Undeterred by the worst Conservative performance for 24 years in the 2 May 2019 local elections and the threat of an even more damaging outcome in the 23 May European elections, Prime Minister Theresa May resolved to make a last ditch stand, a fourth attempt to get her Brexit withdrawal agreement through Parliament.[1] On 21 May in a speech at the London headquarters of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the second largest professional services multinational in the world and one of the Big Four auditors, she outlined the content of her supposed ‘new and improved’ and ‘bold’ 100-page withdrawal agreement bill. The Prime Minister intended to put forward her revamped bill to be debated in Parliament in the week beginning 3 June.

Over the next 24 hours her plans unravelled. As Eurosceptic Tory MP Mark Francois callously stated, her withdrawal bill ‘was dead on arrival’. Its publication was postponed. More than 70 Conservative MPs who had previously backed her Brexit agreement announced they would no longer support her compromise plan. Eight cabinet ministers declared they could not support it unless she dropped the offer of a confirmatory referendum. By the evening of 22 May the Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom had quit the cabinet, saying she no longer believed that the government’s approach could deliver Brexit. Her resignation was the 36th by a minister under Prime Minister Theresa May, 21 of them over Brexit and it came a day before the UK voted in the European elections. With her party facing a hammering by Nigel Farage’s right-wing Brexit party, May was under relentless pressure to resign or be kicked out by her party. On the morning of 24 May she announced she would resign on 7 June. DAVID YAFFE reports.

The ‘bold’ new plan

A no deal Brexit, supported by a considerable number of Tory MPs, had been rejected by Parliament. May intended to present her ‘bold’ new ‘compromise’ plan as the ‘last chance’ to deliver on the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. The ‘new and improved’ measures in this package included:

  • A promise to allow MPs a vote on whether the final withdrawal agreement should be put to a confirmatory referendum, with the government accepting the outcome.
  • Two choices on customs arrangements provided the withdrawal agreement bill passed its second reading. The first would be May’s existing proposal of a close customs arrangement between the UK and EU and the second, a temporary customs union on goods, running until the next general election.
  • A new workers’ rights bill guaranteeing EU standards of protection.
  • A guarantee that environmental standards would not fall below EU ones, monitored by a new independent body.
  • A legal duty to find alternative technological arrangements to ensure there would be no physical checks on the Irish border before the ‘backstop’ deadline of December 2020. If the Irish ‘backstop’ ever came into force, mainland Britain would remain aligned with the North of Ireland on regulations and customs, to avoid a new border being set up in the Irish Sea.[2]
  • A promise to seek ‘as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible, while outside the single market and ending free movement’.
  • Parliament would have to approve Britain’s objectives for trade talks as well as the treaties covering the future UK-EU relationship.

The new package was approved at an unruly cabinet meeting on 21 May leaving Eurosceptic ministers furious about the proposal of a binding vote on a referendum if the agreement is passed, as well as the offer of a vote on whether to adopt a temporary customs union for goods. There was further Tory anger over May’s acceptance of measures that turned Britain into a rule-taker from the EU on workers’ rights and the environment as part of the Prime Minister’s further concessions to the Labour Party. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which shores up May’s minority government, rejected the new agreement as a ‘hodge-podge’.

The Prime Minister pleaded with her critics to consider her new offer, arguing that if they rejected it they would be ‘voting to stop Brexit’. She said ‘I have compromised – now I ask you to compromise too’. Her overtures to Labour were to no avail. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘We won’t back a repackaged version of the same old deal – and it’s clear that this weak and disintegrating government is unable to deliver on its own commitments.’

May conceded that unless her withdrawal agreement was approved by MPs there would have to be ‘a general election or a second referendum that could lead to revocation and no Brexit at all’. She warned that extending the Brexit deadlock ‘risks opening the door to a nightmare future of permanently polarised politics’. The popularity of Nigel Farage’s far right Brexit party and the damaging impact it was having on the Tory Party was clearly what she had in mind. Many Labour MPs seemed only too prepared to watch passively as this process played out. Corbyn’s complacency encouraged this. On launching the Labour Party’s manifesto for the European elections on 9 May he said: ‘We could allow ourselves to be defined as ‘remainers’ or ‘leavers’ labels that meant nothing to us only a few years ago. But where would that take us? Who wants to live in a country stuck in this endless loop?’ He has no grasp of the depth of the crisis of British imperialism and its real political consequences.

The Brexit deadlock has had serious repercussions for both of the main bourgeois parties. In the local elections on 2 May the Tory party suffered a net loss of 1,333 seats in comparison with the 2015 local elections, a drubbing on a scale not seen since 1995 when John Major’s Tory government was at its lowest point. Labour had been expected to make significant net gains of around 400 seats. In the event it made a net loss of 82 seats, losing control of councils such as Darlington, Wirral and Burnley. The main beneficiaries were the remain-supporting Liberal Democrats making a net gain of 704 seats and the Green Party with a net gain of 164 seats. It was as a result of these losses that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn committed to talks seeking a cross-party solution to the Brexit deadlock.

