Brexit delayed again as general election called

Following years of Parliament’s refusal to implement the referendum result, can an election break the deadlock?

Despite prime minister Boris Johnson promising Britain would definitely be leaving the European Union on 31 October, with or without a deal, it has not happened – notwithstanding the extreme lengths to which Mr Johnson appears to have gone to try to force things through.

Johnson’s fight for Brexit

He has been fighting an establishment (here meaning the wealthiest and most influential section of the bourgeois class) that overwhelmingly opposes Brexit because of the damage it is expected to do to the interests of British imperialism – and the battle has been no-holds-barred on both sides.

Parliament has in the course of the debacle demonstrated to all the world that it represents not the will of the people to leave, as expressed in the 2016 Brexit referendum, but the will of the establishment – preferably to remain, but failing that to maintain such close ties with the EU that makes little difference, ensuring that business can carry on as usual.

By presenting himself as the voice of the people against Parliament, Johnson’s popularity has risen in the opinion polls in spite of the relentless maligning of his character in the bourgeois media.

His sexual indiscretions have been mercilessly dragged into the limelight, alongside his dubious dealings while Mayor of London with a close lady friend who was living in a flat that sported a pole-dancer’s pole. Describing herself as a ‘businesswoman’, she was often asked along on trade missions abroad in Johnson’s company, public funds were made available to her company, and he often attended her corporate events.

In addition, a big fuss has been made about his use of intemperate language, as if this is something unheard of in the British House of Commons! In this age of ingrowing political correctness, one might have expected these revelations to have brought Boris crashing down, forcing him to resign. But not at all. None of this has significantly dented his popularity.

The explanation would seem to be that the British public appreciate him, whatever his drawbacks, for the fight he is apparently putting up to secure the Brexit which they voted for.

The Daily Mail reports: “Boris Johnson’s Conservatives opened up a 16-point lead in the polls today, in a sign that the public backs the prime minister’s attempt to break the Brexit deadlock.

“The Tories are up three points on 40 percent, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour remains stuck on 24 percent as he continues to dither over Mr Johnson’s offer of a pre-Christmas election …

“The poll by Opinium for the Observer also shows Mr Johnson is seen as the best leader by more than twice as many people as Mr Corbyn is, with a 39 percent approval rating compared to 16 percent for the Labour man.” (Boris Johnson opens up 16-point lead in the polls by David Willcock, 27 October 2019)

Of course, opinion polls have proved remarkably variable and unreliable, as former prime minister Theresa May has reason to know extremely well. Even so, they do mostly give an indication that a majority of the public still supports Brexit, notwithstanding the deluge of dire warnings issued by the bourgeois media warning of disaster to the British economy and workers alike.

On the basis of Boris’s apparent staunch defence of Brexit come what may, the Conservatives have been gaining ground, especially at the expense of the Brexit party, while the Labour party’s appeal has been waning.

The traditional Labour vote has been strongly propped up by the industrial working class, the section that has been most adversely affected by ‘globalisation’ – ie, the imperialist export of capital to low-wage countries – and is therefore the most angrily expressing its resentment through the Brexit vote. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), however, is mostly pro-remain and is unwilling to carry out its voters’ wishes.

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has throughout his career been opposed to the European Union, but has been forced away from siding with the Brexiters in order to pacify his parliamentary party, a majority of whom want neither Brexit nor him as leader. So he has compromised with his conscience by opposing not Brexit as such but only a no-deal Brexit, thereby effectively siding with those remainers willing to accept a Brexit in Name Only (Brino) compromise.

Indeed, he has become an advocate of a permanent customs union. It is no wonder that traditional Labour voters are not impressed, and are tempted away by the Brexit party, which seems to them a less obnoxious alternative than the hated Tories.

At the same time, the bourgeois media, on behalf of an establishment that is terrified of the Labour party coming to office and imposing what it would consider as unacceptably expensive social-democratic reforms at the expense of the ruling class, have been terrorising Labour’s largely pro-remain petty-bourgeois intelligentsia supporters by repeatedly whipping up (in true Goebbelsian fashion) false accusations of ‘endemic antisemitism’ within the party, all of which is designed to drive those supporters in the direction of the LibDems.

Is Boris really a Brexiter?

However, Boris’s apparent fight for Brexit is not quite all it might seem. His real interest, apart from remaining prime minister, is in a Brino that he thought he was best positioned to achieve on acceptable terms if he appeared to his European negotiating partners to be determined to ‘do or die’.

He hoped to take advantage of the fact that a no-deal Brexit would be as damaging to the imperialists of the remaining EU countries as it would be to the British imperialists, and that therefore there was scope for exacting more compromises in favour of the British imperialists from the EU if he could hold the threat of no-deal over them. Up to a point, he was right. Because of his adamant stand he was able to secure a concession allowing unilateral withdrawal from the customs union at any time before a bilateral trade agreement had been reached in ongoing negotiations.

