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Britain: Theresa May’s Chequered Brexit

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After warning mutinous backbenchers that a divided Tory party risks paving the way for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government, Theresa May gambled on splitting the pro-Brexit faction of her party, and uniting the Cabinet around the “hybrid” negotiating position agreed at Chequers last Friday.

For now, it seems the gamble has paid off. David Davis waited until the ministerial chauffeur dropped him home before announcing his resignation, an act which forced Boris Johnson into an unscheduled late-night evacuation of the Foreign Secretary’s grace-and-favour residence in Carlton Gardens.

Although Davis’ deputy and two Tory Party vice-chairs have followed suit, the decision by senior pro-Brexit Cabinet members like Michael Gove to stay put, along with the public spat in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hardline European Research Group, shows May’s decision to call the Brexiteers’ bluff has paid off; the EU will demand, and May will accept, further concessions, aiming to present a Norway-style deal to parliament in October.

For the ‘no-deal’ Tories, the fact remains that, while they can make life difficult for May, they know that the majority of Tory MPs are only paying lip-service to Brexit, meaning there is little prospect of winning a vote of no confidence in May, and no parliamentary majority for the hard Brexit they want.

The only course open to them is to rouse Tory grassroots opposition through the reactionary press, and force May’s government to choose between relying on Labour votes, or pursuing a negotiating position to which the EU can only say no, and therefore presiding over a disorderly exit under the whip of the pro-Brexit fundamentalists. That threat now looks increasingly distant.

EU Response

While May will hope her White Paper is opaque enough to hide the cracks in her Cabinet, her precarious stability still depends on whether the EU considers it transparent enough to ensure real progress in negotiations by the October deadline.

Although EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier described negotiations as “80 per cent complete”, acknowledging the fact that the Chequers deal represents a further watering down of May’s ‘red lines’, the UK’s latest proposal still displays a considerable appetite to ‘have its cake and eat it’.

In substance, the UK proposes a “free trade area for goods”, in which the existing rules and customs arrangements for manufacturing and agricultural products would be maintained. Crucially, the European Court of Justice would retain the final say in arbitrating disputes.

These two concessions are central to hardline pro-Brexit objections because they would effectively rule out a trade deal with the United States (which, as well as asset stripping the UK’s public sector, also wants access to its markets for agricultural exports) and would make the UK a ‘rule-taker’ from Brussels, with no input.

Despite the fanfare, May’s “hybrid model” rests on a number of assumptions that the EU has already dismissed out of hand. The proposal for a “facilitated customs arrangement” would allow Britain to have the best of both worlds by pursuing independent trade deals on most goods and services, while in practice acting “as if” it is in the customs union.

Effectively, Britain’s negotiating position remains fundamentally unchanged in that it is based on splitting the four “fundamental freedoms” by accepting free movement and regulatory control for goods, but not for capital, services, or people.

The positive noises by some EU officials indicate negotiators have some room to grant reciprocal concessions in a final deal. Nevertheless, as it stands, May’s hybrid plainly breaches the EU’s Brexit guidelines, which are unequivocal in their commitment to the “indivisibility” of the single market.

Theresa May no doubt hopes that the EU’s bout of infighting over refugee and migrant policy will open up room for the UK to seek allies in central Europe and potentially within the German or Italian governing coalitions. However, France and the EU commission remain implacably opposed to any dilution of the four freedoms which underpin the European bloc’s ability to deepen its integration and compete with its international rivals.

Last week’s carefully orchestrated release of statements from Britain’s biggest corporations and financial institutions made clear that they do not want a no-deal Brexit and neither does the EU. Their problem is that Theresa May’s failure to substantially increase her majority in the last election (and thus marginalise the hard Brexit extremists), has left her with a self-inflicted handicap which they have not found a way to overcome.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and one senior EU negotiator has already described May’s hybrid model as “the fudge of the century”. Without further concessions on the recipe, this unpalatable concoction is doomed to be sent back untasted.

Labour’s Response

Jeremy Corbyn’s party will consider itself fortunate to have avoided the poisoned chalice of negotiating Brexit. It would have found the task virtually impossible, given the antagonism between the leadership’s commitment to “respecting the will of the people”, and the fact that the party’s members and supporters overwhelmingly oppose Brexit, even in Brexit-voting constituencies.

