“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”
Theresa May has survived to live another day after coming through a vote of no confidence amongst her party’s MPs with a 200-to-117 majority. But whilst the Tory leader may have won this battle, she has most certainly lost the war.
The massive number of votes against May is a mortal blow to her authority, signalling that she cannot get her Brexit deal past her own party, let alone the House of Commons. “If you’re a PM and a third of your MPs vote against you,” noted Eurosceptic Tory MP Mark Francois, “that is very bad news”.
Mrs May now hopes that she will be in a stronger position to gain assurances and concessions from EU leaders as she resumes her interrupted European tour. But, to throw her own overused phrase back at her: nothing has changed.
The Prime Minister is back to square one, with all her efforts in vain. She might now be safe from leadership challenges for another 12 months. But this means very little when she is impotent to pass her all-consuming Brexit proposal. Despite the drama of the past week, May is still stuck trying to sell an impossible deal to an incalcitrant Parliament.
“Now what?” Robert Shrimsley asks in the Financial Times. “It is not clear what has been achieved by the exercise. Mrs May remains badly wounded, but still in office. Her rebels can vote down her deal but cannot now remove her.”
A British government has never been so weak, with a lame duck prime minister heading an unstable informal coalition and a completely divided party. Meanwhile, the Brexit clock is ticking.
Begging in Europe
Britain was one of the more stable countries not so long ago. Now it has become one of the most unstable. Brexit, which was once only a small cloud on the horizon, has now been thrust to centre of the ‘shock and awe’ of British politics.
“Is there a government in London actually?” asked one diplomat, after looking with amazement as events unfolded.
The UK has been through a rollercoaster ride of events over the last few days. Staring at a humiliating defeat for her proposed Brexit deal, Mrs May pulled the vote in the House of Commons. She then launched into a desperate visit of European capitals to plead with the continent’s leaders to give her a few crumbs that she could sell to hostile MPs.
With opponents in her own party seen to (for the time being), the UK Prime Minister has returned to Europe to continue begging for concessions. But her counterparts have made it clear that they have little else to offer - and certainly nothing that would appease intractable Tory Brexiteers.
Symbolically, the PM went cap in hand this week to see Angela Merkel in Berlin, where she was politely rebuffed. Merkel’s overriding interest is to defend the interests of the EU27, despite Mrs May’s warning that a no-deal Brexit could provoke a European banking crisis.
These ominous sentiments were even echoed from senior figures within the German premier’s own party. “There is a real risk that a hard Brexit could tip the global economy into a crisis,” said Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous and economically powerful state. “It could be even more serious than the collapse of Lehman Brothers — if you look at the potential effect on trade.”
But these concerns were not enough to sway opinion in Berlin. “We know how hard things are for May and we certainly don’t want to make her life any harder than it already is,” explained Katja Leikert, an MP in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party who handles Brexit issues, “but so much is at stake for us”.
Declaring that talks had reached a dead-end, Ms Merkel warned there would be no backstop at all if Brexit talks ended with no deal. Achim Post, deputy leader of the parliamentary group of Ms Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partners, put it even more bluntly: “There can and will be no political discounts for political chaos.”
Clearly, the Europeans have their own interests to protect. Saving Mrs May is not one of them.
Reckless and brainless
This grovelling was regarded by many Brexiteers as a national humiliation. It is seen as the final straw, provoking accusations of betrayal.
Support had been draining away from Theresa May for some time - but the process accelerated after Monday’s vote withdrawal debacle. Following this, it was decided by Tory backbenchers that the time was right to act and plunge in the knife.
By late on Tuesday night, Mrs May was informed that the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, had received the required 48 letters, triggering a vote of no confidence in the party leader amongst Tory MPs.
Mrs May pleaded for her political life, saying that any new leader would lead to greater instability. Most importantly, she stressed, her irresponsible opponents could open the door to a general election and the coming to power of a Corbyn Labour government.
“I will contest that vote with everything that I’ve got,” the Tory leader said. “A change of leadership in the Conservative party now will put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it.”
“Any attempt to replace the prime minister in the middle of all this is utterly reckless and brainless,” stated Alan Duncan, a junior minister in the Foreign Office.
But the whole Brexit gamble, started by David Cameron, has been “reckless and brainless” from the start from the point of view of British capitalism. Europe is a vital market for Britain. The idea that the UK can take to the open seas and secure trade deals around the world is madness.
The question of Europe, however, had long-ago poisoned the Tory Party. These latest dramatic events are simply the consequences of this decades-old tension.
Voting eventually took place last night, on Wednesday evening, with May, the beleaguered PM, in need of 158 votes - a majority of Tory MPs - to remain as Conservative leader and in office. In the end she gained 200 votes, with 117 of her own party calling on her to step down.
But this vote has done nothing to calm the situation within the Tory party. Indeed, it will only intensify the civil war that has been raging for some time.
“War, not peace, has broken out,” announced the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. “Just when the prime minister truly needs to get her party together, its rival tribes might be now set on a course to pull her - and themselves - apart.”
Pro-Remain chancellor Philip Hammond has already stated that his leader’s victory would help to “flush out the extremists”. Meanwhile, these Brexiteer “extremists” are declaring victory themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they effectively have veto power over May’s deal in the House of Commons.
