Appealing to the rabid ranks of the Tory Party, cynical leadership hopefuls are threatening to dismantle the NI Protocol, setting Britain up for a trade war with the EU. The reckless opportunism of these careerists knows no bounds. This article was originally published on 22 June at socialist.net.
If you thought Brexit was over, you were sorely mistaken. Last week, Johnson’s government put forward a piece of legislation to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
But doesn’t an ‘agreement’ imply more than one party agreeing to something? It certainly does. And if only one of those parties amends the ‘agreement’ without the other’s assent, it’s no longer really an ‘agreement’ at all!
The other party to this particular agreement – the EU – are furious, and have promised retaliatory action that could be devastating for British capitalism. Whatever the game Johnson is playing at, it threatens to drag British capitalism into a very damaging trade war.
But it’s not just the EU who are unhappy. It turns out no one is happy. The Irish Taoiseach (or ‘tea-sock’, as Liz Truss calls him) described this as a “new low” for the UK government. The Biden administration also made its displeasure publicly known.
Boris Johnson is made to look like a fool on the world stage – but so what? All that matters to Boris is the opinion of those propping up his career at home.
But the Tory Brexiteer hardliners were also greatly displeased. And the so-called Tory ‘moderates’ weren’t much happier either.
As for the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), the rabidly right-wing unionist party that this legislation was supposedly meant to placate: they won’t budge an inch closer to reentering Stormont.
All of this begs the question: if this legislation pleases no one, and has the potential to be so damaging for British capitalism, why bring it forward at all?
The answer is that this has nothing to do with the North of Ireland at all – and everything to do with the civil war in the Tory Party, where potential leadership hopefuls are falling over each other in the fight to take Johnson’s job.
The goings-on in the traditional party of British capitalism are resembling a plot line from Game of Thrones. And like that once-popular television series, the final episodes of the Prime Minister’s reign are turning into an embarrassing omnishambles.
Self-harm and self-interest
In 2016, in an effort to prevent a haemorrhage of Tory voters to Nigel Farage’s UKIP, David Cameron decided to gamble the interests of British capitalism on a referendum on EU membership.
In preparation for the campaign, Boris Johnson – at that time the Mayor of London – wrote not one, but two articles for his regular column for The Telegraph: one putting the case for Brexit… and the other putting the case for Remain!
Assessing which was more likely to advance his career, Boris chose to champion Brexit. Meanwhile, Liz Truss – then the environment and food minister, now the foreign secretary – at that time championed Remain.
Viewed from the perspective of the interests of British capitalism, Brexit was an act of insane self-harm. But this was of no concern to Boris, who used the support of a rabble of Little Englanders to raise himself to the top of the Tory Party, and into Number 10.
Now he’s wounded, however, and his days are clearly numbered. Consequently, he has found himself the (inevitable) target of every Tory minister with a bit of ambition, including Truss.
Back in February, Liz Truss was jetting off to Moscow in a Ushanka hat, despite
the nine degree weather, to get a bit of reflected glory as the West faced down Russia over Ukraine (unsuccessfully as it would turn out).
Truss clearly counts herself as a serious contender to be Boris’ successor. But the Ukraine war isn’t going so well for the West.
Johnson also tried to milk the war hysteria for all it was worth. “It’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time,” Johnson blustered, comparing Brexit to the war in Ukraine.
But the Tory backbenchers have stopped buying it. And many Tory MPs in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ weren’t best pleased when Johnson snubbed them recently to hang out with Zelensky in Kyiv before the world’s media.
Any way the wind blows
Sensing which way the wind is blowing, the ambitious Ms Truss has changed her strategy. She has decided to ensnare Johnson over the NI Protocol – that loose thread which has the potential to unwind relations between British capitalism and its closest neighbours.
With the Tory ranks in ferment, some sabre-rattling with the EU over the Protocol wouldn’t be bad for Johnson. But a genuine confrontation with the EU would be disastrous. A trade war would throw petrol on the flames of a cost-of-living crisis that is already stoking explosive anger towards the government.
