This week’s Brexit vote in the House of Commons has shattered any hopes Theresa May might have had for Tory unity and calm. But the options available to the Prime Minister are rapidly diminishing.
The splits in the Conservative Party have continued to widen in the wake of the Tory cabinet meeting at Chequers on 6th July. The Tory ranks remain far from united. Instead, the party has now descended into guerrilla warfare over the Brexit trade bill.
May had even tried to bring forward Parliament’s summer holiday, on the hope that she couldn’t lose a no-confidence vote if everybody was on vacation. But this manoeuvre failed.
In the end, the Prime Minister only just made it through this week’s vote in the House of Commons by the skin of her teeth. Only thanks to support from a handful of Labour MPs did May survive skirmishes between the two wings of her party.
Jacob Rees Mogg’s “European Research Group” fired the first shots by putting forward amendments designed to scupper any chance of a soft Brexit. These included a promise only to collect customs or VAT on behalf of EU nations where there are reciprocal arrangements; and another ruling out the possibility of any border in the Irish sea.
The fact that these amendments were hardly dynamite, however, is an indication of Rees Mogg and the Brexiteers’ weakness, not their strength. Nevertheless, they also had the potential to put a spoke in the wheel of negotiations with the EU. The Irish border amendment, in particular, directly contradicted the previous agreement concerning a “backstop” arrangement in Northern Ireland.
May, too weak to stand up to Rees Mogg, acquiesced and accepted the amendments. In any case, as long as she gets what she wants – i.e. “Brexit in name only” – the question of an Irish border, collection of customs and VAT etc. will anyways become moot points.
The Remainers bite back
But this compromise only sparked further trouble. Her perceived “appeasement” led to a rebellion from the opposite wing of her party.
In apparently unironic terms, Tory MP Anna Soubry took a stand as champion of the poor against the gilded elites. “Nobody voted leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth would take their job away from them,” the Europhile Tory asserted.
Such tender-hearted concern for the interests of the poor was followed up by a new amendment for Britain to remain in a customs union as a default if a trade agreement could not be arrived at. In the end, this amendment fell by a tight margin of just six votes.
Among the worthies who helped the government survive this razor-edge vote were Tim Farron and Vince Cable – the former and current leader of the Lib Dems respectively – who somehow failed to turn up. Given that the Lib Dems’ entire raison d’etre is to oppose Brexit, many have been left asking: what even is the point of this party?
Lib Dem spokespersons have stated that Farron and Cable’s absences were a bungling mistake, rather than a calculated attempt to prop up May and keep Corbyn at bay.
Considering that Farron missed the vote to give a lecture on his repugnant views on the immorality of gay sex, we are surely inclined to believe stupidity played its part. Then again, the Lib Dems have proven many times in recent years that they have a perpetual disposition to commit harakiri in service of the Tories!
How to deal with the Blairites?
Perhaps more shocking were the four Labour votes that went to May. Labour clearly saw this as an opportunity to deal a bloody nose to May, perhaps preparing her downfall and a general election. The vote of four Labour MPs in support of the government – Kate Hoey, Frank Field, John Mann and Graham Stringer – was therefore seen as particularly traitorous.
The Momentum leadership expressed their frustration that an opportunity had been lost thanks to this clutch of right-wingers: “Labour is once again a socialist party that works for the many, not the few – and there is no room for Labour MPs who side with the reactionary Tory establishment.”
That these MPs are saboteurs is true – but they are far from the only ones! A large chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) have proven time and again that they would sooner prop up the Tories than risk a Corbyn government.
The constant calls by the Blairites for “national unity” (i.e. class collaboration) has so far fallen on deaf ears – although Tory MPs Anna Soubry and Sir Nicholas Soames have now started talking about a “government of national unity” to get a soft Brexit through.
We would be the first to celebrate the departure of hated, anti-Corbyn right-wingers like Field, Mann, and co. However, the real litmus test is not their attitude to the customs union.
The current Tory squabble is over the interests of big business and whether or not to stay in a customs union. But neither a capitalist Britain nor a capitalist EU are in the interests of the working class. We have no interest in siding with either camp in this fight.
Rather than deselecting these right-wing Labour MPs on the basis of their pro-Brexit position, it is the Blairites’ constant sabotage of Corbyn and their consistent support for pro-capitalist policies that mean they must go.
Arguments have been raised that the four should have the Labour whip withdrawn. But this won’t solve the problem. There are many other Labour MPs who voted against the government this week but who have proven on countless occasions that they would willingly cross the floor (in the “national interest”) and join them tomorrow.
Instead of removing the whip from the top, the Labour rank-and-file must be given the democratic tools to recall and deselect right-wingers themselves. Unfortunately, Momentum has so far refused to consistently take up the struggle for mandatory reselection in the party.
The balance sheet of the past few weeks confirms what we already knew. May is too weak to get the unity she sought at Chequers. Rees Mogg and co. are too weak to deal a knockout blow to her Brexit plans – although they can cause plenty of disruption in the meantime. And the Remainers are too weak to have Brexit scrapped altogether.
The Tory Party has gone from being in a “phony war” to being in an open struggle with itself. The unfortunate Mrs May is left to play the role of a mere safety-pin, holding her torn party and government together.
So divided is the government that some are worried that any eventual agreement with the EU would be unacceptable to more than half of the Commons. A sticky situation indeed for May, the Tories and the ruling class!
For all their divisions, however, what unites the various wings of the Tory Party, the Lib Dems, the Blairites and the capitalist establishment is a growing fear of the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government.
None of them want this – and yet this is precisely the likely outcome should the government fall and a general election be called.
As the weeks drag on and the track ahead of May runs out, this terrifying prospect for the ruling class looms ever larger.