Today was supposed to be the moment of truth, when Parliament voted on Theresa May’s ‘precious’ Brexit deal. But, at the 11th hour, the Prime Minister postponed her judgment day and announced that the vote was to be put on hold. A new decision date has not been set. But time is rapidly running out for British capitalism.
Had May’s deal been voted on today, it would have faced certain defeat. Over 100 Tory MPs alone have spoken out against their leader’s negotiated proposal. And this is not including opposition from the Tories’ Northern Irish government partners, the DUP, plus every other party in the House of Commons.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has achieved nothing by delaying the vote. She has bought herself some time – but what good is time when you have no viable options to choose from?
Meanwhile, the 29 March 2019 Brexit deadline is looming ominously on the horizon. May can prevaricate some more if she likes, in order to avoid immediate humiliation in Westminster. But without any agreement in place the UK will crash out of Europe without any deal. This is an apocalyptic scenario for big business – one which the ruling class cannot contenance.
Running out of road
Theresa May is now frantically calling around EU leaders, desperately begging for some “reassurances” that she can take back to MPs to soothe their concerns – in particular over the question of the Irish backstop.
But Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, has already stated in no uncertain terms that there is “no room whatsoever” to renegotiate the Brexit deal. "The deal that we have achieved is the best deal possible,” Juncker emphatically announced in response to the British premier’s latest overtures, before adding: “It is the only deal possible.”
May is therefore likely to return from Brussels empty handed, with all her efforts to “sell the deal” over the past few weeks in vain. Eventually the PM will have to face the music, only this time with all momentum, credibility, and authority drained from her.
“Theresa May has become an expert in kicking cans down the road,” noted the Financial Times. But there is one major problem with this strategy: there’s come a point where you run out of road. As one exasperated Tory Brexiteer understandably asked: “What on earth is going on? I’m just tired of kicking the can down the road.”
Or, as one of May’s sympathisers more eloquently put it: “Being in government is about making decisions. But all our options are shit so we keep making shit decision after shit decision, in the hope that it’s less shit than the alternative.”
Tick tock, tick tock
The best Theresa May can now hope for is that the ticking clock brings some sobriety to MPs drunk with hubris on both sides.
On the one hand, there are the ardent Remainers, who feel that their demand for a second referendum is gaining momentum with every passing day.
Most Remain-supporting MPs could have been persuaded to back May’s deal, or an even softer Brexit in the form of the “Norway plus” model that has been touted. But giddy with excitement at the prospect of reversing the 2016 vote, and smelling the PM’s weakness, many are now falling for the sirens’ call of a “People’s Vote” that is emanating loudly from Blairite, Liberal, and ‘moderate’ Tory MPs .
These ladies and gentlemen, however, should be careful what they wish for. They arrogantly assume that the establishment’s wishes would be obediently followed in the case of a second referendum. But polling shows that a Remain vote is by no means guaranteed. Depending on what choice is presented to the public, it is not impossible that another referendum could produce a no-deal vote – the worst possible outcome imaginable from the point of view of the ruling class.
This might be a risk that some Europhile MPs are unwilling to accept. As the FT put it: “This is Russian roulette with three bullets in the chamber.” Better, some could conclude, to accept May’s deal than to take a gamble and end up with the disaster of no-deal.
On the other side, the most fanatical Brexiteers would happily see Britain crash out of the EU without any deal. But with the threat of a second referendum (and the possibility of no Brexit at all) presented before them, they might still fall in line behind May’s soft offer.
Whilst a few MPs in both camps might be swayed, however, the parliamentary arithmetic is still heavily weighted against the Tory leader. With nothing to offer Conservative and DUP MPs to assuage their fears, at some point Theresa May will have to brace herself and accept defeat for her beloved deal. But this will only turn the page on a new, even more explosive chapter in Britain’s Brexit drama.
The Prime Minister’s days are clearly numbered. Tory MPs are rapidly turning on their party leader, with many accusing May of leading them to “slaughter”. “We continue to be led by a mule flogging a dead horse,” exclaimed one incesced author in the Telegraph.
May is now a dead woman walking – as Labour have emphasised, echoing the former Conservative chancellor, Norman Lamont: in office, but not in power.
“Her humiliating decision to pull MPs’ vote on her Brexit deal shows a prime minister entering the end game,” commented Robert Shrimsley in the FT. “The inevitable conclusion is that we have entered a zombie premiership.”
As leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure from the SNP and Lib Dems to call a vote of no confidence in the government. But Corbyn has correctly resisted this call so far.
Despite their disagreements with May’s Brexit deal, it is not clear that enough DUP or Tory MPs would support a vote of no confidence at this stage. After all, when it comes to these hysterical and reactionary Members of Parliament, there is nothing quite like the image of seeing Corbyn in Number 10 to focus the mind.
Blairite MPs know that a vote of confidence would fall at the current time. And that is precisely why they are pushing for Corbyn to bring it forward ASAP, with dozens of prominent Labour right-wingers signing a letter insisting that their party leader table a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s government straight away.
Like their friends across the aisle, the Blairites in Parliament don’t want to see a Corbyn government either. They would far rather see a second referendum, so that their big business backers can maintain access to their cherished Single Market.
General election now!
May’s position will only weaken even further as the Brexit vote approaches, leading to even more intense infighting within the Tory government. The moment to strike will therefore be then, when the Prime Minister is at her nadir: after she has been thoroughly defeated in the House of Commons in the vote on her much-reviled deal.
After this, all hell will break loose. Tory leadership challengers will emerge from their hiding places. Conservative MPs will be at each other’s throats. The establishment will be completely demoralised.
In such a situation, with the Tory Party split and the ruling class entangled in a historic political crisis, the government could fall and Labour could sweep to power on the back of a radical left programme.
This is what Corbyn is correctly aiming for. And it is a possibility that is within touching distance. All energies must therefore be concentrated on this task: demanding a general election to kick out the Tories and bring in a socialist Labour government.