“They never, ever, stop,” exclaimed one government minister, Alistair Burt, referring to the Brexiteers. “Votes against them, letters going in late - nothing matters to the ERG [European Research Group]. After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory MPs complaining about Europe and their leader.”
“Furthermore even this unconvincing victory came at the cost of a fairly clear promise that she will not be contesting the next election,” writes Shrimsley in the FT. “This must be the first time a premier has won a leadership challenge by turning herself into a lame duck. She has paid a very high price for a pretty poor win.”
There are now even concerns that kamikaze renegades in the Tory party might be willing to blow up the whole government in order to destroy May’s deal.
“Right now there's no chance they will back her,” Kuenssberg continues, in discussing the Brexiteers possible next step. “And some of them might, just might, be willing to contemplate the nuclear option - to join with opposition MPs if they call for a vote of no confidence of the whole House of Commons.”
The Brexit circus
The whole farce is like watching a slow motion train crash. Nobody seems to be in control. The Tory government is being buffeted by events. The Brexit negotiations were ill prepared and ill thought out, resulting in May’s compromised patch-up of a deal, which satisfies nobody and which is rapidly unravelling.
The Tory Party has gone mad. In the past, it looked after the interests of capitalism. A political crisis such as this would never have been allowed to happen. But those days have long gone. The crazy people are now in charge.
“[In the past] Britain could afford to be such an endearingly odd place, with its bloated royal family and tub-thumping tabloids, because it had a genius for putting sensible people in charge of the things that mattered,” the Bagehot columnist notes in the Economist.
“Today the general view abroad is that this formula has malfunctioned. The circus acts and charlatans have taken over, in the form of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the sensible people have been locked up in the Tower of London.”
These deluded clowns have a romantic idea of Brexit, in which ‘sovereignty’ is regained, the Empire returns, and Britannia rules the waves once again.
But an ‘independent’ Britain would simply be a satellite of US imperialism, and nothing more. A no-deal crashing out, hailed by the most fanatical Tory Brexiteers, would plunge British capitalism into an abyss. But they do not seem to care. The end justifies the means.
This will not lead to Shangri-La but to a very nasty place indeed. No wonder big business is pulling its hair out at the situation. They have lost control. They do not even control the Tory Party, the supposed party of business.
The Tory Brexiteers wanted a new prime minister - one of their own - to oversee Britain’s exit from the EU. They are still willing to see Britain leave without a formal deal if necessary.
Wednesday evening’s vote has done nothing to resolve these divisions with the Conservative Party. The potential for a split still exists. The Tories’ reactionary base is firmly opposed to May and her supporters, with two-thirds of party members wanting the leader out.
The “moderate” wing could eventually split away, ending up in some coalition with the right wing of the Labour Party.
This has raised the idea of a national government in certain quarters. Britain is faced with a national emergency. As the Brexit deadline approaches, the voices making these calls for such a government to act in the “national interest” will only become louder.
Already, Nicky Morgan, a former Tory minister (and strong Remain supporter) has suggested that “maybe it’s time for some sort of government of national unity” to break the Brexit deadlock. Another Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, has also chimed in: “I must say if I had my way we would have a national government to deal with this. It is the most serious problem this country has faced since the war.”
But this would mean splitting the Labour Party also, with the Blairites lining up with “sensible” Europhile Tories and the Liberals. Prominent Tory Remainers are already making such overtures to their friends on their other side of the aisle, with hardline Conservative Remainer Anna Soubry stating that:
“I personally would abandon the Labour frontbench and I would reach beyond it and I would encompass Plaid Cymru, the SNP and other sensible, pragmatic people who believe in putting this country’s interests first and foremost.”
The possibility of a national government forming to resolve the Brexit parliamentary paralysis cannot therefore be ruled out - but it is not the most likely outcome.
Instead, there is growing pressure for a ‘People’s Vote’. This is being championed by the Blairites, Lib Dems, SNP, and Greens, who all want to overthrow the 2016 referendum result and Remain in the EU.
The danger for the establishment is that a second referendum may confirm Brexit, potentially even delivering a disastrous hard Brexit result. Given the volatility, the result would be very close - far too close for some to take this gamble.
Nevertheless, some of the Blairites are prepared to place a bet on a second referendum, so blindly are they wedded to the interests of big business, their real masters.
Even if Remain won, this would polarise the situation enormously. Such a polarisation, however, would not be between left and right, but between two wings of the ruling class. The underlying instability of British capitalism would not go away.
Staring into the void
May remains for the moment. But so does her Brexit headache. Such is the mess the Tory government are in that anything they do will be wrong. Recent events are preparing a further upheaval in British society.
What is clear is that Brexit cannot simply be put back in the box. There will be no return to the past. Political crisis and instability are the new normality under capitalism. The government will swing from one expedient to another in a desperate attempt to navigate the deepest crisis in modern British history.
They are all staring into the void. A no-deal Brexit, although the least likely outcome, cannot be completely discounted given all the cross currents. More likely, if the 29th March 2019 deadline approaches without any agreement, the emergency cord will be pulled and Article 50 suspended. If not, all bets are off.
The storm clouds are gathering. Britain has entered into uncharted waters. The last few days and weeks have been convulsive, but they are nothing compared to what we are about to experience. Fasten your seat belts - we are in for one hell of a ride.