A rising sense of panic is gripping the strategists of British capitalism as the 31 October Brexit deadline draws ever closer. “Britain’s exit from the European Union without a withdrawal deal would be an unequivocal national calamity”, the Guardian newspaper editorialised (16 August). The usually more soberly-toned Financial Times has also used similar phrases.
Comparisons have been made with Winston Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return to the gold standard at pre-world war exchange rates, an effective 10% appreciation of sterling. This move was famously excoriated by John Maynard Keynes in his pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill, as a self-inflicted wound on the UK economy – although, as with the no deal, ‘soft Brexit’ or no Brexit debate today, there were no policies within the framework of capitalism that could have resolved the fundamental contradictions of a crisis-inherent system. Meanwhile, a leaked paper from inside Angela Merkel’s German government, reporting that the EU’s preparations for a no deal are “largely complete” in so far as they can be, assesses that Brexit with no withdrawal treaty is now a “high probability”.
Neither the British ruling class nor its counterparts in the 27 other capitalist nation states that comprise the EU, want a crash-out Brexit. But the conflicting interests, economic and political, within and between the different capitalist classes of the EU states and their political representatives, have not been overcome in the three years of negotiations. A breakdown of talks and a no-deal Brexit is now very much a conceivable outcome.
There is still a residual hope among the capitalist strategists, as we discussed in last month’s Socialism Today, “that Johnson could deliver a version of the current ‘Brexit-in-name-only’ withdrawal agreement” negotiated by Theresa May, “with suitable cosmetic amendments”, and that it might be possible to get this voted through parliament at the eleventh hour. But Johnson faces the same parliamentary arithmetic as May did and the same Tory party dysfunctionality, with a backbench bloc of ideological Brexiteers in the European Research Group now viewing only a no deal as their ‘gold standard’, the one true Brexit.
As the leaked German government document calculates, with Johnson having adopted so publically a “tough negotiating position” during the Tory leadership election and since, it is “currently unforeseeable” that he could execute a volte face with any guarantee of success.
Limits of parliamentary democracy
If there is no formal withdrawal treaty agreed by 11pm on 31 October the default position is that the current EU treaty obligations between Britain and the remaining EU27 countries will no longer apply at that point. To obtain a further extension to this ‘Article 50 process’ of leaving the EU it is the prime minister – not MPs on behalf of parliament but Boris Johnson ‘on behalf of Her Majesty’s government’ – who has to request one. That would then be considered by an EU summit.
The persisting powers of ‘the crown in parliament’ have been carefully preserved by the ruling class in the era of universal suffrage. They are held in reserve primarily for use to place obstacles before a left-wing government encroaching upon the rule of the capitalists under pressure from the working class. They were deployed, for instance, by the Queen’s representative in Australia to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s Labour government in 1975, a warning for a possible future Corbyn-led government. But they also come into play when the conflicting interests and ideological stances within the ruling class are too acute to be readily resolved, giving the executive freedom to manoeuvre.
This is why the talk of finding a legislative route to stop a no-deal Brexit short of bringing down the government is wishful thinking if Johnson follows through his ‘do or die’ bluff. Moreover, under the terms of the undemocratic Fixed-Term Parliaments Act brought in by the Con-Dem coalition, passing a vote of no confidence will not in itself remove him as prime minister.
Parliament will reconvene for two weeks on 3 September until the party conference season recess, and then resume sitting from 8 October. If Johnson loses a vote of no confidence there are 14 days for an alternative government to be formed but he remains as prime minister until a new government is established. In a similar way Gordon Brown remained as a ‘caretaker’ prime minister during the protracted hung parliament negotiations after the 2010 general election until the Con-Dem coalition was finally agreed. This provoked a front-page headline in The Sun against the ‘Squatter Holed Up in Number Ten’ but, with Jeremy Corbyn at the gates and the expectations that even this glimpse of him in power would arouse, the right-wing press narrative would be different.
This constitutional ambiguity was why Corbyn, in his letter to the other opposition parties and Tory rebel MPs, wrote that “following a successful vote of no confidence in the government, I would then, as leader of the opposition, seek the confidence of the house for a strictly time-limited temporary government with the aim of calling a general election and securing the necessary extension of article 50 to do so”. In that election, he went on, Labour would argue for “a public vote” on the terms of leaving the EU – with an incoming Labour government reopening talks with the EU – in which voting to remain would be an option.