And a trade war is what Britain would get if the Tory government triggers Article 16 of the Protocol, blasting a hole in the border of the Common Market – as Johnson had been threatening.
In came Truss with a better idea. Instead of triggering Article 16, how about passing legislation that would just selectively override parts of the Protocol?
Not to be outflanked, Boris Johnson took up the idea as his own. But in came Truss to the Cabinet meeting, armed with a dose of poison.
She had gone away and drafted legislation that would boot out the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and annul large parts of the Protocol through ‘sunset clauses’.
This was a recipe for the very trade war with Europe that Johnson cannot afford. And just as Truss calculated, Johnson rejected it with a great deal of irritation, forcing the PM to come back with his own, much more limited legislation.
The whole thing worked out just as Truss hoped. The EU are irritated, but the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteer MPs – who have enough MPs to rob Johnson of his majority – rejected the legislation too.
As for the DUP in the North of Ireland, they weren’t placated by this legislation either. Unionism is in deep crisis, and the DUP are resting upon a narrow, reactionary base – one that has been whipped into a state of hysteria over the ‘Irish Sea Border’, and the threat that this is supposed to present to the Union.
To accept anything less than the Protocol’s complete destruction would therefore mean political suicide for the DUP.
The cynical opportunism on display is astounding. Liz Truss – one time Lib Dem, and Remainer back in 2016 – has played to the Brexiteer gallery and is now out-flanking Johnson from the right. Her Machiavellian manoeuvring, combined with her utter indifference to the consequences beyond her next career move, is remarkable.
But this whole farce inside the Tory Party is putting British capitalism on a disastrous course. Already, Britain is heading for zero percent growth next year – the lowest in the G20 besides Russia. Now Tory opportunists are courting a trade war with the EU.
It isn’t just relations with the EU that are souring. Britain has been cold-shouldered on trade talks by a Biden administration that has no intention of backing Britain against the EU, when the latter is vital in US imperialism’s showdown with Russia.
Indeed, just recently, the Johnson government was lauding a new trade deal…with the state of Indiana! The UK government has opened no less than 20 bilateral state-level trade deals with US states as a national deal sails away, over the horizon.
And then, of course, there is the question of stability in the North of Ireland, where the DUP have lost control of the situation, and where the most rabidly reactionary elements in unionism are being whipped up by these Tory games.
The stakes could not be higher for British capitalism. But they are being gambled left, right, and centre for the basest objectives of Tory politicians.
In its heyday, the British capitalist class was renowned for its farsighted representatives. But just as the capitalists themselves have become the most short-sighted parasites, so have their political representatives become the most short-sighted egotists.
“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies,” former prime minister Lord Palmerston once told the House of Commons in the 1840s. “Our interests are eternal and perpetual. And those interests it is our duty to follow.”
Lord Palmerston was of course talking about the national interests of the British capitalist class, at a time when the latter produced representatives who seriously guarded its interests.
Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and the rest of the gang running the Tory Party today apply the same dictum to their own career interests – the only interests they know or care about.
British capitalism is in one hell of a crisis. It is hampered by low growth, stagnant productivity, high inflation, and declining military might.
Class struggle is on the order of the day, as the working class – and even middle-class layers – are ground down by a cost-of-living catastrophe.
This is all coming together in a perfect storm for the ruling class; a tempest that even the most enlightened helmsman would struggle to navigate without wrecking the ship.
But the current crop of political representatives, far from easing the way through these crises, are making them one hundred times worse – and are even deliberately exacerbating them where they can be turned into career opportunities.
Who can say exactly where all this will end up? We do not have a crystal ball. It is impossible to know how far these reckless, myopic careerists are willing to go.
But one thing is for certain: instability at every level – economically, politically, and socially – is the order of the day, preparing the conditions for revolutionary explosions across these isles.