Brexit: Parliament does the hokey-cokey

Splits and back-tracking by politicians combine with rampant media hysteria as Brexit day approaches and the ruling class searches for a way out.

In, out, in, out
You shake it all about
You do the hokey cokey
And you turn around
That’s what it’s all about!

*****

In a key statement to Parliament on 12 February, Theresa May gave her latest Brexit update. She started this statement by saying she wants to deliver a Brexit which:

1. Honours commitments made to the people of northern Ireland;
2. Commands the support of Parliament; and
3. Can be negotiated with the European Union (EU).

As fraudulent as the rest of her general ‘Brexit means remain as far as possible’ handling of Brexit has been, her new statement was equally slippery.

In the first instance, point 1 contradicts point 2 because honouring the commitments made to the people of northern Ireland means upholding the Good Friday peace agreement (GFA). In simple terms, this seems to require the infamous ‘backstop’, as to have no backstop suggests the need for a hard border, and a hard border breaks the GFA.

So if to honour Britain’s commitments to the people of northern Ireland requires the backstop, but the backstop does not command the support of the government’s de facto partners, the hardline sectarian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), let alone the support of Parliament as a whole, then Mrs May is evidently waving smoke and mirrors in order to obscure the insoluble contradiction in which she is entangled.

Additionally, point 2 has been shown to be in contradiction with point 3. In simple terms, May’s withdrawal deal, whether described as ‘Plan A’ or ‘Plan B’ (which are, in fact, exactly the same), has proved to be acceptable to the EU but has not been able to command the support of Parliament – not even near!

May went on briefly to report on her meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and once more the antagonisms were evident. She announced yet again that she was ‘seeking legal assurances’ as to the temporary nature of the backstop, which requires a renegotiation of the withdrawal deal.

However, she was forced to admit that Mr Juncker was maintaining the long-held EU position that withdrawal deal changes are off the table. The best May had to report was that she and Juncker will meet again to discuss the issue soon. But unless one side climbs down and drops their position (although neither party is in any position to do this), there can be no resolution to these fundamentally contradictory propositions.

Her next task was to throw a bone to Labour and its union backers by declaring: “There are a number of areas where the whole House should be able to come together. In particular, I feel we have a shared determination across this House not to allow the UK leaving the EU to mean any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights, environmental protections or health and safety.”

Well, this offer of a bit of a sweetener to induce her opponents to swallow the quasi-Brexit pill on offer might be welcome, but, as they say, there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip. Who doesn’t know what happens to such promises when the bosses have got what they want?

May also suggested an intent to take to Parliament the proposal that Britain should follow suit every time the EU changes its rules. But since her idea of Brexit appears to mean ‘Remain, but without EU immigrants’, that suggestion should not surprise.

Moreover, as the PM herself noted, such endeavours to tie Britain to EU regulations would offer no particular protection to workers’ rights. In fact, in some respects, UK regulations (as poor as they are) actually go further than EU ones. Further entrenchment of EU regulations, rather than protecting workers’ rights, could politically facilitate the further erosion of standards.

However, May chose much more absurd language to make this point. “We don’t need to automatically follow the EU standards in order to lead the way, as we have done in the past under both Conservative and Labour governments.

“The UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights … Successive governments of all parties have put in place standards that exceed the minimum set by the EU. A Labour government gave British workers annual leave and paid maternity leave entitlements well above that required by the European Union.

“A Conservative-led government went further than the EU by giving all employees the right to request flexible working, and I was proud to be the minister for women and equalities to introduce shared parental leave so that both parents are able to take on caring responsibilities for their child, something no EU regulation provides for.”

This was a ham-fisted way to make an important point. While Britain certainly has no ‘proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights’ (that was the Soviet Union), the EU is not the bastion of workers’ rights it is held up to be. Moreover, inside or outside of the EU, any government can, if it so wishes, exceed the very basic provisions laid down in EU law.

After making her statement the prime minister suffered a further parliamentary defeat – to add to December’s crushing vote on her withdrawal agreement. In a non-binding vote MPs voted by 303 to 258 against her Brexit approach, with 66 of her own MPs abstaining.

