Their crisis, our opportunity
Boris Johnson promises to deliver Brexit, but to do that means calling a general election, writes Eddie Ford
So far 11 Tory leadership candidates have thrown their hat into the ring. Of course, the contest is taking place in the context of Brexit and a constitutional crisis that, as can be seen with the local and European Union elections, is threatening the very survival of the Tory Party.
The former saw the Tories lose 1,330 councillors on only 28% of the vote, whilst in the latter they came a humiliating fifth with a wretched 9% vote share - Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party romped home on 31.6%, the resurgent Liberal Democrats were second at 20.3%, Labour trailed behind them on a fairly miserable 14.1%, while the Greens were on 12.1%. Then there are the parties that could well be destined for history’s dustbin very soon: the pro-‘remain’ Change UK registered 3.4%, and the far-right UK Independence Party 3.3%.
Or, if you want to look at it in a different way - as many have - anti-Brexit parties (including the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru with 3.6% and 1% respectively) collectively took 40% of the vote, compared with the combined 35% for the Brexit parties - a win for ‘remain’! However, if you count the Tories as pro-Brexit, and Labour as a sort of ‘remain’ party, you get a messier picture. Either way, there is no discernible majority when it comes to a second referendum.
Many commentators, including myself, were expecting the prime minister to resign straight after the European results came out - which everybody knew would be terrible. But what killed her in the end was the planned fourth attempt to get her deal with the European Union approved by parliament, which this time round was to include a provision allowing MPs a vote on a second referendum - which would be binding upon the government.
In reality, Theresa May had been a dead woman walking since the calamitous 2017 general election. Against all the expectations of the Labour right and the media, Jeremy Corbyn ran a highly effective campaign that gripped the imagination of very many in the country - inspiring them to back Labour in their droves. Corbyn effectively won that election, not Theresa May, which meant that David Cameron’s working majority of 17 was replaced by a minority government dependent upon the tender mercies of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Making things worse, Theresa May stupidly gave herself an impossible hand to play - yes, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. That was a sensible enough thing to say in order to attract Ukip voters and turn them into Tory voters. But, when trying to pin down what the slogan actually meant, she said it was a rejection of the customs union and single market, while also retaining an open border on the island of Ireland - a literal impossibility, as you cannot have it both ways. That inevitably led to the so-called ‘backstop’, alienating her hardline Brexiteers and the right of the party in general.
Frankly, under those circumstances, with a ‘remain’ majority in the House of Commons, but disaffected Brexiteers as well - the numbers never added up. The first ‘meaningful vote’ on her EU deal was lost by 230 votes in the biggest defeat in parliamentary history, though the margin of defeat went down in the next two votes. But, if the fourth had gone ahead, the scale of defeat would probably have been back to the level of the first vote. We have seen several years of paralysis and crisis, which could well continue - the establishment has no cunning plan to leave Brexit behind and ‘reunite’ the country.
What is important to remember is that most of the candidates are not actually serious contenders to lead the Tory Party - James Cleverly? Kit Malthouse? Esther McVey? Rather, they are jockeying for position and striving for a plump post in the cabinet - not to mention laying the groundwork for a more serious challenge in the future.
Looking at the odds, Boris Johnson is the favourite with the bookies on a 38% probability of becoming leader, followed by Michael Gove and Dominic Raab on 18% each.1 Interestingly though, when we examine the race according to a tally of MPs who have openly declared support for one of the candidates, the story is slightly different.2 Jeremy Hunt comes out on top with 28 supporters and Boris Johnson a close second on 26, with Michael Gove snapping at their heels on 25 and Dominic Raab getting 22. Obviously, this picture could change - having to appear before the crown court to face allegations of misconduct while in public office could not come at a worse time for Johnson. However, he still looks like the person to beat - sorry, Kit Malthouse, even if you do think you are “the new face with fresh new ideas”. But we have to remember that the first ballot is for MPs only and it is just the top two candidates who go before the entire membership. In reality that could be the biggest hurdle Johnson has to overcome, as there is a substantial bloc of Tory MPs who want to keep him off the membership ballot at all costs.
Then again, do not dismiss the possibility that we could get yet another coronation, as with Theresa May, bypassing the Tory rank and file altogether - with one person emerging as the clear favourite and the others simply standing down, on the basis that they do not want to go on the BBC and engage in a damaging debate, or tour the country exposing their many divisions. Whatever the machinations of the ‘Anyone but Boris’ campaign, Johnson might find himself in that fortunate position.
