushing through article 50 in advance. Having done that, two approaches were dilly-dallied between - the first, associated with her then closest advisors Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, was to tack in a right-populist direction and sound some Trumpian notes about the plight of working people. As the campaign got underway, the world’s least successful electoral genius, Lynton Crosby, took command, and the message became ‘May, the safe pair of hands, versus the chaos of a Corbyn government’. So tin-eared was this that a polling advantage of some 20 points was squandered and a slim Tory majority was lost. The article 50 clock, however, kept ticking.
May now looks a laughable ‘safe pair of hands’; but the question remains: whose are safer? The chatter in the press, ahead of next week’s votes, is about two amendments: one advanced by the former attorney-general and occasional would-be leader of the feeble Tory ‘remainer’ resistance, Dominic Grieve; and the other by rightwing Labour creep Yvette Cooper.
They look like this. Grieve wants to move a point of order that would suspend the standing orders of the Commons, under which the government decides what business is to be put to the house. Instead, parliament would be able to schedule its own votes. The idea is that a series of indicative votes would be held on different Brexit outcomes; if any commands a majority in the house, the government would be able to take that to the Europeans as a basis for renegotiation - and, indeed, would be under severe pressure to do so, with refusal inevitably seen as defiance of parliament.
Cooper’s scheme is simpler. It starts the same way - overturn the government’s control of Commons business. Then a bill is debated that would rule out categorically a no-deal exit from the EU, effectively obliging the government (in the absence of some skulduggery of its own) to extend the article 50 period until it has a deal acceptable to both the Commons and the EU 27.
The trouble with both schemes is that they do not coerce the government as much as they would hope. Grieve’s scheme has all the deficiencies of the old ‘indicative votes’ idea: quite apart from the chance of every vote losing (as happened to Tony Blair over Lords reform), the government may just brass on and ignore it - and who would put it past the robotically consistent May to do so? Cooper’s bill to prevent a no-deal is harder to bat aside, but since it would potentially oblige the treasury to spend money on membership (that £350 million, again!), the government could decide that it was a finance bill and instruct the monarch to veto it. The Times reckons this would cause a constitutional crisis, which is rather quaint in its implication that we are not having one of those already. Certainly the scheme is no sure way out of the crisis, but instead likely to exacerbate it.
The way out is a change of government; but as long as - pace Fiona Bruce - the two main parties are neck and neck in the polls, who would risk a general election? If next week’s two votes serve any purpose, then, it will be to see who breaks ranks with their party leaderships, thus indicating the outlines of a potential national government.
Alternatively, if Jeremy Corbyn can be made to carry the can for a delay or abrogation of Brexit, then all the bourgeoisie’s Christmases will come at once. For it is clear from the polling data that - whether or not people’s “faith in our democracy” will be shaken, as Theresa May warns - their faith in the anti-establishment credentials of Corbyn will evaporate immediately. A general election could then be called and fought by the Tories on a narrative of national betrayal, and the crushing victory they promised themselves two years ago achieved. Our simple-hearted ‘remainer’ comrades, alas, remain blind to this danger.
Either which way, May’s occupancy of No10 is an obstacle. A cynic might think that her unyielding commitment to her miscarriage of a deal - far from being a matter of mental imbalance or full-throated democratic principle - is instead down to how dispensable she will be when it is out of the way. Thus there will be no redemptive arc to the May saga, and she will shuffle out of politics, to be remembered only as a humiliated failure. Whatever the case, more excitement is likely to follow next week’s vote.