Being non-binding, this vote was a bone without meat. It was practically meaningless, serving as nothing other than an indication of where MPs stand on the issue – something already revealed by last month’s ‘meaningful vote‘.

The result presented May with a political opportunity. It showed her that the genuine Tory Brexiteers of the European Research Group (ERG) will simply not back her Brexit plan, even in a non-binding vote. On a strategic level, here was her chance to pivot towards Labour’s ‘UK-wide customs union’ agenda.

Such a position is not what the workers of this country want or need, nor is it what they voted for. However, a politically astute leader could have seized upon this moment to build a ‘cross-party consensus’ by making her soft Brexit even softer, thereby placating vast swathes of Labour MPs and completely isolating the ERG Tory MPs, leaving them to wilt in the political wilderness.

This was a missed opportunity for the elected representatives of capital to perform their masters’ bidding. Such a move was certainly being suggested by the Brussels bureaucrats. Those wishing for Brexit on paper but remain in practice have missed a window of opportunity.

For workers, this is excellent news, increasing the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, but it also keeps the so-called ‘people’s vote’ agenda in a position of political prominence. Neither can yet be written off, but the likelihood of a ‘soft Brexit’ deal (ie, Brexit in name only), whilst decreasing, is not yet dead in the water.

It seems that May is betting the farm on the hope that when push comes to shove, ERG MPs will back her deal at the last minute, when faced with the threat of a Brexit delay or a people’s vote.

A few days after May addressed Parliament, shots were fired at the PM from within the pro-EU Tory ranks. Justice secretary David Gauke repeated the nonsensical demand to ‘rule out a no-deal Brexit’, and gave the prime minister until 27 February to make this happen, threatening to resign if it did not – 27 February being the date set for the next round of Brexit-related votes.

In the event, a motion tabled jointly by the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to categorically rule out no-deal at any time was defeated.

“Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservatives’ Sir Oliver Letwin had rattled Downing Street with an amendment that would pave the way for a bill to extend article 50, over which ministers had threatened to resign to support it. Letwin and the amendment’s other Tory backer, Nick Boles, have now said they are happy with the prime minister’s pledge to hold the votes on 13 and 14 March. However, to hold the prime minister to her promise, Cooper tabled an amendment to reiterate May’s statement [the promise of another meaningful vote for MPs on the Brexit withdrawal deal, to be held on 12 March], in effect forcing the government to vote for her amendment. The amendment was voted through by 502 to 20 votes, a majority of 482.” (Explained: the amendments voted on by MPs by Jessica Elgot, The Guardian, 27 February 2019)

Labour’s position updated

A week before May gave her statement to the House, Jeremy Corbyn finally brought some semblance of clarity to the Labour party‘s position. Thrown out were the pie-in-the-sky ‘six tests’, to be replaced by five new positions:

1. A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union, an agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals.

2. Close alignment with the EU single market, underpinned by shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution.

3. Dynamic alignment on rights and protections so that UK standards keep pace with evolving standards across Europe as a minimum, but allowing the UK to lead the way.

4. Clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in areas such as the environment, education, and industrial regulation.

5. Unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security arrangements, including access to the European arrest warrant and vital shared databases.

Whilst this brought a little more clarity than the party’s previous opaque catch-all position, such clarity was purely relative. Real clarity emerged on 18 February, not with regard to Labour’s position, but with regard to that party’s essence, when seven MPs resigned the Labour whip at this critical moment for the party, its leader and the country.

The MPs in question – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey – chose to strike at a time that would cause maximum damage on all these fronts. These shamefully coordinated resignations were allegedly in response to the ludicrous ‘antisemitism‘ allegations but in reality were a response to the Labour leadership’s handling of Brexit.

The furore over antisemitism allegations has been building for more than two years now, alongside the Labour party’s increasing divisions over Brexit, yet the defectors chose this moment, a month before Brexit day, to resign.

Evidently, their intentions were not honourable; they cannot be treated as mere misguided fools, but as factionalist schemers and plotters acting in what they perceive to be the immediate best interests of imperialism – even if that means threatening the destruction of the Labour party, imperialism’s best vehicle in the working-class movement for diverting the latter away from proletarian revolution.

