By Martin Thomas
The Tory cabinet has approved May’s Brexit deal. Two leading Tory ministers have resigned, alongside several less prominent ones. There is talk of a vote of no confidence in May being triggered among Tory MPs.
I am not a fly on the wall of Downing Street, or of Parliament’s corridors, so I’m no more able to guess outcomes than a competent bourgeois journalist. In fact, less able.
One thing for fairly sure: the next weeks and months will be a time of high turbulence over Brexit, with, almost certainly, many moments of high drama, and many twists and turns.
The anti-Brexit left needs to get out onto the streets, onto the doorsteps, into the trade-union and Labour Party meetings, with our basic message.
We need to recruit more activists to the local Left Against Brexit groups, not just see it as a matter of hurling the relatively small numbers of activists already assembled at the mass of waverers and pro-Leave people.
We need to make ourselves an active factor in shaping the options.
Despite being 585 pages long, May’s document actually says little about the shape of EU-British relations after the “transition period” (in which all EU rules still apply) ends in December 2020 or in 2021.
It has a vague commitment to keep the whole UK in a UK-EU customs union indefinitely, and to keep Single Market rules in Northern Ireland for a while. That will mean some new checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland (there are already some “phylosanitary” checks on agricultural goods).
Some Tory “hard Brexiters” want to get Brexit “over the line” and then fight later about the shape of future links, but a fair number prefer “no deal”. The DUP is angry about the new checks.
The DUP and the Tory right say they will vote against the deal in Parliament. (The date pencilled in is 7 December). The Labour leadership says it will vote against.
Jeremy Corbyn said recently that “we can’t stop Brexit”, but that is visibly untrue.
May may amend the formula, or produce “side-letters”, to win over the DUP or wavering Tory right-wingers, between now and 7 December. If she is defeated on 7 December, then she (or conceivably a replacement Tory leader), may respond by going back to the EU and producing further amendments and “side-letters” to win a further vote in Parliament.
That is how such things work. Each faction in the jockeying has every interest in pushing things to the 13th hour and to the brink of complete breakdown, in order to get the maximum concessions.
The Canada-Europe Trade Agreement was apparently torpedoed in late 2016 by the parliament of the Walloon region of Belgium voting it down by a large majority. It was pushed over the line by negotiators drafting a four-page supplementary text to signal responsiveness to the Walloons’ concerns. But only after it looked as if eight years of negotiation might end in nothing.
However, if Labour stands solid against May’s formula, it is unlikely that she can reduce the rebel numbers enough to get it, or any amended version, through Parliament.
That would then open the possibility of an early general election or a referendum. The Tory government is unlikely to go for either willingly when it is in a state of disarray and discredit. But there may well be a majority in Parliament for a referendum, or for the two votes of no confidence 14 days apart required to force an early general election.
The big issue looming behind all such speculations is: what will Labour say?
In Parliament on 15 November Jeremy Corbyn played politics by highlighting the claim that the Tory deal “breaches the Prime Minister’s own red lines”, and called on May to withdraw it.
Since no substantively new deal could conceivably be negotiated in time for the scheduled formal Brexit date of March 2019, that means calling for Brexit to be suspended – postponed indefinitely. Which really would be the first step to stopping it altogether.
But Corbyn didn’t say that. He says that “we can’t stop Brexit” and that Labour would instead seek an undefined “workable plan”.
That line weakens Labour in calling into line Labour MPs inclined to vote for May’s deal (or a revamped second version of it). They will say that the only real alternative to it is a very hard “no deal” Brexit, or an indefinite postponement of Brexit. They will be right on that, and the only coherent answer is: yes, Brexit should be indefinitely postponed. In fact, scrapped.
It makes Labour weak going into a possible early general election. Who will believe a vague promise to negotiate a better deal (on really, fundamentally, the same criteria as the Hammond wing of the Tories)?
It makes Labour weak going into a referendum. Is it going to try to get its “negotiate a new deal” onto the ballot paper? That will have little credibility.
Push Labour to come out against Brexit!
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