The vote to leave the European Union has thrown a spanner in the works of the British political machine. Labour and the Tories are divided over Brexit. Only the Liberal Democrats are united. But their support for Britain remaining in the EU and calls for a second referendum on the final deal go against public opinion. Opinion polls show that voters, both leave and remain, simply want the whole exercise to be completed as quickly as possible.
Boris Johnson’s 4,200 word essay in the Daily Telegraph of 16 September, in which he appeared to question Theresa May’s ability to lead, set the cat among the pigeons. Naturally, he denied it was a bid for the Tory leadership. Nevertheless, it was distinctly unhelpful. It came just days before May was due to set out the government’s proposals for a positive Brexit in Florence, the birthplace of the 16th century political philosopher and schemer Niccolo Machiavelli.
Johnson’s essay was described as a carefully constructed case for a dynamic global Britain once it leaves the EU. But it contained elements of his political views that are a cause for concern. It is said that the devil is in the detail. And there appears to be a lot of the devil in his promise that after we leave the EU, “We will keep environmental and social standards that are fair and wise.” If Johnson, the devil , a strong advocate of deregulation and free markets, is to judge what is fair and wise then we can expect a clear out of at least some environmental and social standards, including workers’ rights.
Answering the critics of his essay, which they claimed was divisive, Johnson boasted that “we are a nest of singing birds.” Blissfully unaware that birds sing in trees not nests. Even former Tory leader Lord (William) Hague, said that Johnson’s speech showed “a lack of coordination” between Ministers. This is just Newspeak for a total absence of discipline within the government, led by a weak Theresa May.
May’s unwise decision to hold a general election this year, with the resultant loss of her majority, has held back progress on the Brexit negotiations. The March 2019 deadline for leaving the EU has become too short a period in which to hammer out a positive deal for Britain. May’s Florence speech recognises this. Hence her call for a two year transition period during which Britain will remain within the single market. Plus the offer of 20bn euro as a down payment of the leaving bill, with the total bill possibly in excess of 40bn.
May’s acceptance of EU rules during the two year period, including allowing EU citizens to live and work in Britain, submitting to EU laws and paying into the EU budget may be practical politics, but it will not find favour among her Brexit hardliners. Boris Johnson is said to be supportive. But who knows what really goes on in the head of a man who changes his mind more often than a catwalk model changes her clothes. Johnson and other hardline Tories will cry foul, but the party will close ranks as Tories do when faced with a resurgent Labour opposition.
May has to straddle the hard-line Brexiters who want a clean break from the EU and the softer Remainers who seek a positive, practical break that protects the economy. It is a tough task which, in spite of the flowery rhetoric, she is incapable of resolving. She is caught in a revolving door from which there appears to be no escape.
In ruling out both a Norway-style deal inside the European economic area and a Canada-style (CETA) free trade deal, on finally leaving the EU, it seems that May is gambling on attaining beneficial global free trade deals under WTO rules. At the same time as successfully negotiating mutually beneficial free trade terms with the EU. Like Boris Johnson, she may believe that we are living in an “exciting time, full of promise”, but it is the promise of ultimate failure that many people fear.
Jeremy Corbyn was quick to point out that May’s support for remaining within the single market for a limited period closely reflects Labour’s policy. Like May, Corbyn has his opponents within the party. A group of forty or so Labour MPs, MEPs, members of the Lords, trade unions and mayors have called for Labour to adopt a more bold policy of full and permanent membership of the single market and the customs union. If Labour were to go down this road it would effectively commit political Hari-Kari. It would be seen as an arrogant rejection of the result of the June 2016 referendum. And public anger would be likely to manifest itself in the next general election.
Continuing membership of the single market during a transition period is the only point of agreement between Labour and the Tories. A substantial difference between the two lies in the detail of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which received its second reading on 11 September. Labour’s opposition to the Bill is based primarily on the understanding that Clause 9 enables the Executive, if it so wishes, to bypass the House of Commons in converting EU law into UK domestic law, the so-called Henry VIIIth clause.
Labour, understandably, is playing a cautious game. Adopting a pragmatic policy. It accepts that Britain will leave the EU, but seeks a deal that protects the economy, jobs, and workers’ rights. The attempt to tie Labour down to a policy of permanent membership of the single market and customs union has been sidelined for now. But its supporters will no doubt continue to press its case, providing credence for those who accuse Labour of being divided on the EU.
Jeremy Corbyn claims that Labour is now the mainstream party, brushing off accusations of a hard-left takeover of the party. Labour’s 2017 election manifesto was more Keynes than Marx. It had costed spending programmes designed to stimulate growth and productivity.
At Labour’s recent conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell set out a bold, radical programme of returning energy, post, rail and water to the public sector. These are laudable objectives, popular with conference and the wider public. Privatisation of these services has failed. But Labour must show in more detail how it is to be paid for without placing too much of a burden on public spending.
Corbyn’s leadership is now firmly established among party members, with whom he is the most popular Labour leader in living memory. But while there is a semblance of unity within the parliamentary party, a significant number of his colleagues continue to undermine him. They resent the disproportionate influence of party members over the election of the party leader. They opposed the lowering of the percentage of nominations from MPs required for a candidate’s name to appear on the ballot paper. This was reduced at Labour’s conference from 15% to 10% of the members of the parliamentary party. This facilitates a candidate from the left of the party to stand for the leadership. So, as long as the party retains an electoral system of one member one vote, with a membership leaning to the left, many Labour MPs will continue to voice their dissatisfaction.
The Labour Party is in a strong position in a fast-moving situation. Continuing turmoil within the Tories means that a leadership contest in the party cannot be ruled out. That could easily occur if May has to make more concessions to the EU negotiators, who so far have shown themselves to be surprisingly resolute. At some point Labour will need to shed its ambiguity and adopt a stance on the deal that is presented to Parliament. Up to that point however, it needs to make sure that the Tories own Brexit and everything that flows from it. The negotiations could well turn out to be a fiasco, both in terms of what the UK is able to negotiate and what the Tory party is prepared to accept. It must be seen to be their fiasco, not Labour’s.