Trying to escape the maze
With the polls looking disastrous and Brexit an ongoing failure, the Tories are deep in crisis. But they are not about to split the army and launch a civil war, writes Eddie Ford
Things are getting worse and worse for the Tories, with Theresa May’s position becoming increasingly tenuous. How much longer can she last?
Last week’s emergency European Union summit in Brussels was a predictable failure for the prime minister - even if it was not quite the humiliation she experienced last September at Salzburg, when EU leaders essentially took turns to rubbish her Chequers plan. At Brussels they rejected her request for a short extension of article 50 to June 30, knowing perfectly well that this date was chosen purely for reasons of internal Tory Party politics - not because it had any practical value. A minority, such as Emmanuel Macron, argued for a very short extension of only a few weeks or so, whilst the majority wanted a year or more. In classic EU tradition, they decided in the end to split the difference and go for October 31.
However, not everyone was happy with the fudge. The new extension is not short enough to keep up the pressure on Westminster MPs to agree some sort of deal soon, but not long enough for the likelihood of some significant development to arise - ie, a general election. In other words, the six-month extension merely adds to the Brexit uncertainty and gridlock rather than presenting an opportunity to escape from the maze - it seems highly likely that the prime minister, whoever that might be, will have to go cap in hand to Brussels for another extension, as the Halloween deadline nears. Having said that, the chances of a no-deal Brexit are looking increasingly remote - though it would be foolish to entirely dismiss it as a possibility.
Meanwhile, as expected, the talks between Labour and the government are going nowhere: true, meetings are scheduled this week between ministers and shadow ministers on environmental protection, security and workers’ rights, but the much thornier issues of a customs union and a ‘confirmatory’ referendum will not be up for discussion before Easter. According to Jeremy Corbyn, the talks are stalling because the Tories want to turn Britain “into a deregulated, low-tax society, which will do a deal with Trump”.1 Naturally, this agenda is anathema to the Labour leader, who says he has put forward a robust case, instead, for a customs union and a “dynamic relationship” with the EU to protect the environment and “consumer workplace rights”. He also said that a lot of time had been wasted by the “dithering” of the government on what issues to bring to parliament, and strongly suggested that the best route out of the impasse would be holding “binding” indicative votes in the Commons.
Corbyn has also complained that the talks are compromised anyway, as the government is collapsing. Then again, Downing Street is under mounting pressure from disgruntled ministers as well as backbenchers to pull the plug on Brexit talks with Labour - why is a Tory prime minister consorting with an ‘anti-Semitic’ friend of Hamas, the IRA and the Kremlin? Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has said that the prime minister risks handing the keys to 10 Downing Street to an “avowed Marxist” and “destroying” Brexit in the process.
Meanwhile, the vultures are circling around May, with participation in the May 23 European elections being the trigger issue - it has to be avoided, they say. The papers are full of speculation about Boris Johnson making overtures to Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, considered by most Tories to be a social liberal.
The point is, Rudd is a prominent remainer and also a key member of the One Nation Group of around 40 Tory MPs - created to counter the baleful influence of the European Research Group Brexiteers. Johnson, obviously, has positioned himself on the right of the party, with his dog-whistle comments about Muslims, support for a no-deal Brexit, and so on - though he is perfectly capable of turning in any direction if he calculates that it will advance his naked political ambitions. But clearly the press stories about her joining in a “dream ticket” with Johnson to unite the Brexiteer and ‘remainer’ wings of the party are not just idle nonsense - Rudd is a longstanding personal friend of Boris Johnson, even if she did say during the EU referendum campaign that he was “not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening”. Under the ‘Bamber’ alliance, which admittedly sounds a lot more Rudd than Johnson, he would stand for prime minister and she would get to be chancellor - the first woman ever to hold the position, if successful.
But, sticking his oar in, Jeremy Hunt has offered Rudd his present job as foreign secretary if she runs with him - making her a potential kingmaker, either by endorsing this or that candidate or by running herself, with the intention of eventually dropping out and then getting her supporters to back one of the remaining hopefuls. Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab, amongst others, are also busily constructing leadership teams, as if May was already six feet under. Even though Rudd did say she was “leaving the door ajar” to a leadership bid, this seems extremely unlikely, as she would not have a chance of winning. Her anti-‘no deal’ views make her very unpopular with the Tory rank and file, who think that Brexit is the most brilliant idea since sliced bread - and they will get the final say on who becomes Tory leader, and hence prime minister. Any viable candidates will have to be a Brexiteer - and we know that the members will vote Boris any time, if given half a chance.
Incidentally, given even the possibility of a Johnson-Rudd, or a Hunt-Rudd, government, those on the left who excitedly talk of Britain descending into civil war, are clearly talking rubbish. The Tories are divided, but they are not about to split the ranks of the army and fight the matter out with bullets and bayonets. Nor is Nigel Farage about to launch his version of the blackshirts and Jeremy Corbyn and his Straight Leftist advisors would run a mile from the mere thought of establishing a New Model Army. There is a constitutional crisis, there could be violent protests, the army could be deployed to maintain ‘law and order’, but Britain does not stand on the brink of civil war.
