Divided Tories fail to get Brexit (and other things) done
By Frieda Park
It is over a year and a half since Britain left the European Union, but the problems created by the last minute agreement designed to foil a No Deal Brexit remain, so far, intractable. Brexit isn’t done in relation to the Irish border and financial services and there is the potential for more such issues to emerge in the future. This mess is of the Tories own making and complicates their quest to establish Britain’s place in the world post-Brexit. In addition the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic remains cavalier – costing more lives, creating uncertainty for small businesses and damaging the economy. These and other issues are heightening divisions within the Tory Party which have been suppressed of late.
Post-Brexit, the only way of avoiding a hard border between the UK and the EU would have been to adopt something like Theresa May’s deal keeping Britain aligned with EU rules. Without that alignment, under Johnson’s agreement, a hard border and new customs checks and regulations were inevitable. The Good Friday Agreement, reached to end the armed conflict in Ireland, virtually did away with the border between north and south. To have re-introduced that as the EU-UK border may have prevented a Brexit agreement being reached due to opposition from the Irish government and the EU. To avoid this Johnson’s answer was to create a border instead between Britain and the whole of Ireland including the north. Did he think this would be problem free? No doubt something will be worked out to ensure the free movement of sausages, but in the process Johnson has caused difficulties for businesses and massive political problems alienating the Tories’ allies in the unionist parties in the north, with protesters taking to the streets. He has also annoyed the government of the Irish Republic and the EU which has no interest in reaching easy compromises to get him out of his difficulties.
Johnson’s last minute Brexit deal with the EU, among many other shortcomings, left out financial services - the biggest sector of the UK economy. Agreement on this sector was to be reached at a later date. The City of London has made losses of more than a trillion dollars of assets and thousands of jobs to EU financial centres since Brexit. In his Mansion House speech on 1st July 21, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, seemed to admit that prospects for a deal allowing UK financial services equal access to EU markets had receded. This leaves the sector attempting to orientate itself towards different markets, with divided views on how helpful possible deregulation will be in attracting new business.
The other major issue facing the country is the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson’s handling of this bears all the same hallmarks as his handling of Brexit. As revealed by Dominic Cummings, Johnson was well aware of the cost in human life of pursuing herd immunity and getting rid of restrictions, yet that has remained his chosen course of action. The government went ahead with opening up while the virus was still circulating at a very high level. It is difficult to fathom whether Johnson’s actions are callous and incompetent or devious and calculated. As the population becomes worn down by contradictory advice and impossible to follow guidance then the more people give up. The government, therefore, gets its way, continuing to dispense with restrictions which would help prevent the spread of the virus. An example of this has been the “pingdemic” where not only those with the virus were having to take time off work, but their contacts numbering hundreds of thousands were pinged by the NHS contact tracing app and asked to self-isolate. Some people are receiving serial requests to self-isolate. This is not only a problem for individuals but also for businesses and services. The government’s answer is not to restrict mixing to prevent the risky contacts which are happening, but to downgrade the app so that you are less likely to get pinged. This will increase the level of risk.
Another example of the erosion of credibility and trust in the government which is undermining the effort to fight the virus is the faltering effort to get young people vaccinated. All along they were told that their risk from the virus was low, now they are berated for not getting vaccinated and are being tempted by patronising, as yet undefined, giveaways from fast food companies.
The country is being pushed towards a position where the virus will be allowed to circulate freely in pursuit of herd immunity. But, now more than ever, this seems not only like a high-risk strategy, but also one which is unachievable. Can there be herd immunity with a constantly mutating virus which challenges the protection bestowed by vaccines? We are being groomed to accept a situation where thousands continue to die of Covid. The free circulation of the virus enables it to continue to mutate, posing a threat not only to this country, but to the rest of the world.
Johnson can announce as many grand schemes as he wants, which might or might not come to pass, but the reality is that on the key questions of the day the Tories are failing. How long can they carry on like this? Sadly there is little popular opposition and none from Kier Starmer so Johnson is not immediately threatened on that front. However discontent among the Tories is beginning to grow.
Until recently Johnson’s position within the Party looked unassailable. His 2019 election victory gave him a big majority in Parliament ensuring the loyalty of MPs which was reinforced by his popularity with Tory Party members and his ruthlessness in dealing with opposition. In the previous parliament he removed the whip from 21 MPs, including some of the most senior figures in the Party. Although dissent was suppressed it didn’t go away as is now becoming clear. Divisions are emerging round economic, political and international policy and dissatisfaction with Johnson as a leader.
For its survival post-Brexit the Tories see a strong partnership with the United States as essential and Johnson has caved in to US pressure to fall into line with its aggressive stance towards China. Yet China also offers untapped possibilities which could be a big boost to the City of London as well as other sectors of the economy. That is a circle which will be difficult, if not impossible, to square and means that Britain will likely miss out on economic links which could be very valuable to its post-Brexit development. Acknowledging the difficulties faced by the City of London without an agreement to access EU financial markets, Rishi Sunak in his Mansion House speech mentioned above, promoted the idea that London could become a centre for Chinese financial services. (1) In doing so he also made a plea for a better trading relationship with China. While a closer relationship with China was favoured by former Chancellor, George Osborne and the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, Johnson’s alignment with the US has put the brakes on that. Sunak is, therefore, at odds with Johnson and a significant body within the Tory Party, like the China Research Group lead by Tom Tugendhat, who are hostile to China.
