General election in sight at last
by Alex Davidson
There will soon be a General Election in Britain. The only question is ‘how soon?’ With a stalemate in Parliament over Brexit, and the government virtually unable to govern due to losing its majority, there will have to be an election.
The parliamentary majority ruling out a ‘No Deal’ exit from the EU and the Johnson-led Tory government failing to get the necessary two-thirds majority in their bid to call a General Election under the Fixed Term Parliament law means that the Brexit saga will continue. In the meantime, the Tory Party is seeing its sharpest divisions over decades come to a head. 21 Tory MPs have been expelled from the Party for refusing to support the government - these include previous Cabinet Ministers in the recent May government and several Tory grandees.
The Johnson government in coming into office, following the failure/ineptitude/shambles of the May government, immediately pursued their ‘do or die’ approach to leaving the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. Johnson hit the ground running as Prime Minister promising to exit the EU on 31 October with “no ifs, no buts”, and announcing spending plans to tackle crime and increase police numbers, and promising more funding for schools and hospitals. This was followed quickly by proroguing Parliament and then the expulsion of Tory dissidents over their opposition to ‘No Deal’ and their disobedience. This scorched earth approach had all the hallmarks of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief political adviser, who had been appointed immediately following his assuming office as Prime Minister. Although Cummings claims he has never been a member of the Conservative Party he has had a long association, working for senior Tories including Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. (see article: Dominic Cummings: Boris Johnson’s éminence grise)
Dominic Cummings was the Director of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign and is widely credited with its success. A Channel 4 dramatisation, ‘Brexit: the Uncivil War’, in which Cummings was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, tells the story of the internal dynamics of the Leave campaign in which Cummings resisted being ousted, out-manoeuvred Farage and Arron Banks, and won the Referendum despite the opposition of the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties.
There is strong opposition to Cummings and his approach from many Tory MPs. Sir Roger Gale MP said, “The fact that at the heart of No 10, as Prime Minister’s senior adviser, is an unelected, foul-mouthed oaf throwing his weight around is completely unacceptable. I think that if the Prime Minister doesn’t have Dominic Cummings frog-marched out of Downing St. himself, then chances are it won’t be the Tory rebels or Mr Corbyn that brings down this administration, but Mr Cummings.”
The blood-letting by the new Tory leadership may well mark the end of the decades-long bitter divisions over the EU and Britain’s role in the world. However, the Tory in-fighting is not over yet.
CHURCHILL'S THREE CIRCLES
The divisions within the Tory Party reflect divisions within the British ruling class. As a party they have been divided over the EU prior to its inception as the Common Market through its evolution into the EU, and this has continued with varying intensity ever since. British capitalism’s declining position following the Second World War, and the advance of socialism, was the context for these divisions. There was the view that socialism in Europe could only be stopped by a strong relationship with the nuclear-armed and militarily superior United States. Whilst maintaining the special relationship with the USA, Britain also strove to play a central role in Europe, mainly through NATO, and at the same time tried to continue as a world power with its interests outside of Europe, mainly in its ex-colonies.
Churchill promulgated this ‘Three Circles Theory’, which held that Britain was assured of a unique influence in international affairs owing to her triple role as the main partner of the United States, chief Western European power and leader of the Commonwealth, the assumption being that all three roles could be harmoniously combined. However, by the early 1960s, it had become apparent that Britain was no longer strong enough to ride three horses at once and had to decide which of them was likely to carry it furthest. The decision to give priority to Britain’s Western European interests over the special trading and financial links with the Commonwealth was taken by the Macmillan government although not without dissent within the Tory Party.
The Three Circles were effectively amended to 2 key circles (the EU and the USA) and a secondary third half circle with the relegation of the Commonwealth by Prime Minister Macmillan in the early 1960s. This was confirmed by Prime Minister Heath with entry into the European Community in 1972, although this was only after several rejections. Despite disquiet with the EU, and its moving to ever-closer political union, the hitherto dominant position of the British ruling class has been to remain in the EU.
