Ever since the general election – a mere week ago – Theresa May has been desperately fighting for her political survival. Rob Sewell discusses the crisis facing the Establishment in the wake of the election, as the “coalition of chaos” proves itself to be a government of instability and turbulence.
Britain’s political turmoil has become entrenched. Ever since the general election – a mere week ago – Theresa May has been desperately fighting for her political survival. With each passing day, her political authority is being relentlessly drained away. In the last throw of the dice, she has turned to the sectarian DUP, a reactionary outfit, to haggle for support and a parliamentary lifeline.
The prospect of a deal with the DUP, however, has provoked a considerable amount of alarm, even in Tory circles. Sir John Major, the former Tory prime minister, saw a deal as a serious danger to the Good Friday Agreement, which is in a fragile state. The Stormont power-sharing executive and assembly have collapsed. The DUP deal will place the attempts to restore the government in the North of Ireland in jeopardy. This squalid arrangement can also be viewed as cash for votes, with May being forced to pay through the nose for DUP support.
Even if a deal is agreed, which is likely, then the May government would only have a majority of two, a very slender branch upon which to rest. In the rocky road ahead, the government will be faced with one backbench revolt after another, as well as harassment from an emboldened opposition. This “coalition of chaos” will certainly be a government of instability and crisis.
Dead woman walking
Divisions have opened up within the Tory party as the wounded Theresa May is challenged at every turn. Osborne’s remark that she was a “dead woman walking” is not far off the mark. There could easily be a leadership challenge after the summer, with Boris Johnson and others lining themselves up for the top job.
May has already been forced to unceremoniously jettison her two leading advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who had become hate figures for the manner in which they protected the prime minister. There were threats that if they did not fall on their swords, May would face an immediate leadership challenge, which she would lose. Criticisms have been made internally within the Conservatives that government decisions were being taken by a tiny clique around May, to the exclusion of her ministers. Now senior Tories have demanded the implementation of Cabinet government and have started to flex their muscles in this power vacuum. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, who has repeatedly clashed with May and her coterie, is now presenting his own agenda, especially on Brexit. His views are more in line with the interests of big business as they seek to maintain access to Europe’s markets.
Others have also joined in to support Hammond and pressurise May. David Cameron has called publicly for a “softer” Brexit, again reflecting the fears of the banks and the City of London. He said May should talk to the Labour opposition to develop a more consensual approach. “It’s going to be difficult, there’s no doubt about that, but perhaps this is an opportunity to consult more widely with other parties on how best we can achieve it,” he said. John Major jumped in to support him. William Hague, the former Tory leader, has also called for cross-party talks. This has drawn the support of Lord Mandelson, the architect of New Labour. Labour must resist such a trap and maintain an independent stance.
Downing Street is resisting such moves for fear of stirring up a hornets’ nest within the Tory party over Europe. But Brexit negotiations are to begin within days. As differences arise and May is forced to make concessions, the hard line Brexiteers within the Tory party will create huge problems for May’s minority government, which will be blown in different directions. Civil war within the Tory party will not be far off.
A perfect storm
David Cameron, however, has been adamant that May should resist all attempts to water down austerity, which some Tories are suggesting. For him, to abandon austerity would kick into the long grass the issue of balancing the budget. “It’s not suddenly going to be the land of milk and honey,” he remarked.
The former prime minister then went on to warn sternly: “If you leave your country with a ratio of debt to GDP which is too high, the next storm that comes along – and there will be storm, there always is, we haven’t abolished boom and bust, we haven’t abolished trade cycles – the next storm that comes along will knock you over.” (FT, 13/6/17)
This is no idle threat. It has been more than eight years since the world slump of 2008. The so-called recovery has completely exhausted itself. A new devastating slump is on the order of the day.
The May minority government is facing a perfect storm. The British economy has once again stalled, merely growing by 0.2% in the last quarter. From the strongest growth in the G7 in the past, it has now become the weakest. Inflation is rising and real wages are falling. This will intensify in the months ahead. Business surveys have been weaker and industrial output down. UK retail sales fell by 1.2% in May, a much bigger fall than expected, a sign of falling demand which will have a knock on effect on production.
The uncertainty over Brexit is revealing the real structural weakness of the British economy, with its reliance on fragile consumer demand. Cut off from European markets, British capitalism will feel the icy winds of isolation. The dangers of a train-crash Brexit will exacerbate the situation. While Europe will catch a cold, Britain will suffer from pneumonia.
The tragedy of the catastrophic fire in the Grenfell tower block in north-west London, where possibly 100 people lost their lives, is given rise to anger on the streets. As one exhausted resident said this morning, “the only thing that is keeping me going is adrenaline and anger. I have to keep going as if I sit down I feel I will never get up.”
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, was confronted and heckled by an angry crowd of 300 people who justifiably demanded immediate action, not talk. Even a young child repeatedly pressed him about the deaths of children and what was being done about it. The anger is palpable. When Andrea Leadsom, a former candidate for the Tory leadership, visited the area she was heckled.
The fact that Theresa May visited the scene, but failed to talk to local people has only added to local anger. In total contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, attended and met with local residents, hugging and consoling them. The government’s excuse was that May’s presence represented a security risk that would draw resources away from the emergency services! May’s actions are of a person who is aloof from the suffering of ordinary people. She was even accused of “hiding her humanity” by Michael Portillo. Under pressure she has ordered a public inquiry, but people know that this tragedy was avoidable. The tragedy has prompted questions about austerity and the inadequate quality of housing provision in our cities. But the Tories have no answers.
Piling on the agony, May’s replacement for her disgraced joint chiefs of staff is the former housing minister Gavin Barwell. But this adviser is now under scrutiny after it was revealed he “sat on” a report warning of fire safety risks in tower blocks. The culpability goes right up to the tops of government.
Tories out! Corbyn in!
Not surprisingly, May’s popularity has been steadily declining. The Grenfell Tower disaster and her approach to it could be her final undoing. A YouGov poll on Thursday showed that her net favourability rating fell to minus 34 after the election, down from plus 10 in April. In contrast, the rating of Jeremy Corbyn has improved from minus 42 to plus 6, a sharp turnaround.
The surreal Queen’s Speech, which was postponed due to continuing talks with the DUP, has now been rescheduled for next Wednesday. This official opening of Parliament is taking place amidst intensified political turmoil surrounding Theresa May and her “government of chaos”. One disastrous event is piling up upon another in rapid succession. Bad news begets more bad news.
It is clear that this government of crisis will not last. It has become a lightning rod for public anger. Its fate is hanging by a thread. Even the deal with the DUP gives it only a two seat majority, hardly “strong and stable”. It will therefore by a very hot summer politically and the government could fall by the autumn.
Such a scenario will open up the prospect of a new general election within the coming months, similar to events in 1974. This means the real prospect of a Labour government under Corbyn, which will serve to throw the British establishment into panic. This is only a reflection of the period of sharp turns and sudden changes that we are living in. Such an outcome will open up a new stormy chapter in the struggle to change society, in which the ideas of Marxism will pay a key role.