Labour’s position, as set out in Keir Starmer’s “Six Tests”, is itself a fudge, which allowed everyone to agree on the words but disagree on the substance. That worked when it was drafted, before the 2017 election, because the clear Tory majority meant few people were interested in pointing out the Official Opposition would be as naked in the negotiating chamber as HM Government.

The Tests rest on the demand that any deal deliver the “exact same benefits” that we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union. It also insists on “fair and managed migration”, that is, the end of free movement.

As the EU has made perfectly clear, there is no ‘a la carte’ Brexit on offer. If you want the benefits of access to the Single Market and Customs Union, you have to pay for them, and accept the indivisibility of the four freedoms, which means accepting free movement.

The truth is that the Six Tests are all about party management; in seeking to leave the institutions of the EU whilst retaining the benefits, there is only a cosmetic difference between its position and that of Theresa May. The Six Tests are not a serious negotiating position, and were not designed to be. They exist to put off the day when the party will be forced to choose between voting for a Brexit which fails the tests, or abandoning its commitment to leaving the EU.

As soon as Theresa May’s majority was slashed, Labour’s Brexit position was rendered unfit for purpose. Labour could not now credibly fight a general election campaign on a negotiating position that the Tories have shown won’t wash. If the Tories put a deal to Parliament and Labour votes against it because it fails the tests, it will be accused of playing politics by hiding behind impossible conditions.

Many Corbyn supporters argue that the Six Tests are a clever political ploy to preserve party unity. But Labour would be better served by telling the truth about Brexit: the only real choice is between making a clean break, a “hard” Brexit, and accepting the consequences for jobs and investment, or opposing Brexit altogether and making the case for an alternative model with our allies in the European labour movement.

The urgency of clarifying Labour’s position is shown by the actions of the anti-Brexit Labour right who have been queuing up to fawn over Theresa May, congratulating her for disciplining the hard right of her party, and insisting that Labour does not want a general election.

Pro-Brexit Labour MPs like Frank Field and Kate Hoey are insufferable reactionaries, but the real danger comes from the Blairite rump and right-wingers like Tom Watson, whose opposition to Brexit is outweighed only by their hostility to the prospect of a Corbyn government. They are perfectly happy to vote for a Tory Brexit, which will serve the twin purpose of landing the Tories with the principal responsibility and keeping Corbyn out of office.

Workers’ response

Since everybody knows that there is no conceivable deal which would satisfy the six tests, Labour members should put this sorry fraud out of its misery by insisting on a full debate at conference and adopting a policy of opposing Britain’s exit from the EU. Instead, the party should unite around a policy that puts the biggest leftwing party in Europe at the centre of a revolutionary, socialist, and internationalist vision to transfer power from the capitalist elites to the working class.

Labour should vote against any deal that dislocates Britain from the European Union. We need to up the pressure on the Tory government, not cooperate with it in pursuit of a mythical “national interest”. The only interests the Tories are serving are first, their own, and secondly those of the British and European capitalists.

Labour needs to move to stake out an independent position, based on defending the interests of the working class; interests that are necessarily opposed and antagonistic to the interests of the capitalists. In or out of the European Union, a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would find its most implacable enemy amongst the British ruling class; the industrialists, transport owners, financiers and media barons, who will fight to defend their property and the state that guarantees their wealth and privileges.

Certainly, the EU, dominated as it is by the powerful imperialists of France, Germany and Britain, has waged an offensive against the social gains of the working class for the past three decades. British bosses have been the most rapacious, and successful, protagonists in this class struggle.

Against small countries like Greece, and in the absence of labour movement solidarity, this struggle has been one-sided. But the European working class as a whole, its organisations, its traditions of resistance and revolution, remains the most well organised and powerful on the planet.

On an economic and political level, Europe is a site of struggle between the working class and the capitalists; on the one hand it unites the working class as a force of production, integrating millions of workers across the continent; on the other, the capitalists seek to foster national chauvinism and hostility in order to prevent this growing power from bursting its national banks and becoming a flood, infused with an international consciousness, aware of its own strength and common interest in breaking down all the physical and ideological barriers that divide it.

If we aspire to a real socialist vision for the 21st century, it will only be possible to overcome the class enemy in alliance with the working classes of Europe. It we want to harness the productive and creative resources to do away with exploitation, poverty, and oppression, that will only be possible on an international, continent-wide basis.

In short, if we want a government that embodies the democratic power of the millions of workers over the millionaire exploiters, we will need a real revolution, in Britain, in Europe, and across the world; international socialism and workers’ power.