As parliament begins its recess, Prime Minister May is hoping for some peace and quiet. But the sharks are circling within the Tory party, with civil war breaking out over the question of Europe and the government’s Brexit strategy – or lack there of. This turbulence reflects a crisis of the regime and the impasse of the system.
The Mother of Parliaments is on its summer recess after a turbulent year. Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping for some peace and quiet on a walking holiday in the Alps. She should try not to think too much whilst she’s there; the last time she went walking in the Welsh mountains she decided to call a snap election and was completely humiliated. She is now on her way out – “a dead woman walking” in the words of former Tory chancellor, George Osborne.
May is set to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor. David Cameron was also a gambler – in his case on Britain’s membership of the EU, in order to prevent a split in his party and save his own job. This gamble proved an unmitigated disaster. Cameron ended up in the wilderness having lost his job, and – irony of ironies – Brexit now threatens to split the Tory party under Theresa May. How is that for an almighty mess?
This is not a fleeting problem, but reflects a crisis of the regime. The splits in the ruling class, revealed over Brexit, are a tangible expression of this crisis, which at bottom is a product of the impasse of the system.
The clock is ticking
It is now over a year since Britain voted to leave the European Union and the clock is ticking, to quote Michel Barnier. But after a wasted year, the Tory government is still floundering. The picture showing the first day of Brexit negotiations said it all, with the EU side presiding over a pile of papers, while their British counterparts had nothing in front of them. The British are all bluff and bluster, while the EU representatives seem confident and in control.
Nevertheless, the oft-repeated Brexiteer phrase that “no deal is better than a bad deal” seems to have been abandoned, as with May’s mantra of “strong and stable leadership” before it. The realities of Brexit seem to be sinking in. No deal would usher in a legal and economic morass. But the Tory government have no plan B if everything fails.
While Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, with his nostalgia for when Britain ruled the waves, has been safely shunted off to the other side of the world, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has championed the idea that Britain must not be pushed off a cliff in March 2019. With Theresa May politically paralysed, he seems to have won over many in the Cabinet to the idea of a “soft” Brexit. Even David Davis, the Brexit minister, seems to agree with this stance, at least for now.
Transition or train crash
There is even talk of a “transitional” arrangement, an acceptance that there is no time to agree a trade deal before the March 2019 negotiations deadline.
While Michael Gove, reappointed to the Cabinet, is prepared to endure a transition, Boris Johnson is not so sure. After all, he believed recently that a deal offering Britain tariff-free and frictionless trade access to the EU could be wrapped up without any trouble within two years. Boris is impatient for Brexit, which appeals very much to the Tory rank and file who he wants onside for any leadership challenge. In any case, he has a hunch that Brexit will not be as bad as some think. In fact, according to him, no deal would be “perfectly OK”. This could eventually come about if negotiations turn nasty. The call for the EU “to go and whistle” for their money has certainly added to the tensions.
There is a growing realisation, however, that no deal would be cataclysmic. This would lead to customs checks, tariffs and regulatory barriers between Britain and the EU, resulting in chaos at ports. Complex cross-border supply chains would be severely disrupted. Drugs developed here would not have their approval recognised in other member states, and clinical trials would be disrupted. Air transport is not covered by the WTO, so there are no rules to fall back on. It is possible that with a chaotic Brexit, planes would be grounded, caught up in legal wrangles.
The consequences of a hard border in Northern Ireland, made inevitable with a train-crash Brexit, hardly need spelling out. The uncertainty has already destabilised the province, especially in light of the breakdown of power sharing. With no agreement, EU citizens in the UK would find themselves in limbo and British citizens would no longer be EU citizens.
The economic disruption would provoke a slump, as trade dried up. Agriculture would be dealt a severe blow, with possible food shortages. Also fishing would face tariffs in attempting to export their catch to the EU, their major export market.
The banks have already made contingency plans to protect themselves from Brexit and the loss of the passporting rights. Japan’s banks plan to make Frankfurt their new home for pan-EU business. Four of the big five — Mizuho, Daiwa, Nomura and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group — have now made public announcements to that effect. The big US banks, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, have also come out for Frankfurt. Goldman Sachs is expected to head for Frankfurt too. Only Bank of America has announced it will move some operations to Dublin.
No wonder the British bourgeois are alarmed at what they see as government paralysis. There is hardly a day goes by without one minister briefing against another. Different interpretations and contradictory statements are made on a regular basis.
While Liam Fox, the trade minister, was in the US exploring a future trade deal, he was suddenly embroiled over an argument about chlorinated-chickens entering the British food chain. He clearly never expected this ambush. While he saw the chickens as no problem, Michael Gove was forced to come out against it. However, the incident reveals how difficult a trade deal with the US will be. The Yanks will not give anything way for free. In any deal, they will want open access to the British market, chlorinated-chickens and all.
The sharks are circling
With things this bad, how could they possibly get worse? As the autumn approaches, pressure will mount on Theresa May to resign. This will kick off a brutal war within the Tory party about who should succeed her. This time there will be no coronation. Some have talked about a stop gap replacement for a few years, but that would mean more frequent changes of Tory leader than of the guard at Buckingham Palace! Once a vacancy is announced it will be like sharks scenting blood.
Aids and advisers are leaving Downing Street in record numbers, like rats abandoning a sinking ship. The latest this week is Chris Wilkins, chief speech writer and strategy director.
Already, at least 15 Tory MPs have agreed to sign a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister as part of a plot to oust her before the conference season, according to the Sunday Times. Although it falls well short of the 48 names needed to trigger a leadership contest, the summer recess could prove critical for Theresa May’s future.
Ken Clarke, Father of the House of Commons, warned Britain could be facing a “historic disaster” against the “manic background” of Brexit and “nobody in Westminster has an idea where we’ll be by Christmas.”
According to a Tory poll, favourites to replace the Prime Minister were David Davis on 21% followed by Old Etonians Boris Johnson on 17% and Latin-loving Jacob Rees-Mogg on 6%. What a choice! To paraphrase an old axiom: the ruling class gets the leadership it deserves.
“Most Conservatives know that even discussing the leadership is dangerous; ousting Mrs May in the middle of the Brexit negotiations might seem reckless in the extreme,” stated the Financial Times, the organ of big business. “But these are not normal political times, and in the dog days of summer at Westminster — and with the Pol Roger flowing — some Tory MPs seem to have a morbid fascination with peering into the abyss.”