March for a national government
Eddie Ford warns those on the left backing the People’s Vote campaign - be careful what you wish for
According to the organisers, around one million people attended the March 23 People’s Vote demonstration in London for a second referendum (or ‘final say’). Others think there were rather fewer - for example, “crowd analysis experts” estimate there were between 300,000 and 400,000.1
However, whatever the exact figure, it was certainly impressively big - almost comparable to the famous march against the Iraq war in February 2003. The demonstration has to be put alongside the still ongoing online petition to revoke article 50, which by March 27 had reached 5.8 million signatures. Of course, the government has said it will not be swayed by the petition (unless it reaches 17.4 million presumably), just as it will not be swayed by Saturday’s demonstration - unlike Donald Tusk who says, for his own political reasons, that the EU cannot “betray” the “increasing majority” who want the UK to remain in the club.
Size apart, the most significant thing about the PV march was the long list of speakers. From Labour there was Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, David Lammy and Jess Phillips. As for the Tories, you had Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Dr Phillip Lee and perhaps most interestingly of all, former deputy prime minister Lord Michael Heseltine. Then from the Liberal Democrats there was Sir Vince Cable, who has said he will step down after the May local elections, and Jo Swinson, hotly tipped to become the new party leader. Naturally, we also had Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna from the Independent Group, Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish National Party and Caroline Lucas for the Greens. One person noticeably absent was the Labour leader, leading to regular chants of - ‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”
As this paper has commented many times, this extremely inclusive line-up looks less like a campaign for a second referendum than a national government - something that seems to elude the left, which strangely refuses to even entertain the idea. Perhaps the ruling class only ever plays fair and square.
At the weekend the Financial Time featured an article by regular columnist Camilla Cavendish, a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under David Cameron - the man who came up with the cunning ruse of a referendum. (Cameron never actually expected to hold one. He assumed - like most people - that after the 2015 general election he would still be in coalition with the Lib Dems, who would block such a move.) In hindsight, maybe not the smartest policy decision in history.
Anyway, Cavendish is worth reading, not just because she is the sort of person that a Tory prime minister would listen to, but also to get an insight into the very narrow world view of the political establishment. According to her, the two main parties “have turned into sects drunk on their own righteousness”, in which “anyone who deviates from narrow lines is persecuted” (March 22). Yes, we should take comfort from the fact that there are sensible people in all the parties “who care deeply about their country” - such as ‘remainers’ like Nick Boles from the Tories who is in a ‘leave’ seat and a ‘leaver’ like Kate Hoey from Labour who is in a ‘remain’ seat.
However, we sadly read, these sensible people are the victims of “bullies” - whether they be Marxists inside the Labour Party or remainers among the Tories. Scandalously, their local party members are challenging their divine right to have a job for life - well, until they get elevated to the House of Lords. For Cavendish and others - like the former Tory MP and journalist, Matthew Parris - it is outrageous that people who selflessly devote themselves to politics and the greater good have to be subject to democratic scrutiny and accountability. Good heavens, next you will be saying that they have to stand for re-election every five years - never heard the likes of it. Naturally, this being the salient point, Cavendish is delighted that the sensible “cross-party heretics” in parliament are starting to come together in a spirit of national unity and “take back control” from the dreadful bullies.
Another person yearning for sensible politics is John Griffin, a Brexiteer and owner of Addison Lee taxis. He is the second largest donor to the Tory Party, contributing £4 million over the last six years. Looking at the current state of the Tories, torn apart by Brexit divisions, he feels he can no longer contribute to the party coffers. When asked by an eager BBC journalist if he had told the prime minister about his decision, he said absolutely - while sitting next to her at a party fundraising event at the Dorchester hotel. “It would be a wonderful moment if we could say that we are together as a country,” he commented - but “it won’t happen if we continue bickering, with the present politicians running the show”.
Communists take the possibility of a national government seriously. It has been previously suggested on a number of occasions by Nicky Morgan and Sir Nicholas Soames - both Tories - while Anna Soubry too has flirted with the notion. Of course, we have had national governments before - firstly in 1806 with the ministry of “all the talents” during a crisis induced by the Napoleonic Wars. Then there was the one led by Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 and the wartime coalition, which essentially saw Winston Churchill running the war and Clement Attlee looking after the home front. Obviously, we are not quite in the equivalent of the Napoleonic Wars or World War II - but the Brexit crisis we are experiencing is extremely serious and has the potential to escalate further.
