May in Fantasy Brexitland
Jim O’Neill gives his assessment of where the Brexit mess leaves Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and the fortunes of the Labour Party.
The danger of writing a Brexit blog at this time is that matters are moving on so quickly that this might be irrelevant by the time it is published. However some matters are already clear.
First, some Ministers have followed the courage of their convictions by resigning after a night’s consideration. Chief among these is Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, who has resigned because he can’t accept the deal that he himself negotiated. No doubt he will say that he was sidelined by the Prime Minister. However, surely that was when he should have resigned. Less damaging, not only to Mrs May, but also to the country as a whole, is the political suicide for the second time of the Wicked Witch of the West, Esther McVey. Her time as Work and Pensions Secretary has shown a complete lack of sympathy with those people she is supposed to protect in our welfare state. Who, however, will take on these two jobs?
At the same time, a number of ministers have shown that their enjoyment of the ministerial life outweighs the alleged principles that they have espoused. Chief among these is the principal architect of Brexit, Michael Gove who while rejecting a transfer to Brexit Secretary, has nevertheless announced that he will be staying in the Cabinet. The Leader of the House, the mouthy Andrea Leadsom, has suddenly gone quiet despite her hardline comments over the past few days.
At the same time, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for the Eighteenth Century, has sought to spring a vote of no-confidence in Mrs May via the 1922 Committee. Mr Rees-Mogg has ensured that he will not be affected by Brexit, since he has moved his business dealings to Dublin. Even if he gets the 48 supporters to spring a vote, it is by no means clear that he commands the number of votes required to topple her. It is clear that she will not take the route of Mrs Thatcher in resigning even while she led the first vote. Mrs May has not been in power long enough to want to lay down the benefits of No. 10.
However, it was clear in the Commons that this deal cannot command the confidence of the House, with bribery no longer ensuring the DUP vote, an unknown number of Brexiteers and Remainers on the Tory backbenches prepared to vote against the deal, and all the opposition parties opposing the deal (even Frank Field!). There is no chance of the deal getting through. Her only chance now is to go to the country, either through a general election, the Labour leadership’s preferred route, or in a referendum. And the House will ensure that No Brexit will be on the ballot paper. The last person to do that was Edward Heath during the first miner’s strike. He lost the election and Harold Wilson returned Labour to power.
So where do we go from here? Mrs May has said that she will battle on until the European leaders’ meeting in two weeks’ time. It is clear, however, that there will be no further negotiation and this 575 page agreement will be put both to the UK Parliament and the European Parliament. How Mrs May will react to a substantial defeat in the Commons is unknown. But reaction there must be. She can no longer delay.
In Scotland, the SNP have been steadfast in their opposition to Brexit, hoping that it might shore up the support for Independence. However, Ms Sturgeon is now in a quandary. If Labour win a general election, or if a new referendum decides on no Brexit, there is no longer any justification for independence. Throughout the farce of the Brexit negotiations the people of Scotland have consistently indicated that they want to remain in the Union. With the pressure of Brexit removed that feeling will only be reinforced. And with a possible Labour government in the wings, the attack on the Welfare State is diminished. Independence looks further and further away.
Given the attack on local government by the SNP, and the continuing loss of local services – the services that people notice the most – recent polls that show a loss of support for the SNP will increase. Will Ms Sturgeon want to throw indy2 into that mix? I think not. That will put increasing pressure on the coalition that is the SNP with the ultras possibly going their own way, led by Siol Nan Gael.
We are at a real crossroads in our history. As a historian I can look dispassionately at the flow of history and the possible impact of the Brexit experience on the other members of the Community. However, as a socialist and internationalist, I can only urge my comrades to stand strong and take this opportunity to make Britain a better place.