Wasting no time, the former London mayor declared that he intends to take the UK out of the EU by the October 31 deadline. This provoked a stinging response from Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, who warned that the party would be committing “political suicide” if it tried to push through a no-deal Brexit against the expressed wishes of parliament - that could trigger a general election, which could put Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 “by Christmas”. Hunt also fear that the Tories would be “annihilated” and “face extinction” if there was a general election before Brexit had been delivered - the European elections being an indication of what could happen.
Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and social care, waded in behind Hunt on May 29 - pouring icy-cold water on the idea on the idea of a no-deal or ‘clean’ Brexit, as the “brutal reality” is that this is “not a policy choice available to the next prime minister”, given the parliamentary arithmetic. This follows on from Philip Hammond’s combative appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, when he bluntly told the leadership candidates they would not “survive” any attempt to force a ‘no deal’ through parliament - hinting that he and other Tories could be prepared to vote down the government in a confidence motion to prevent that outcome.
Indeed, Labour has said it would “immediately” slap down a vote of no confidence in the new prime minister and government - given that the country, in the words of John McDonnell, is “possibly faced with an extremist leader of the Conservative Party willing to take us over the edge of a no deal”. This should cause some alarm for Brexiteers, as, following the defection of three Tory MPs to what is now Change UK, the working majority of the Conservative-DUP alliance is now just six - meaning only four Tories would need to switch sides for a no-confidence vote to succeed. If the new leader fails at the first hurdle - maybe going down in history as the shortest premiership in history - and no alternative government is cobbled together by the Commons within 14 days, there will be a general election.
If Boris Johnson is crowned leader, in whatever way - and survives a no-confidence vote from Labour - he still faces the same remorseless parliamentary arithmetic. Is he going to come back from Brussels with a magical piece of paper that is so radically different from what Theresa May brought back?
This seems highly unlikely, as Brussels, barring some extraordinary development, will never agree to renegotiate the Irish backstop. Indeed, what the mainstream European leaders fear most of all is the growth of the populist right - they want to use the mess of Brexit as an object lesson to others who may choose to follow this path: it is not worth it. The lesson might be sinking in, as the majority of hard-right parties in Europe are not ‘exiteers’ now, but ‘remainers’ of a special type - fighting from within for ever looser union and some sort of free-trade zone.
Under these circumstances, where Boris Johnson is unable to negotiate some sumptuous new deal, then he would do the obvious - call a general election. Nigel Farage might say that Johnson is an untrustworthy careerist, which is obviously true - the man only made up his mind about joining the Brexit camp in the days before the start of the referendum campaign. But in a general election he could well hoover up Brexit Party votes and those longing for change of almost any sort. On the day, maybe Johnson will campaign better than Theresa May - it not being possible to do any worse - and perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s magic will have worn off.
Another factor worth considering is the impending visit of Donald Trump to the UK between June 3 and 5. The US president may well endorse Johnson - his favourite British politician after Farage - even if he is advised not to. All this with the drums of war beating loudly in the Middle East. Unlike Corbyn, the ‘anti-Semite’, Johnson would enthusiastically back any US military campaign against Iran in the name of defending Israel.
A hard or no-deal Brexit under prime minister Johnson would be music to Trump’s ears. The US hard right wants to see the break-up of the EU and free-trade agreements with individual countries. An Atlanticist Britain would not only doggedly follow every US move internationally: it could be relied on to open up its markets, including the NHS, to US transnationals. American farmers are greedily eyeing British consumers and would certainly demand an erosion of already poor food standards. Then there is fracking, climate change, labour laws, etc.
But the alternative of sticking to the EU status quo is illusory. The EU is malfunctioning and showing all the signs of paralysis. Not only is there the rise of the hard right. And, of course, the EU has a neoliberal constitution, a toothless parliament and an ineffective core leadership. There is no consensus between Germany and France over the way forward.
For us the answer lies not in restoring Britain’s sovereignty (impossible - the days of the British empire are over for ever). Nor does it lie in a second referendum and banking on incremental reform in Brussels. No, the working class, in Europe, and beyond, needs its own politics, its own vision and its own organisations: first and foremost, in the immediate term, a Communist Party of the EU. Only with such an organisation could we overthrow the existing constitutional order and open up the road to working class rule and global communism.