The big drawback of Theresa May’s deal was that it tied the whole of Britain into a ‘backstop’ customs union indefinitely should the terms of a trade agreement not be reached, putting the EU effectively in a position to lock Britain into the customs union indefinitely simply by refusing to finalise a trade agreement.

Boris Johnson reopened the deal Theresa May had made, which had until then been said to be non-negotiable, and obtained the concession that the customs union would only apply to northern Ireland, and that northern Ireland would be able to pull out should its government so decide.

If in all other respects Boris Johnson’s deal was the same or worse than Mrs May’s, this concession, plus the fear of leaving without a deal, was enough to pull enough support from Parliament to enable it on ‘Super Saturday’, 19 October, to get it through its second reading in the House of Commons.

Johnson was prepared in the absence of a deal to ‘crash out’ without a deal, secure in the knowledge that the interests of the EU imperialists would force them to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal, probably sooner rather than later.

In the event, however, despite getting a withdrawal bill accepted by the House of Commons, he was frustrated in his bid to get Britain out of the EU by 31 October as the Commons were not prepared to back further legislation that would enable the bill to become law without going through the usual parliamentary scrutiny procedure that would have delayed it from coming into effect until after the Halloween deadline.

“A total of 19 Labour MPs from leave areas joined independents and hardline Eurosceptic Tories to form a ramshackle pro-deal coalition, which delivered a bigger than expected majority of 30 for Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill.

“But the prime minister’s attempt to ram the bill through Parliament in time for his ‘do or die’ Brexit deadline was rebuffed by MPs, who want more time to scrutinise the legislation. MPs rejected the so-called programme motion by 322 votes to 308.” (Boris Johnson wins Brexit deal vote but is thwarted on deadline by George Parker, Sebastian Payne, Laura Hughes and Jim Brunsden, Financial Times, 22 October 2019)

Establishment resistance to no-deal Brexit

Johnson’s strategy for obtaining better terms for his Brino than Mrs May was able to secure for hers terrified the establishment ,which was not prepared to countenance the risk of Britain leaving without a deal – even though that was small. After all, little or no preparation had been made for this and a certain degree of chaos would certainly have ensued.

Johnson’s attempt at the end of August to prorogue parliament for five weeks in order to forestall all parliamentary attempts to prevent a no-deal exit was first countered by MPs seizing control of Commons business, with the aid of speaker John Bercow, who is sympathetic to the remainer cause. In the short time before the prorogation came into effect, and under the leadership of Oliver Letwin, a Tory ‘soft’ Brexiter, an act was passed making it illegal to exit unless Parliament had agreed a withdrawal agreement.

Johnson responded by removing the whip from the 21 Tory MPs who had voted against him on this issue, including such worthies as Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames. He thereby reduced his party’s voting strength in the Commons quite considerably. Subsequently and unsurprisingly Johnson’s prorogation was declared illegal by the supreme court.

As a result, Parliament returned after a short break, and remainers led by Hilary Benn were able to secure the passing of an act forcing Johnson to ask the EU for an extension should an acceptable deal not be agreed by 31 October.

Johnson was in the meantime getting EU support for his withdrawal bill, with the help of Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, who declared himself fully in support of the new arrangements proposed for northern Ireland, providing for the latter alone (ie, not the whole of the UK) to remain in the EU customs union, thus avoiding a hard border between the north and south of Ireland and moving it instead to the Irish Sea.

This left the northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose support the British Conservative government had been relying ever since the 2017 election, screaming with rage, since it could not accept that northern Ireland should be treated any differently to the rest of the UK. But the new deal was nevertheless able to gain enough parliamentary support to be accepted by the House of Commons on 19 October.

However, “Boris Johnson’s plan to pass his Brexit deal on Saturday was thwarted by an amendment to delay approval of the proposals ‘unless and until implementing legislation is passed’ …

“The amendment was designed to close a potential loophole that could have resulted in a no-deal Brexit. If Johnson had passed his deal on Saturday and swerved the Benn Act’s requirement to ask for a Brexit extension, but then had failed to pass legislation implementing his deal before the Brexit deadline, the UK could have been forced out of the EU without a deal.

“The amendment delaying approval of Johnson’s deal meant that on Saturday evening, the PM was forced to make a request to Brussels for a Brexit extension.” (Who is Oliver Letwin and what does his amendment mean for Brexit? By James Ashfor, The Week, 21 October 2019)

This amendment was again tabled by the now ex-Tory rebel Oliver Letwin.

Having been forced to apply to the EU for an extension, Johnson then urged EU leaders not to grant it. However, after some recalcitrance on the part of France’s Emmanuel Macron, granted it was.