If an alternative government is not formed within 14 days, however, and Johnson is unable to win a new confidence vote, it is still Johnson as the caretaker prime minister in situ who ‘advises the monarch’ on the date for a general election – with open speculation that it would be after the UK’s default exit from the EU on 31 October. Corbyn was correct, from the standpoint of parliamentary procedures, when he told The Observer that “the plan I set out last week” to form a minority Labour government to take the executive power to request an article 50 extension to allow for a general election, “is the simplest and most democratic way to stop no deal” (18 August).
But the problem with parliamentary manoeuvres that are not the product of and backed up by a consciously prepared mass movement is that they can sow confusion. The lack of clarity of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the whole preceding period, including a firm socialist and internationalist opposition to the EU bosses’ club – with McDonnell in particular flirting with a remain-in-all-circumstances position – has created a vacuum in which the dangerous idea of a longer-term ‘national unity government to stop a Brexit crash-out’ can gain an echo.
Corbyn has been elected twice as Labour Party leader and presided over the biggest increase in Labour’s vote between elections since 1945. Millions were inspired by his manifesto which, although it fell short of the socialist programme needed to overturn capitalism, promised to break with the austerity policies of the Tories and Labour’s Blairite right-wing. No other MP can be acceptable to the workers’ movement as an alternative prime minister. The trade unions, starting at the TUC conference in September, must reject the ‘national unity’ calls and intervene decisively with a mass campaign for an autumn general election.
Never Mind the B**** – stop Corbyn!
Corbyn’s manoeuvre did have the immediate effect of puncturing the ‘progressive’ posturing of pro-capitalist politicians who support the EU and oppose Brexit but are absolutely opposed to the prospect of a Corbyn-led government, even of a temporary character.
The Liberal Democrats contested the European parliament elections in May under the slogan, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, but it has become ever clearer that the enemy they are most concerned with is a Corbyn-led government. The new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson helped prop up David Cameron’s austerity government for five years, serving as a minister in the Con-Dem coalition, but rejected Corbyn’s call to sustain a minority government led by him for just five weeks. On her accession as leader in July – with the votes of 47,997 Lib Dem members, not even 0.1% of the UK electorate – she attacked Corbyn not only as untrustworthy over the EU, but as “dangerous for our national security and for our economic security too”.
The Blairites were also pushed onto the defensive initially. Swinson made it clear that she would back a ‘national unity government’ led by the former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, and “could work with” the current deputy leader Tom Watson. As even the generally Blairite-friendly Guardian journalist Rafael Behr commented, “there is something disingenuous about the discussions among MPs about a ‘government of national unity’ to avert a no-deal Brexit… It is, in truth, a euphemism for a model of a technocratic, centre-facing liberal administration defined as much by a rejection of Corbynism as by revulsion” at Brexit (16 August).
The ruling class faces a dilemma. The parliamentary impasse remains, no deal looms, and something should be done. But outside of wartime conditions, a national government is a tactic it has only considered resorting to, as in 1931, when the Tories are too weak to impose their programme alone but also after a section of the working class has become demoralised at the experience of a Labour government carrying through counter-reforms.
Churchill was explicit on the importance of such a preparatory period when, in mocking the King’s speech in the opening session of the 1929 parliament, he explained that it was “the fate” of the newly-elected minority Labour government – “it is indeed their punishment” – to “have to disappoint those who believed what they have said, and to discard or explain away the doctrines by which they have risen to great power”. The national government was formed two years later.
The danger for the capitalists now is that, if Corbyn stands firm in resisting attempts to install a government led by Harman, the former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke or any other figure, they can only achieve a national government by splitting the Labour Party before the advent of a Labour government. While this would, at least initially, leave Corbyn at the head of a smaller parliamentary group – possibly only the third-largest in parliament – the vomiting out of the Blairites would create new opportunities for Labour to develop as a mass workers’ party within which the ideas of socialism could find an ever-wider audience.
The Socialist Party would apply, once again, to affiliate to assist in this necessary transformation. While nothing is excluded in these turbulent times, the calculation is likely to be that the Blairites could fulfil a more valuable service to the capitalists by staying to sabotage a Corbyn-led government.
What is clear is that neither a reversal of the 2016 referendum result nor a capitalist Brexit – ‘soft’ or ‘no deal’ – can meet the interests of the working classes of Britain and Europe. The EU is a bosses’ club, whose rules and directives constitute Thatcherism on a continental scale. The economic outlook for British capitalism in the looming global downturn is bleak, whether it operates as part of the EU bloc or on World Trade Organisation terms.
In the same way, the escalating environmental crisis, which recognises no national borders, can only be dealt with by system change (see article on page nine). The main task of the workers’ movement is to arm itself with a socialist programme that can overturn capitalism – in Britain, Europe and across the globe.