Brexit or Bremain?

In December, the conservative government ordered 3,500 troops to go on standby in case Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal. Plans originally published by Theresa May as a scare tactic, to force her MPs to vote the deal through parliament, are now being activated for real.

If Britain leaves the EU with no transitional arrangement in place, the government will take control of ports and the motorways to them, sending urgent medicines around the country by motorcycle courier. It is likely that, as she ramps up the pressure, Theresa May will at some point start telling people to avoid booking holidays. For any government to deliberately stoke crisis fears is bad news, but for Theresa May – who campaigned in the June 2017 election on the slogan of “strong and stable government” it is a political disaster.

The background is six months of diplomatic failure and chaos in the conservative cabinet. In June, at a government country residence called Chequers, May published the outline of the deal she was trying to do with the European Union. Her cabinet promptly fell apart, with high-profile right-winger Boris Johnson walking out, along with the man actually responsible for negotiations, David Davis. Only in late November did May reveal the full details of the deal: as a result she lost three more cabinet ministers. Thanks to a case won in the Supreme Court in 2017, the government is obliged to put the deal to a “meaningful vote” in parliament. To win that vote May lined up the entire business establishment, plys newspapers ranging from the rabid right-wing Mail to the Europhile Financial Times, to call for MPs to back it. But by early December it was clear she cannot get the deal through parliament. It gives so much control to Brussels over the terms and length of the transition that the nationalist right-wing of the conservatives believe Britain will never be able to sign its own trade deals after leaving. Meanwhile her essential allies in the minority government – the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland – believe the deal draws a customs border down the Irish Sea, laying the eventual basis for a united Ireland.

With Labour solidly opposed to the deal, and all other parties likewise, May has opted for a strategy of “running down the clock” – with the fear factor intended to force her right wing back into line. They, meanwhile staged a surprise attack on May, calling a confidence vote in her leadership of the party. While party managers expected, maximum, 70 MPs to rebel in the secret ballot, in the end 117 voted against her. Of the 200 who voted for May, 130 are actually paid by the government and would lose their ministerial jobs if they broke with her.

So the Cabinet is at war. A group of maybe five liberal minded conservatives want May to fall back onto the excuse of a second referendum, to hand the final decision back to the electorate. Another five hard right wingers actually want to stage a no deal Brexit – using the “shock doctrine” of food shortages and transport chaos to stir up enmity against Brussels. May’s group, in the middle, are effectively burning their last political credibility in the gamble to get the deal through by fear and panic.

For Jeremy Corbyn this is not an easy position either. Though Labour’s membership and core voters in the cities are solidly for cancelling Brexit, and would jump at the chance of a second referendum, the places Corbyn has to win to form a government have a majority of voters supporting Brexit. That’s why Corbyn campaigned at the last election on a platform of a “soft Brexit” – staying in the customs union, aligning to the single market – foregoing any attempt to do separate trade deals. Though around 10% of those who voted Leave now say they will back remain, that still leaves a majority pro-Brexit in the 50 seats Labour has to win to form a government. On top of that, the bitterness, and in some cases the racism and xenophobia that feeds on it, is actually stronger among pro-Brexit voters than it was two years ago. This tactical problem is reflected both in Corbyn’s team, among his MPs and the wider Labour membership. With Brexit visibly collapsing as a project, the pro-globalist, urban, educated part of the electorate want Corbyn to kill it off. Around 10 Labour MPs backed by former Blair-era ministers are preparing to form a centrist party, which would stand against Labour to prevent a Corbyn government. But on the other side, maybe 30 or 40 of the old, social democratic right wing would rather see Labour support Brexit, because their own voters just want the crisis over with.

In the background, the far right has restructured. UKIP – a party that used to look more like the old LAOS than Golden Dawn – has seen its voters move to the Conservatives, while its leadership moved towards open alliance with the neo-fascist leader Tommy Robinson. Composed largely of middle aged football ultras and ex soldiers, this new far right formation around UKIP has begun to stage marches and provocations, and some Labour activists fear having to take them on in a long, granular, street-level battle of ideas.

The possible outcomes range from May getting her deal through, to a chaotic crisis in late March which sees hospitals and airports closed. In all outcomes, May has used up her political capital and will be gone within 6 months. The question is, whether the Conservative party then splits.

The debate inside Labour – supporting May, versus supporting a second referendum, versus trying to do a Norway-style deal – reflects the fact that the party is an alliance of demographic forces: even inside Corbynism you have a euroskeptic wing, influenced by. The old Communist Party newspaper The Morning Star, and a globalist wing composed of the activists who emerged from the 2011 movements. In the last week of parliament before Christmas, Corbyn moved a motion of censure against May – but the real crunch comes in the first two weeks of January, when she has promised a vote will be held in parliament. If she loses it, there will be a vote of confidence: Corbyn will attempt to bring the government down and force an election. If he loses, the party policy states he should then back a second referendum and remain, but euroskeptics from both the right and left of Labour will fight a rearguard action against that.

May’s catastrophic handling of the negotiations, and of her own party, mean the chances that Brexit will be cancelled are – in my opinion 40-50%. The ECJ ruled that, if Britain revokes Article 50 (the act of leaving Europe), it can keep all its current privileges – including not just the budget rebate but the MEPs in Strasbourg and its Commissioner. 

Defeating Brexit – if it can be done – would alter not only the British situation but the entire dynamic of Europe. Because though Corbyn and May are each stuck on 40% of the vote, that 40% – if translated into votes in May 2019 – would deliver a big boost to the left’s presence in the European parliament. If Corbyn can succeed in toppling May and winning an election, he would get to choose the next British commissioner.

That, in turn, would change the atmosphere across the whole EU 28.

first published at (Greek)