So now it’s an election

At this point, Johnson decided there was nothing for it but to go for an election which, in the hope of getting a Tory majority in Parliament that would enable him to push through his withdrawal bill substantially unchanged, with Britain exiting the EU on 31 January 2020, if not before.

However, Johnson has wanted such an election for a long time, but has been unable to obtain it because the Fixed Terms Parliament Act requires two-thirds of MPs to vote in favour of one, and there was no way such a majority could be obtained.

Labour, trailing behind in the polls, would not agree, although it claimed it was anxious for the people’s voice to be heard – but only if no-deal was off the table. In the event, Johnson withdrew the withdrawal bill and thereby secured support from the House for a general election on 12 December to elect a new government.

As the Tories are riding high in the opinion polls, one might expect that a Tory government with an overall majority in the House of Commons would be a foregone conclusion, but the bourgeois media are far from confident of that, the preferred outcome for the establishment.

The New York Times helpfully summed up the situation:

“Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, in the boldest gamble of his high-wire political career, won backing on Tuesday to hold a general election on 12 December, throwing back to the British people the bedevilling issue of how, or even if, their country should leave the European Union.

“The 438-20 vote in Parliament, which came after the opposition Labour party dropped its resistance, provided the starting gun for one of the most momentous and unpredictable campaigns in post-World War 2 Britain, a six-week race that could forever alter Britain’s relationship to Europe and its place in the world.

“Much will hinge on the sentiments of a fickle British public that is not just divided into warring camps but exhausted with the whole shambolic process and hoping for something, anything, finally to be decided – as long as it is not for the other side.

“The motion to hold the election must still go to the House of Lords, where it could conceivably be held up, but that was unlikely.

“For Mr Johnson, a flamboyant populist who took office in July and has presided over a period of unrelenting political upheaval but little tangible progress, the election is a bet that he and his Conservative party can win a parliamentary majority by selling to the public a Brexit plan that Parliament has held up.

“But it comes with extraordinary risks, not least that Britain could end up in the same political cul-de-sac it is in today, with no party winning a clear majority and with Parliament still hopelessly divided about the way forward, more than three years after Britons voted to leave the European Union.

“It is also plausible that the divided opposition camp could put aside its differences and ride a wave of public disgust with the Conservative government’s failures to an upset victory that puts the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the prime minister’s office and leads to a softening or outright reversal of Brexit.” (Britain to hold election in December, opening new phase in Brexit odyssey by Mark Landler, 29 October 2019)

The pro-remain Financial Times worried: “This election could be the most important since the end of the second world war. It could determine the country’s long-term trade, political and security relationship with Europe and the future of the union between England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland. A victory for the Labour party, meanwhile, could lead to a wholesale shift towards state intervention in the economy and away from its critical defence and security relationship with the US.

“Britain needs a campaign that reflects the gravity of the decision. Political parties must set out a vision for the shape of the economy and Britain’s place in the world. This means providing a blueprint for a strong relationship with the EU that maintains close ties with the bloc.” (A winter election that could reshape Britain by Editorial Board, Financial Times, 29 October 2019)

The four parties front-running the election are of course the Tories, Labour, the LibDems and the Brexit party. Insofar as the election will amount to another Brexit referendum in all but name, the Tories stand for the Johnson Brino, Labour stands for a softer Brino, the LibDems for revoking Article 50 altogether and the Brexit party for leaving without a deal.

The Brexit party is expected to do its best to help the Tories secure an overall majority – eg, by not putting up candidates against sitting Tory MPs – but this is controversial within that party, many of whose members are opposed to any kind of Brino.

In the areas of the country that voted remain in the referendum (Scotland, northern Ireland and London in particular), the Tories are likely to lose seats to the LibDems.

In the Brexit-supporting rustbelts of Wales, the Midlands and northern England that traditionally vote for the Labour party, there will undoubtedly be disappointment that Labour MPs have ignored their constituents’ wishes, and the Labour party is likely to lose votes either to abstentions or to the Brexit party, and possibly even to the Tories.

The LibDems and the Brexit party respectively are both likely to gain many votes from those in the electorate who want either the repeal of Article 50 or a no-deal Brexit rather than any compromise, but neither is likely to gain sufficient support to form a government. Their votes, however, may well be sufficient to prevent either the Conservatives or Labour gaining an overall majority.

Class-conscious working-class voters face a dilemma: should they vote primarily to secure a no-deal Brexit, or should they vote for a Corbyn Labour government that is putting forward a wide-ranging programme of renationalisation and anti-austerity measures that is causing significant alarm to the British bourgeoisie?

Although Johnson is also offering inducements to the working class to try to persuade them to vote Tory, they are not as far reaching as Corbyn’s and are expensive as they involve lowering corporation tax and other concessions to the rich.

As far as Corbyn is concerned, a question arises as to what he would be able to do if he became prime minister when such a high proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party is opposing him, including members who openly accuse him of being a racist and an antisemite?