Whilst her dancing skills have been found somewhat lacking in recent months, Theresa May has become an expert at one thing: kicking the can down the road. Of course, she has been aided in this by the real masters of this practice: the European leaders, who have turned the making of political fudge into a fine art over the last decade. But no matter how much May and her negotiating partners attempt to duck and dive, they cannot dodge the final bullet. One way or another, Britain and the rest of Europe are heading for an explosion. The only question is when.
The Prime Minister had hoped to convince her counterparts in Brussels this week that progress could – and would – be made in negotiations over the UK’s departure from the European Union. But the only outcome was an agreement amongst the EU27 that there was no outcome. As a result, next month’s planned Brexit summit has been cancelled, seen rightly be the European leaders as a waste of their time.
Faced with the continued (and insoluble) problem of the Irish border, May was forced to quietly leave the summit without anything to bring back home other the suggestion of a further extension to the already – agreed transitional period, originally set to expire in December 2020. Now the Tory leader has suggested that this might be prolonged by “a matter of months”, in order to avoid the ever – growing possibility of a no-deal ‘train-crash’ Brexit.
Unsurprisingly, this proposal did not go down well with the Tory Party faithful. Brexiteers instantly leaped to their feet, declaring this yet another betrayal; another step towards relegating the UK to the status of a “vassal state”.
The Leavers are fearful that their promised Jerusalem will never be reached, and that Britain will instead be stuck in a permanent limbo of “BRINO”: Brexit in name only – leaving the EU formally, but continuing to follow its rules and pay money in, all whilst losing any vote or seat at the table.
And their concerns are justified. After all, an ever-growing lobby of bankers, bosses, businesses, and Blairites is seeking to overturn the result of the 2016 EU referendum altogether. The cacophonous call for a 2nd referendum – a “People’s Vote” – has become deafening. No wonder Rees-Mogg and co. are up in arms: they can see their beloved Brexit slipping through their fingers.
Their suspicions will have been confirmed by the warmer reception May’s suggestion received from UK big business, who are keen for any move that maintains the country’s access to the Single Market for longer. For example, the CBI – the bosses’ union – was amongst those at the top to welcome the Prime Minister’s latest offer.
Walls closing in
Everywhere Theresa May looks, the walls are closing in on her attempts to reach an agreement.
Her parliamentary partners, the reactionary DUP, are threatening to pull the plug if a ‘backstop’ is put in place, which would see the North of Ireland align with the South in terms of trading arrangements, effectively pushing the border back into the Irish Sea. Remain supporters, as already noted, are mobilising to push for a 2nd referendum. And Corbyn’s Labour Party have stated that they will help to vote down almost any deal presented to Parliament, in the hope of forcing another general election and kicking the Tories out.
All the while, the Brexiteers believe that they have one trump card up their sleeve: the ability to dethrone their party leader.
This sword of Damocles hangs ever more precariously above May’s head. Former cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and David Davis are amongst the Eurosceptics who responded to this week’s developments in Brussels by signing an open letter which stated that the British people would not forgive May if Brexit was reduced to a “choreographed show of resistance followed by surrender”.
The Prime Minister's only hope now is to embark on an impossible balancing act. To the European leaders, she is making pleas for concessions, warning of a cliff-edge Brexit if her Chequers deal is not accepted. To the Remain-supporting MPs within her own party, she is asking for support against the Leave fanatics. And to the Brexiteers, she is alerting their attentions to the fact that her departure could lead to a snap election, putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street and ending their Brexit dream.
But May cannot maintain such a state of spinning plates indefinitely. Eventually, the Prime Minister will have to decide: does she bend to pressure of her party ranks, standing firm against the ‘oppressors’ in Brussels and marching the country out of Europe without a deal; or does she capitulate to the EU and make a humiliating retreat back past all the so-called red lines that she has previously declared.
The former option will plunge Britain into the unknown, cutting big business adrift of its largest export market, and threatening the stability of an already fragile European – and world – economy. This is of no concern for leading Brexiteers. To paraphrase Tacitus, the Roman historian: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it victory.
The latter option, on the other hand, will in effect be political kamikazee for Theresa May. The bosses and bankers will get their way, retaining access to the Single Market – but at what cost?
Firstly, it is uncertain whether she could even stumble over the finishing line. The demands of EU negotiators could be too much for May to swallow. Eventually the Prime Minister would be forced aside by those in her own party, opening the door for a new, unreliable, arch-Leaver leader.
Most importantly, this would pave the way for a Corbyn Labour government – confident, emboldened, and radicalised: a prospect that sets off as many alarm bells in the City of London as the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
For a socialist Europe
Sooner or later, judgement day will come for Theresa May. And the opportunity for Corbyn’s Labour to form a government will present itself. At that point, Britain’s new Prime Minister will face his own choice: submit to the sabotage of the markets, or break with the bosses’ Europe and the capitalist system.
The Corbyn movement must prepare now for this showdown. And that means arguing the case boldly for a radical transformation of society – for a Socialist United States of Europe.