by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nualláin
Boris Johnson’s recent no-show at a press briefing with the Luxemburg premier Xavier Bettel is the latest in a series of public humiliations for the new British Prime Minister. It follows a string of public appearances where his incoherent mutterings have been drowned out by loud and angry protest. It also follows the resignation of several Cabinet ministers and a ‘purge’ of 21 Tory MPs for rebelling against the government during a crucial vote in Parliament, which has resulted in Johnson sacrificing his majority.
As the crunch European Council meeting of 17-18 October fast approaches, there is a growing sense that Johnson is not the strategic mastermind once feared by sections of the left and the liberal media: that the case for underestimating his ability to resolve the crisis of Brexit, the Tory Party and the British state is now being vindicated.
Johnson’s visit to Luxembourg has proved disastrous in more ways than one. The Financial Times has revealed that during a lunch meeting with Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker, the British Prime Minister was told by his EU counterparts that the UK’s plans to replace the backstop by allowing Northern Ireland to adhere to EU rules on food and livestock (SPS) was not enough to resolve the customs problem and avoid checks on the majority of goods at the border. Johnson is said to have slumped in his chair as the realisation dawned on him that the scope for agreeing a workable solution before 31 October has narrowed significantly. This realisation has since been articulated by the UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who has suggested that the government may need another year to develop a concrete alternative to the backstop.
It is clear that Johnson wishes to escape with a deal that scrapes through Parliament. He is talking up the prospect of a no-deal exit and preparing for that eventuality, but ultimately his desperate strategy rests on coming back with a reheated version of May’s deal at the eleventh hour and cajoling enough MPs Tory Brexiteers, Labour MPs and the DUP into backing it. As the chances of this diminish, he may even be forced to bribe or circumvent the DUP and revert to a Northern Ireland only backstop. He knows from previous votes on May’s deal that MPs from the hardline ERG, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, are only too willing to throw the DUP under the bus in order to achieve some form of Brexit.
The chances of a snap election have diminished slightly after opposition parties twice blocked Johnson’s call for an early vote. Opposition MPs and Tory rebels are of the view that Johnson will fail to secure a deal and that no election should be held before the threat of no-deal is removed. To this effect, they have passed legislation which will compel the Prime Minister to seek a three-month extension to the Article 50 negotiation process if he is unable to reach a new deal by 19 October. Johnson’s supporters have insisted that there are ‘loopholes’ in the Benn Act, as it is known, which would enable him to deliver Brexit on 31 October without breaking the law. How exactly, and what the political consequences of this might be, are uncertain at this stage, but it is likely that pressure on Johnson will continue to mount once that particular milestone has passed.
This pressure would no doubt intensify if the Supreme Court were to support the ruling of Scotland’s highest court that Johnson’s five-week suspension of Parliament was unlawful. This case, initiated by an elite group of Remainers led by the businesswoman Gina Miller, is part of the ongoing struggle between competing factions of the ruling class, prosecuted through the various institutions of Britain’s crumbling state. But the outcome will nonetheless have real-world consequences and political implications in terms of strengthening or weakening the hand of Johnson and the faction currently in control of the executive. Should the Supreme Court find against the government, this would heighten the political crisis of the British state and greatly add to the momentum towards a general election.
Gearing up for a general election
While there remains the possibility of a general election this year, it could be held no earlier than 19 November. There could be plenty more twists and turns before then. But it is clear that Johnson has been on an election footing since his coronation as Tory leader and British Prime Minister, as evidenced by the steady stream of pledges for additional police officers, ‘extra’ NHS funding, increased investment in education, and so on.
The opposition parties meanwhile have been working to carve out their respective positions in advance of an election. The Liberal Democrats have invested their hopes for electoral gain in the promise to revoke Article 50 and simply cancel Brexit. This is an empty pledge that has virtually no possibility of being redeemed, but has nonetheless been elevated above any concern for challenging the Tories on key economic questions, setting out a vision for post-Brexit Britain or learning the lessons of the party’s role in implementing austerity measures.
Under their new leader Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems have adopted a lowest-common-denominator strategy of housing an assortment of opportunists, austerity hawks and outright reactionaries – from Chuka Umunna to Phillip Lee and Sam Gyimah – solely on the basis of their support for Remain. Swinson will look to make Brexit the sole focus of any election, for short-term political capital. But despite sitting on 20 percent in some polls, her party’s threadbare position on leaving the EU and dearth of ideas beyond that single issue are unlikely to withstand the cut and thrust of an election campaign.
The polls may not look great from Labour’s perspective, some putting them just ahead of the Lib Dems and as many as twelve points behind the Tories. But there is such wild variation in the polling figures that they are no longer a serious or accurate gauge of public opinion – if they ever were, that is. This reflects the fragmentation of the political system and uncertainty of the current moment. It also emphasises the increasing need to root political analysis and strategy in a bottom-up perspective, rather than adjusting one’s course hastily based on how polling figures adjudge the latest episode in Parliament.
This bottom-up approach was Labour’s strength at the time of the 2017 election, when the polls gave Corbyn’s party not the slightest chance of making inroads. There is reason to believe that a similar mobilisation around a radical, transformative programme could bring about a repeat of that result or better this time around. On the one hand, the decision of the Lib Dems to prioritise its hard Remain position over all else should present a stark choice for those who do not wish to see a hard Brexit but are also deeply concerned about climate change, insecure employment, low pay, welfare cuts, housing, the underfunding of education and the NHS, and the raft of challenges to which Labour has radical and well-developed answers. The popularisation of these answers through a vibrant election campaign and wider mobilisation of the Labour left and trade unions could have the effect of concentration people’s minds on the issues at stake.
Labour’s big challenge
Labour activists will have an opportunity to craft existing policies and new ones into a fresh election manifesto at this weekend’s party conference. However, there are also number of difficult questions that will need to be negotiated. Above all, the push to make Labour a party of Remain is due to reach its crescendo at the conference, with reports indicating that the majority of Brexit-related motions are calling for the party to campaign for Remain during a second referendum.
Corbyn has so far pledged that a Labour government would ‘would secure a sensible deal based on the terms we have long advocated, including a new customs union with the EU, a close single market relationship, and guarantees of workers’ rights and environmental protections,’ and to put that deal up against Remain in a second referendum. He has also said that he would stay neutral in such a referendum, allow Labour MPs to back either side and ultimately respect the result as Prime Minister. This, he reasons, is not just the honourable thing to do. It also based on a sound political logic that recognises the serious divisions over Brexit, but seeks to avoid entrenching them and instead unite people around Labour’s programme.
This is the strategy which Corbyn’s team has being pursuing for some time, but is coming under increasing pressure from within and outside the Labour Party. What began as an obvious project of the Blairite and liberal right to undermine Corbyn’s position and the prospect of a transformative Labour government, now has the support of key Corbyn allies such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, both of whom have come out in favour of Remain in recent times. This of course is their prerogative. But as Martin Hall has argued, it also has to be understood as the latest in a series of concessions and retreats by the Labour left, as the further shifting of power within the party to the forces of the right.
Labour could well come out of its conference revitalised and on the front foot for a general election. Should this be the case, the Tory conference in a week’s time will provide a focal point for early mobilisation and protest. The Tories are in deep crisis and there for the taking, regardless of what the polls say. But for Labour to back Remain and move into the same political space as the Lib Dems at this juncture may risk positioning the party on one side of a culture war and on the side of maintaining the status quo. In such circumstances Labour’s capacity to speak to the economic interests of the many would be seriously weakened.