Brexit paralysis – government and opposition in a shambles

As withdrawal day approaches, Parliament is at a standstill, and all sides equally at a loss as to how best they should proceed.

Lalkar writers

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Lalkar writers

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Theresa May’s days as prime minister are numbered. With Britain set to leave the European Union (EU) on 29 March 2019, Mrs May’s ‘Chequers deal’ stands on the verge of defeat.

Two years after triggering Article 50, and fast running out of time, May’s government has entirely failed to produce an appropriate withdrawal deal. Parliament has reached a standstill, the government is in complete chaos and utterly divided, and this is only mirrored by the state of the oscillating opposition.

On Tuesday 11 December, the Commons was set to vote on May’s withdrawal deal. All week in the build-up, leading Conservatives appeared in myriad media outlets assuring interviewers that the vote would go ahead; it was set in stone. But when game day arrived, with the entire world certain of her defeat, Theresa May cancelled the House’s vote in a humiliating climbdown.

Our so-called leader saw defeat on the horizon and simply ran away. The mythical ‘Churchillian spirit’ is certainly not alive among the current Conservative front benches. Whilst attempting to implement the art of survival, May has instead signed her own death warrant.

It took little time for the would-be executioners in her own party to attempt to claim the bounty. The so-called ‘hard Brexiteers’, mainly centred around the European Research Group (ERG), acted swiftly to call for a vote of no confidence in May as prime minister.

The triggering of the vote required the signature of 48 Conservative MPs, which had been hard to collect in the absence of any alternative to May being acceptable to a majority of Tory MPs, and because also of a fear of triggering a call for a general election that might result in a Labour government being elected. However, with the ERG being thought to contain around 70 members, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, the necessary 48 signatures did in the end come together.

Consequently, on Thursday 13, a no-confidence vote was held, threatening to unseat the prime minister. Nominally, the PM won the vote by 63 percent to 37 percent of votes cast, but the victory is pyrrhic in nature. It is worth noting that May actually secured a lesser percentage of votes than Margaret Thatcher did in the no-confidence vote in 1990 that led to her stepping down as PM. Yet May still attempts to cling on to office where even Thatcher admitted defeat. Such is her detachment from reality.

And if by some miracle she manages to cling on, this is not the last no-confidence vote she is likely to face. Whilst party rules mean she cannot face a vote of no confidence from her own MPs for another year, a no-confidence vote can still be called by the Labour party in parliament.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had threatened such a vote against the government, but instead has taken the easy option of calling for a non-binding vote of no confidence only in Mrs May herself. Labour had previously said it would hold off a no-confidence vote in the government until it was sure of winning such a vote.

Ever the opportunists, the party’s leaders have now called for this vote against May, feeling that they can highlight the hypocrisy of the Tory MPs who have just voted that they have no confidence in May, yet are sure to vote against Labour’s no-confidence vote.

Any future attempt at a no-confidence vote against the government will depend on the support of the current kingmakers of British politics, the DUP. But any support from them will be dependent on dropping the highly controversial northern Ireland backstop.

‘Backstop’ has certainly become the word of the moment. MPs and the bourgeois media constantly refer to the term without bringing any clarity to what it actually means.

First of all we need to remind ourselves of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), signed in 1998 between the British government and the forces of Irish national liberation in northern Ireland, one of the terms of which was the dismantling of the hard border between the Irish republic and the occupied six counties.

With Brexit, a problem has now arisen whereby one part of Ireland will remain inside the EU and one part will be out of it. How, then, can the committment to no border in Ireland be honoured, when the two conditions are entirely contradictory? Being in different customs regimes will require a ‘hard border’ (ie, a system for checking on goods crossing the border); honouring the GFA requires there to be no such impediment to goods and people on the island of Ireland.

The ‘backstop’ is supposed to be the solution to this contradiction. It is basically a measure to maintain an open Irish border in the absence of any negotiated settlement of the issue within the withdrawal agreement; that is, if no-one can come up with a better idea, northern Ireland will remain inside the EU customs union. The controversy that has arisen around this fallback position is that many Tories and the DUP are adamant in refusing to accept what they see as being a slippery slope towards a united Ireland.

Moreover, the backstop could have the de facto effect of forcing Britain to remain in line with EU regulations, since any divergence would lead to a situation where northern Ireland was under EU jurisdiction and goods going from Britain to the occupied north would have to cross a hard border in the Irish Sea – another ‘red line’ and ‘thin end of the wedge’ for all those desperate to keep the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together (that is, to keep Britain’s hold over its oldest remaining colony).

Many pro-Brexit MPs, including Tory leadership hopeful Boris Johnson, have made the point that Britain would end up following EU regulations without having any say in making those regulations – meaning we would keep all of the negative aspects of the EU but would have zero influence in shaping the union’s policy and rules.