On 17 May the Labour Party pulled out of the cross-party talks to agree a Brexit deal, saying ‘they had gone as far as they can’. Jeremy Corbyn wrote to May: ‘The increasing weakness and instability of your government means there cannot be confidence in securing whatever may be agreed between us.’ He pointed to senior cabinet members rejecting any form of customs union, ‘regardless of proposals made by government negotiators’. Labour would continue to oppose the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal ahead of the House of Commons vote unless there were significant changes. May replied: ‘We have not been able to overcome the fact that there is not a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum which could reverse it’. The indecision in both the main bourgeois parties over Brexit opened the way for the right-wing opportunist Nigel Farage with his clear-cut no deal Brexit nationalism to take centre stage.

Nigel Farage and British politics

The Brexit Party is a far right political party campaigning for the exit of the UK from the EU without remaining part of the single market or customs union. Nigel Farage officially launched the Brexit Party’s European campaign as leader of that party on 12 April 2019. It had consistently polled over 30% on some surveys ahead of the election, more than Labour and the Conservative Party combined.

As we go to press with four seats out of 73 still to be declared, the projected results show that: Farage’s Brexit Party came first with 29 seats (31.6% of the vote, new party); Liberal Democrats 16 seats (20.3%, up 13.7 percentage points); Labour Party 10 seats (14.1%, down 11.3); Green Party 7 seats (12.1%, up 4.2); Conservative Party 4 seats (9.9%, down 14) and SNP 3 seats (3.6%, up 1.2). The turnout was a dismal 36.7%. This is a devastating loss for the Conservative and Labour parties.

Farage was previously the leader of UKIP who whipped up anti-immigrant hostility during the EU Referendum campaign in 2016, when he unveiled a poster showing a long stream of migrants under the slogan ‘Breaking Point’. His ‘populist’ and ‘anti-establishment’ appeal is totally phoney. This privately-educated former City commodities broker, according to Channel 4, was generously funded by his friend insurance businessman Arron Banks in the year of the Brexit referendum. Farage benefited from a £13,000-a-month Chelsea home, a car with a driver, and promotional visits to the US in 2016. The EU has launched an investigation into reports that Nigel Farage’s luxury lifestyle following the EU referendum was funded by a £450,000 gift from Arron Banks. Though Farage claims he has not asked Banks for donations to his Brexit Party, there is concern about the source of multiple, small anonymous donations each of less than £500 via a PayPal account. The Electoral Commission has been asked to launch an investigation into the funding of the Brexit Party.[3]

Ruling class disarray

The parasitic character of British capitalism has made it increasingly incapable of withstanding the economic and political challenges of US or European imperialism as an independent global imperialist power.[4] The Brexit conflict is essentially a dispute between sections of the ruling class over two necessarily, totally reactionary outcomes for British capitalism – staying as part of a European imperialist bloc or leaving and becoming an offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of US imperialism. In addition, Brexit is creating serious obstacles to sustaining the City of London as a leading global financial centre and with it the material basis for the standard of living of the more privileged sections of the British working class.

Parliament exists to put forward and pass legislation which sustains ruling class interests in this country. With the ruling class split on Brexit this is not a straightforward process, so the divisions between and within parties in Parliament begin to take on a significant role. MPs are a privileged, well-paid political elite with access to many other lucrative positions. They are protected from the devastating effects that the crisis of capitalism is imposing on millions of working class people. They will manoeuvre and battle to ensure that they sustain these privileges. This is manifest in the wheeling and dealing between the main bourgeois political parties over Brexit in the House of Commons and will continue after May’s resignation.

The Tory Party is irrevocably divided. The hard no deal Brexiters believe, as does Farage, that the UK can be an independent global power outside the EU. They are a privileged elite who will indulge in populist rhetoric while imposing an authoritarian austerity on the vast majority of the working class. They see the future of Britain as a deregulated offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of US imperialism. They are unconcerned that a no deal Brexit will do immense harm to an already crisis-ridden British economy.  They are risking the existence of the Tory Party in their determination to pursue this illusory goal. May’s indecisive manoeuvring has finally allowed the hard-Brexiters to seize control of the party and forced her resignation. Her fate has now become inevitably entangled with the race to succeed her as leader of the Tory Party. It is a signal for numerous careerist, duplicitous MPs, potentially around 20 at the last count, including the incompetent former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, to put their names forward for the top job. 

Whoever takes over cannot change the fundamentals. The irrevocably split Tory Party will continue to tear itself apart. Over 30 years Europe has destroyed the last four Conservative Prime Ministers. As the crisis of global capitalism deepens further it will continue to do so.

24 May 2019

[1] See David Yaffe ‘Brexit: Ruling class deadlock’ in FRFI 268 February/March 2019 on our website at https://tinyurl.com/yy27pczg andBrexit: Tory government in meltdown’ in FRFI 269 April/May 2019 at https://tinyurl.com/yyssvl8k for the three other attempts.

[2] See ‘Brexit: Ruling class deadlock’ op cit for a discussion of the Irish ‘backstop’.

[3] Much of the information in this article has been taken from the Financial Times and The Guardian over the week beginning 20 May 2019.

[4] See David Yaffe ‘Britain: parasitic and decaying capitalism’ FRFI 194 December 2006/January 2007 at http://tinyurl.com/88po6dx for a discussion on the parasitic character of British capitalism and the importance of the City of London for the British economy.