One of the results of the extension, and the failure so far to get any sort of deal through the Commons, is that it now looks virtually inevitable that the UK will have to take part in the European elections - striking fear into the heart of every Tory, as well it should. Yes, the likes of Iain Duncan-Smith and Owen Paterson are agitating for Britain to just refuse to hold the elections - which would see the country automatically kicked out of the bloc, as per EU rules, thus happily securing the objective of a no-deal Brexit. Interestingly, Jacob Rees-Mogg - becoming increasingly pragmatic - has distanced himself from such a militant stance, saying the no-deal dream is no longer practical politics, as there is nothing approaching a majority in the Commons for such a course of action. Wake up and smell the coffee, guys.
So, assuming Duncan Smith and Paterson do not get their way and the European elections go ahead, what is the attitude of communists? We definitely do not call for a boycott, as stupidly advocated by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain on the grounds that they are ‘undemocratic’ and ‘unfair’, and the EU is a dreadful ‘super-state’. Maybe the comrades need reminding that Lenin and the Bolsheviks participated in nearly all the tsarist elections, which were extremely ‘unfair’, to put it mildly.
Boycotting elections in the name of national sovereignty is risible and reactionary, as is the idea that breaking away from the EU means you suddenly become free. Sorry to tell you, CPB comrades, but Britain would still be part of the global division of labour within the pyramid of antagonistically competing states - US imperialism being unquestionably the top dog, of course. Brexit would be no socialist nirvana - quite the contrary.
Anyway, logically and consistently, the CPGB urges a vote for the Labour Party in the European, as well as local, elections. We recognise, of course, that Labour might get punished by a section of its traditional electorate, especially in the north - the results might not be particularly pretty. Nevertheless, they will not be hammered like the Tories, who could face a wipe-out.
Completely unscientifically (as it was conducted amongst its mainly rightwing, Brexiteer readers, who were motivated to take part in the first place), the rabidly rightwing Daily Express recently ran a poll on the European elections - with almost 20,000 people ringing in.2 Way out on top came Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on a whopping 82%, with 6% for the UK Independence Party. Slightly bizarrely, given the paper’s natural constituency, Change UK (formerly The Independent Group) got 4%, as did Labour. As for the Tories, they got just 1%. This will please George Galloway. He has decided to back the Brexit Party - for one election only. A clear case of putting ‘nation’ before ‘class’. Goodbye George.
The news is not much better for the Conservatives when it comes to the more scientific polls, all showing a dramatic slump in support for the party. According to the Electoral Calculus ‘poll of polls’ for The Sunday Telegraph, the Tories are set to lose 59 seats in the event of a general election - with 259 against Labour’s 296. Another YouGov poll found that Tory support had slumped to its lowest level in six years, putting Theresa May’s party on 28% - down four points since the start of April, with only two-thirds of Tory voters in the 2017 general election saying they would back them again.
Even worse, if anything, a separate poll by Opinium among voters who say they are “certain” to vote in the European elections suggests that the Tories are heading for a pulverising without historical precedent. Only 17% choose the Conservatives, while 29% would back Labour - with 25% supporting the UK Independence Party and 12% the Brexit Party. This dismal vote share for the Tories is six points down on their previous record low in Euro elections, which was in 2014 - and historically the Conservatives have never scored as badly as 17% in any UK-wide election from 1832 onwards. No wonder the Tories are desperate to avoid these elections.
Of course, such polling figures are hardly surprising amidst May’s complete hashing of the Brexit negotiations - which have descended into high farce, especially now we have the various contenders to replace her openly canvassing and fighting for support. If she was replaced with a new team, whether a ‘dream ticket’ or not, then you would expect a certain honeymoon period - with the Tories regaining support in the polls, perhaps even edging ahead. Nor do all these recent polls, it goes without saying, necessarily mean that Labour will get a parliamentary majority if there was a general election - just that it will emerge as the biggest party in the Commons, which then might have to do deals with other small parties if it wants to form a government.
But the real question at the moment concerns the extent of the coming crushing defeat for the Tories in the European elections, which for the first time since 1999 will not be happening on the same day as the local elections (now on May 2). In the opinion of Chris Curtice from YouGov, the effect of separating the elections “will likely be that fewer loyal supporters of the two main parties make the trek to the polling station” - but at the same time, “those on both extremes of the debate who are energised by Brexit will make up a larger proportion of the electorate, further boosting the Brexit Party vote share” (The Guardian April 17). No matter what the Tory rule book says, it is almost impossible to imagine a situation in which, after receiving a humiliating vote in the European elections, Theresa May is not told by the officers of the 1922 Committee to step down and make way for somebody else.
Indeed, on April 17 the influential ConservativeHome website broke a story about the possibility of an attempted grassroots putsch against Theresa May.3 Under ‘schedule 3’ of the party constitution, we read, a petition signed by “not less” than 65 constituency association chairmen [sic] “compels” there to be an extraordinary general meeting of the national convention - the body officially representing the voluntary party. Apparently, there are now “coordinated efforts” by Tory activists to call such an emergency meeting within weeks and propose a motion of no confidence in the prime minister. Christopher Hope of the Telegraph believes that between 40 and 50 chairmen have already signed the petition, and are hopeful it could pass the threshold of 65 within the next week.