There are also known to be differences between Sunak and Johnson on domestic economic policy with Sunak following a more traditional neo-liberal line. He sees state intervention in the economy to combat the effects of the pandemic as a temporary expedient and wants a return to a more neo-liberal norm when the crisis is over. Johnson, however, appears to favour more state intervention in the economy.
The need to respond to their new-found electoral base in the North of England is a source of tension within the Tory Party, with voters in its southern heartlands concerned that they might lose out. In addition, up-grading infrastructure and loosening planning laws to allow house building conflict with the interests of the comfortably-off who don’t want more housing or railways like HS2 in their back yards. These issues were deemed to be significant factors in the Tories drubbing in the Chesham and Amersham by election on 17/6/21 where the Lib Dems overturned a 16,000 Tory majority to win by over 8000 votes. This is the first time the constituency has not returned a Conservative MP. But the Tories have received considerable funding from the construction and development industry - £17.9millon since Johnson became Prime Minister. (2) How will the interests of Tory voters in the south be squared with the Party funders who expect some return for their cash?
There remain tensions with the pro-EU establishment and sections of the Tory vote which is unhappy with Johnson’s aggressive pursuit of Brexit.
One measure of dissatisfaction among Tory MPs was that at the beginning of July, Sir Graham Brady was re-elected as the chair of the 1922 committee which represents backbench Tory MPs and runs leadership elections. This is highly significant as it is a powerful post and Brady won in the face of a determined campaign to unseat him by Johnson and his allies who backed Heather Wheeler.
There have been rebellions of Tory MPs on diverse issues including Covid lockdown measures and senior party figures have been prominent in leading the charge.
In July six former Tory Work and Pensions Secretaries, including Iain Duncan-Smith a former Party leader, wrote to Rishi Sunak urging him not end the £20 up-lift in Universal Credit. There was particular concern expressed about this by MPs representing recently won seats in the North of England.
32 Tories rebelled against the whip in March over funding to remove unsafe cladding from buildings following the Grenfell tower fire.
Over 30 Tories backed an amendment which aimed to block planned cuts to foreign aid. Theresa May, former leader and Prime Minister, was a vocal critic of the government on this issue.
And then there are Dominic Cummings’s revelations about the willful mis-management of the coronavirus pandemic with Johnson consciously embracing a strategy which led to the manslaughter of tens of thousands of older people. We can only guess at what pressures were brought to bear on Johnson when he sacked Cummings on whom he was highly dependent, from his post as top adviser. From the ruling-class perspective government improved after Cummings departure - a no deal Brexit was averted. However, Cummings has not gone quietly. He knows just how bad things were at the top of government and has evidence to back up his version of events. In his BBC interview with Laura Kuenssberg (20/7/21) he also advocated the abolition of the Tory Party and questioned whether Brexit had been the correct course of action. His exposés have highlighted and intensified Tory rifts.
But despite the divisions, scandals, the mishandling of the pandemic, Brexit and a host of other issues the media pressure on Johnson has been relatively light. (Cast your mind back to the relentless and unfounded media assaults on Jeremy Corbyn.) For all the ammunition that Cummings provided there has been little sustained analysis of the implications of what he has said and certainly no concerted media campaign against Johnson. Why is this?
Cummings gave the answer himself. Although he held Johnson in apparent contempt, Cummings was clear the he was the lesser of two evils with Corbyn being totally unacceptable. And that remains broadly the ruling class position. Opening up debate around Cummings’s allegations would lead to damning conclusions about the mis-management of the pandemic, the role of unelected advisors in government and the disdain of both elected and unelected officials for the electorate. To engage with Cummings’s narrative would open up uncomfortable questions about the whole system, in whose interests it operates and just exactly how democratic it is. The establishment doesn’t want that and so is protecting Johnson for now. At least, that is, until Keir Starmer succeeds in making Labour safe for capital again, and/or a position can be created where Johnson faces a realistic challenge from within the Tory Party.
The Tories’ differences show they have problems. We should not be spectators as they fight it out, otherwise all that will happen is that Johnson will be replaced by a different Tory. International policy, post-Brexit and post-pandemic Britain and domestic policy are all throwing up serious rifts but there are those on the left who reinforce Johnson’s propaganda of his own invincibility. Pessimism abounds as though Johnson was unmovable. Yet it is only four years since Jeremy Corbyn nearly won a general election. Things can and do change quickly. The Tories can be defeated and we need to play our part by exposing their weaknesses, failures in government and phoney levelling up. And by encouraging opposition, supporting workers and communities where they are fighting back.
(1) Sunak Insists UK Must Bolster China Ties as Access to EU Market Declines, The Financial Times, 1/7/21
(2) Inside Boris Johnson’s Money Network, The Financial Times 30/7/21
There have been rebellions of Tory MPs on diverse issues including lockdown measures and senior party figures have been prominent in leading the charge.