However, the 2016 EU Referendum result threw all the political parties (and the dominant view in ruling class circles) into difficulties given that they had all been for remaining in the EU and expected to win. Prime Minister Cameron, whose idea it was to call the referendum, resigned immediately, whistling his way out of Downing St as if it had all been a game. The ensuing competition for the Tory leadership exhibited their disarray. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, almost immediately, called a snap election, believing that Jeremy Corbyn was so discredited that she would win by a landslide. Both the Tory and Labour Parties accepted the result of the referendum and put it into their manifestos. The Liberal Democrats, contrary to their name, did not accept the result of the referendum and campaigned to remain in the EU. In the electoral campaign Jeremy Corbyn surprised the capitalist media and the right-wing in the Labour Party, reflected the anti-austerity feeling in the country and mobilised thousands of people whilst the Tories got it all wrong. The result was that the Tories went from a majority to a minority government, dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. The Liberal Democrats were reduced to a rump in Parliament.
Mrs May then continued to lead an inept, incompetent and divided government. The negotiations with Brussels were pathetic, maybe deliberately, in view of the dominant view in ruling class circles, especially the City, to remain in the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement Mrs May brought back from Brussels was defeated three times in Parliament and finally she resigned. Boris Johnson, won the contest for the leadership of the Tory Party, seeing off some twelve other candidates, and became Prime Minister. He promised to deliver Brexit, ‘do or die’, on 31 October. Johnson argued that he would negotiate a new deal with the EU, removing the Irish back-stop, or would leave without a deal. However, he came up against the coalition of anti-no dealers (Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, rebel Tories) who passed a motion to stop a No Deal happening on 31 October.
THE EU'S POSITION
With ‘No Deal’ off the table the EU has little or no incentive to make any concessions or a new offer to Britain on its withdrawal from the EU. An extension to Article 50, further delaying Britain’s exit, suits the EU. It provides more time for pressure to build for a second referendum and the decision being reversed. Why would the EU want to do this? The EU has always made it plain that their red lines, the so-called Four Freedoms, the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital within the single market, will not be compromised. It has to be understood that the EU is a capitalist association, competing with other major long-established capitalist powers such as the USA and Japan whilst partnering with them against newly emerging capitalist rivals, China and Russia. The EU would prefer Britain, in its diminished role, to remain in their club as opposed to an Atlanticist arrangement between Britain and the USA. The EU will therefore agree to an extension of Article 50 beyond 31 October as the incoming EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, has already stated. [i]
The EU, under German hegemony, has pursued neo-liberal capitalist policies of austerity and is also pursuing ever-closer union. Replacing Jean Claude Juncker as the new President of the EU, Ursula von der Leyen, currently Germany’s Defence Minister, is the longest serving member of Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet. She maintains a family tradition as her father, Carl Albrecht, worked as one of the first European civil servants from the establishment of the European Commission in 1958, first as the Chef de Cabinet to the European Commissioner for Competition and then as the Director-General of the Directorate for Competition from 1967-1970. From 1976-1990 he was Prime Minister of Lower Saxony. Von der Leyen has long been a dedicated advocate of ever-closer union of the EU. In 2011 in an interview with Der Spiegel, she expressed her preference for “a united states of Europe – run along the lines of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the USA.” [ii] In 2015 she was reported as saying, “perhaps not my children but then my grandchildren will experience a United States of Europe.” [iii] With this view she is at one with President Macron, who has been pushing hard for an EU Defence Force and ever-closer union along with Chancellor Merkel.
THE LABOUR PARTY POSITION
It is an unfortunate fact that the Labour Party, most trade unions and even many on the Left would like Britain to remain in the EU, wrongly seeing it as a defender of workers’ rights, a force for peace, benign internationalism and opponent of racism. The EU’s record, on the contrary, is that of an increasingly interventionist imperialist force (Middle East, Balkans, Africa), racist in its treatment of migrants, a bulwark against any moves by member states to resist austerity (Greece) and has a continuing strategy of privatisation (eg the 4th Railway Package currently being implemented). The slogan of ‘Remain and Reform’ is only that, a slogan. The various treaties of the EU make it impossible to reform. (See article: Remain and Conform)
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader and long-time critic of the EU, has been corralled, due to the political weaknesses of his supporters and the overwhelming dominance of the right-wing in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The Labour Party’s original position of accepting the result of the 2016 Referendum for Britain to leave the EU has been eroded over the three years since the referendum to a position of seeking another referendum and to include the option to remain in the EU. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit Shadow Minister, and an ardent Remainer, has worked steadily to win this change of position. Remember his off-line speech at the Labour Party conference when he called for a second referendum?