Having survived the vote of no confidence, Mrs May departed to Brussels the next day to meet with European leaders. Unable to get the withdrawal agreement through Parliament, she sought assurances over the temporary nature of the backstop that might assuage the worst fears of her pro-Brexit opponents.

This futile journey was doomed from the offset, with a host of European leaders, including President Émmanuel Macron of France, warning that there would be no further negotiations. And so it proved to be another day of humiliation. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker declared during the visit: “Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want … because this debate is sometimes nebulous and imprecise.”

It was unrealistic of May to expect the EU to change its mind. With Britain leaving the union, the remaining 27 member countries are concerned, above all, to protect it, and not accelerate its disintegration by allowing Britain to cherry-pick the aspects of membership it would like to hold onto.

Following this predictably disastrous trip, the next step for May was to report back to the House on Monday 17 December; and so she was back to where she started the week before, with no change to the terms of the deal, a divided party, and no chance of getting her deal passed. The one and only outcome of this entire debacle was the further humiliation of the prime minister and the country.

As Conservative backbencher Philip Davies said during May’s report back from Brussels: “The way she has been treated by the European Union in these negotiations is embarrassing for the prime minister and humiliating for the country. If she were to go along to the EU now and tell them in the face of their intransigence and tell them to get stuffed, a huge proportion of the British people would be right behind her.”

What May did announce was that the parliamentary vote on the doomed withdrawal agreement will now be held on the week beginning 14 January. With Parliament going into recess from 20 December until 7 January, vital time is being lost. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. These are extraordinary times, yet parliamentarians will disappear on a three-week holiday, three months from the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

Whilst no deal may not necessarily be the worst possible outcome, it is certainly presented as so by all parliamentarians. But barely a finger will be lifted to prevent it. Shouting about doomsday whilst fattening themselves up and glugging mulled wine – these turkeys voting for Christmas should not be surprised when the people decide to carve them up!

As well as calling a non-binding no-confidence vote, Jeremy Corbyn accused May of having led the country into a national crisis, and pointed out that a month will have been wasted by the postponement from 11 December to 16 January. He added that this was done with “not a single word renegotiated and not a single reassurance given. The deal is unchanged and is not going to change”.

Whilst his criticism is valid, it might hold more weight coming from a leader who is not leading a party almost as divided as the Tories on Brexit. Labour policy has been a complete mess during the entire Brexit affair. The party has produced its nebulous ‘six tests’, but these have failed to heal the split in the parliamentary party.

Whilst the party is officially in favour of implementing Brexit on the loosest of terms, many of its MPs are openly backing a second referendum, the so-called ‘people’s vote’. Even shadow chancellor John McDonnell has said that Labour could back a second referendum.

“Our policy is if we can’t get a general election, then the other option which we’ve kept on the table is a people’s vote.” He also added that the withdrawal agreement “fails to provide for a permanent UK-EU customs union and strong single market deal”. (Labour will inevitably back second Brexit referendum, says McDonnell by Jessica Elgot and Heather Stewart, The Guardian, 28 November 2018)

What is so amazing is that for all the splits and divisions in the two main parties, they are arguing over very little. As Mr McDonnell’s latter comment reveals, Labour’s policy is for Britain to remain as closely aligned with the EU as possible.

This is the driving force amongst the mainstream political spectrum, whether they are on the side of ‘Brexit’ or ‘remain’. Such alignment will firstly keep us tied to EU rules without having any influence on these rules, at which point, what is the purpose of leaving? More importantly, it shows that the political will is in direct contradiction with the public will. The public voted to leave the European Union; the ruling class seeks a way to appear to honour that vote whilst in practice negating as much of the substance as possible. ‘Brexit lite’ is the goal of those claiming to want to push through a deal.

What we are observing across the political spectrum is merely the appearance of disagreement, all disagreement being merely part of a show, a part of an illusion. All wish to maintain close ties to the EU, maintaining some form of customs union: the single market at all costs is what they wish to preserve at all costs – the same single market that the people voted to leave in 2016.

Politicians are playing a dangerous game with the people’s righteous discontent. Whilst most are attempting to camouflage their aims, others are quite shameless, as when the likes of war criminal Tony Blair continually call for a second referendum.

Of course, there is previous for this. Every time any European people has rejected the EU, it has had its voice ignored or has been bullied into retreat. So it was with Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon treaty, and so were French and Dutch voters ignored on the same issue.

When imperialism does not like a result, it seeks to circumvent it; such is our rulers’ much-vaunted love of democracy. This is the process that is playing out before our eyes. The British people should not allow themselves to be duped by such anti-democratic machinations.

The EU is, was, and will remain a bosses’ club and an imperialist project. It does not protect workers’ rights, it tramples upon them. It must be abandoned at all costs.