Clearly, we are dealing with a fast-moving and rapidly evolving situation. A hard Brexit or even cancellation of the whole process could still happen, but at the moment the most likely outcome is some sort of Brino (‘Brexit in name only’) - like Common Market 2.0, or Norway Plus, as it used to be known. This essentially means the UK formally withdraws from the EU, but remains inside the single market and customs union - keeps paying in the money, but does not have any MEPs, ministers or commissioners. According to the Express, civil servants are being briefed to draw up legislation concerning rejoining the EU - say four or five years down the line, when Brexit has been a less than glorious success. If this story is true, it seems an eminently sensible idea from the establishment’s point of view. The fifth largest economy in the world risks ending up a rule-taker, a mere supplicant to the EU. By any objective criteria it would certainly be a humiliating position to be in - Britain has a permanent seat on the UN security council, yet no say in the decision-making processes of the EU. A real downgrading. Just obey all the rules and pay the money. In which case, what is the point of Brexit? A crazy and dumb situation.
However, it will not be Theresa May pushing that programme through parliament - on March 27 she announced her intention to resign if MPs finally back her deal on the third attempt. Frankly, the extent of her defeats in the Commons have been stunning - by 230 votes on the first attempt, the biggest in all of parliamentary history, and a crushing 149 on the second. The numbers she is trying to put together are just not enough, even if she succeeds in prying the European Research Group apart. Thus there has to be another prime minister, which is why we are getting into national government territory - the new premier has to somehow command a majority in the Commons.
Obviously the Tory Party would split explosively if there was a Tory prime minister or leader pushing Common Market 2.0 - the ERG and others in the party would never vote for that, and the same probably goes for the Democratic Unionist Party. Arithmetically, the ERG and DUP have about 90 MPs, meaning that the numbers do not add up for any Tory-run administration trying to survive on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis - so you have to look elsewhere. But then you are presented with an immediate problem, as Jeremy Corbyn and his supports represent a tiny minority in the Commons. But, on the other hand, you have Tom Watson, who speaks for the vast majority of the PLP and he has his own group ready to take over the reins.
His speech at the PV march brazenly broke Labour discipline, given he declared he would vote for May’s deal if there was a ‘confirmatory’ second referendum - which is not the party line. Labour’s position is to vote against Theresa May’s deal, whatever the circumstances, so the deputy Labour leader was making a show of his independence. He was also showing, as one of the major speakers at the London demonstration, that he is up for business - that is the true significance of the PV march. It was not really about a second referendum, but getting an alternative government - to both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
That is why anyone one on the left who marched on Saturday is either a fool or hopelessly naive - the programme of the PV’s campaign is against the interest of the working class. In that sense, Socialist Worker was not wrong to say that the march was backing a “ruling class agenda” (March 22).
Of course, this does not mean that communists line up with Nigel Farage’s march on London. Then again, we do not mock it either - by the time it arrives in the capital on the symbolically significant date of March 29 it could be around the same size as the PV event. It will be as big as the country is divided - and that applies to both the working class and the ruling class. That is why a government of national unity promoting Common Market 2.0 is certainly on the agenda.
Alternatively, after May’s departure we might get a different prime minister in the Commons without the need for a general election (under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there would be just 14 days to cobble together a new government in such a scenario). So step forward … prime minister Watson? It is definitely not science fiction to imagine around 200 Labour and 200 Tory MPs voting for him - plus others. There you have your Commons majority, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, after Theresa May has moved aside, the contest for a new Conservative leader will begin. If a certain Boris Johnson is among the candidates selected by the MPs, he will win without a shadow of doubt, as it is the party membership who get the final say - and they are way to the right of the parliamentary party.
Then what? This question is posed to those on the left who think the world will come to an end if Britain leaves the EU, fearing an orgy of reaction. But that is looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. We should be asking, what happens if Britain does not leave the EU - Brino or otherwise? There will inevitably be a ferocious reactionary backlash, with the word ‘betrayal’ on the lips of every rightwing politician and in the headlines of every rightwing newspaper - social media will explode with pure rage. They will denounce the national government as traitors and all those associated with it - Tom Watson, Sir Keir Starmer, Justine Greening, Anna Soubry … whoever. The people voted ‘leave’, but it never happened. Politics will swing sharply to the right - you do not need to be Mystic Meg to predict this.
In other words, be careful what you wish for. Staying in the EU is not some magic wand that takes you back five or 10 years to a better world - we have to go forwards. The idea that Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson will magically disappear is nonsense politics of the very worst - capitalist stagnation will continue as well. Indeed, if we look at the financial pages of the press, the talk incessantly is of another economic downturn soon. We do not know when or how exactly, or what the trigger will be, but the economy on a global level is slowing down. This is not just because of the current struggle between the US and China, but a general pattern throughout the world.
Will Brexit finally be over if MPs vote for Common Market 2.0? You must be joking. Brexit and Europe will not be removed as an issue for a generation to come, as David Cameron originally hoped: it will remain a live issue. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Brexit will be an explanation for Britain’s woes - economic decline, migration, stagnation, falling wages, crime levels, etc. All because of the EU - that will be the message from the right. They will point the finger at the cowardly political class and liberal metropolitan elite that brought us to our knees.