The Labour Party’s position against a ‘No Deal’ Brexit became the fulcrum of their opposition to the Johnson-led Tory government’s strategy for exiting the EU. Johnson’s argument was that he wanted a deal with the EU minus the Irish backstop but that to get a deal with the EU he had to retain the ‘No Deal’ card. The Tory proroguing of Parliament, thus limiting the time available, concentrated minds and led to cross-party unity (Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats, rebel Tories and all the other Remainers) in what is a Remainer Parliament to oppose ‘No Deal’. A cross-party resolution to prevent a ‘No Deal’ exit on 31 October from the EU was carried against the government.
GENERAL ELECTION ON WHOSE TERMS?
The Tory government’s response was to call for a General Election but this failed because they couldn’t get the necessary two-thirds majority required by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. The Labour Party and the other opposition parties in Parliament united around preventing Johnson calling an early election before ‘No Deal’ with the EU had been ruled out. A snap election would have been on one issue, namely Brexit. The Tories would have presented themselves as the only party able and willing to deliver Brexit as against a Remain-supporting Labour Party. In that scenario the Tories would have hoped to win back those who had voted for the Brexit Party and that Labour would lose votes to the unambiguously (never having accepted the referendum result) Remainer Liberal Democrats.
Right-wing Labour are content with the direction of travel of the Labour Party on the Brexit issue and Tony Blair, and many others, who have lambasted and tried to unseat Corbyn at every opportunity, are now somewhat re-assured that he is more of a prisoner to their politics. However, that doesn’t mean that they will give up trying to oust him.
By ruling out ‘No Deal’ the Remainers hope to gain time such that they can achieve their aim of a second referendum and reverse the decision to Leave the EU.
The SNP, who are arch-Remainers, were very happy to join those blocking a no-deal exit from the EU as a staging post for a reversal of the EU Referendum result of 2016. They are riding high in the polls and with the Tories in a mess over Brexit and the resignation of their Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, they also see an opportunity for winning a second referendum on Independence. The Liberal Democrats, unambiguously Remainers, have recruited several of the MPs who formed The Independent Group (TIG), which then became Change UK, including Chukka Umunna and Luciana Berger, originally right-wing Labour. Chukka Umunna is going to contest the Cities of Westminster and London constituency in the forthcoming election for the Liberal Democrats. Having chosen to move from Streatham to fight this seat one must assume that he shares the view that the City would prefer to remain in the EU. The Liberal Democrats, discredited by their years driving austerity in the Coalition government with the Tories, are now hoping to be re-charged as the main Remain party.
Interestingly, an amendment to the anti-no deal Brexit bill, in the name of Stephen Kinnock, proposed by 17 Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies, will bring back to Parliament May’s original Withdrawal Bill with the changes agreed by the Tory-Labour cross-party additions before the breakdown of talks. This amendment was passed by default in the House of Commons because the Tories did not provide Tellers in a ruse to perhaps frustrate the anti-no deal bill. If the “May plus” Withdrawal Bill when put to Parliament were to be passed, however unlikely, or if Britain were to exit the EU beforehand, then the forthcoming election would take place in a different context.
In the coming election, Labour has to retain all the seats it won in 2017 and add another 64 to govern alone. In England and Wales, 35 of the 45 most winnable Tory-held seats and 16 of the 20 seats Labour won most narrowly in 2017 voted Leave in 2016. In Scotland, where the 2016 Remain vote overall was 62%, Labour won its 7 seats in 2017 narrowly over the SNP.
An election held on the issues of austerity, crises in the NHS, education and housing, food banks, zero-hours contracts and all the other matters afflicting the mass of the people would be more conducive to a Labour victory than that fought around the issue of Brexit, given the likely stance of the Labour Party.
[i] Otterman, P., “Ursula von der Leyen: hard Brexit would be massive blow for both sides”, Guardian, 18 July 2019.
[ii] “Ursula von der Leyen: Germany’s next Chancellor?”, Guardian, 12 March 2014.
[iii] “Juncker calls for Collective EU army”, Deutsche Well, 8 March 2015.