These Blairite elements took only a matter of hours to expose themselves. Angela Smith appeared on BBC’s Politics Live to explain their oh-so-honourable intentions. Remarkably, she is so inept as a politician that while trying to spin her departure from the Labour Party as a result of racism and antisemitism within the party, she referred to people whose skin colour was neither black nor white as having “a funny tinge”.

What an immediate gift to Corbyn this was. The renegade ‘independent’ group looked doomed from the offset, and with this absolute blunder they fatally exposed themselves. Despite the best attempts of the liberal sections of the bourgeois media to paint Corbyn and Brexit supporters alike as frothing racists, instead it is these duplicitous Blairite remainers who have exposed themselves in this regard.

However, despite this racist blunder appearing live on mainstream media, the latter have done their best to whitewash the incident. Later that evening, on BBC’s Newsnight, the blunder was referred to in only one throwaway line, with the bulk of the coverage focusing on references to supposed Labour antisemitism.

The absurdity levels reached new heights the following morning when LibDem leader Vince Cable appeared on Good Morning Britain, and declared of the Independent Group: “Their hatred of racism is very clear.” This absurdity was uttered without any reference to Angela Smith’s epic blunder, which neither of the presenters chose to raise.

Such is the state of our ruling class and its media that criticising a racist state (Israel) makes one racist, while making racist comments is prove that your hatred of racism is very clear!

The political and intellectual silly season continues with this application of the art of the big lie, often associated with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It is worth noting his actual words on the matter:

“The English follow the principle that when one lies, it should be a big lie, and one should stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” (Aus Churchill’s Lügenfabrik [Lie Factory], Die Zeit ohne Beispiel, 12 January 1941)

Another relevant propaganda technique highlighted by the vile Nazi minister is that of accusing your enemy of those crimes of which you yourself are most guilty. This technique has been used as a shield throughout history. In modern times it has been used by leaders from Churchill to Goebbels, from Khrushchev to the zionist movement, and now by nonentities like the Independent Group.

It is also used endlessly and consistently by our lying imperialist media. The anti-racists are racists and the racists are anti-racists: the world is turned on its head and we are expected not to notice. No wonder increasing numbers of workers are distrustful of bourgeois media. We may not always be able to work out what the truth is, but we can tell we are very often being lied to!

Labour infighting

Though Corbyn has largely compromised with his parliamentary party and most of his grassroots Momentum supporters by adopting a ‘Please give us a much softer Brexit’ position, he is still surrounded by enemies. Owen Smith, who lost out to Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, and who is one of the many remaining Blairite elements within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), tweeted following Corbyn’s announcement of Labour’s new Brexit policy, and before the formation of the Independent Group:

“Backing Brexit – even on these terms – would still shrink our economy, cost jobs and lose investment, indulge nativist nostalgia and isolationism … Remind me why we’d do that?”

Here is a reminder of the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn, whilst controlling the party apparatus, still remains in a minority within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Even with the seven departures, there are many more opposition forces at work against him within his own party. Smith was joined by many other MPs, including David Lammy and Stephen Doughty, who openly condemned Corbyn’s position for its failure to explicitly mention a second referendum. Many more have yet to air their disapproval publicly.

Smith’s view is far from original, echoing the views of a capitalist class desperately fighting to stay within the EU. Ironically, their strategy is to try to scare workers, making them afraid to continue to stand up against the wishes of the ruling sections of the capitalist class. An economic apocalypse is regularly threatened in their media.

They have been joined in this endeavour by Bank of England governor Mark Carney. Carney, a Canadian and former Goldman Sachs employee, has already slowed down growth forecasts and, in a highly revealing speech at the Barbican in London, went on the attack against a no-deal Brexit.

“It is possible that new rules of the road will be developed for a more inclusive and resilient global economy.

“At the same time, there is a risk that countries turn inwards, undercutting growth and prosperity for all [he meant ‘for imperialism’].”

Brexit has created a “high level of uncertainty”, he said, and “companies are holding back on making big decisions”.

As such, he said it was “vital for the UK economy to secure a good withdrawal deal and a smooth transition.” (Brexit: Mark Carney warns of no-deal ‘economic shock’, BBC News, 12 February 2019)

The thrust of Carney’s speech was on Brexit as a manifestation of a growing sentiment of anti-globalisation among the peoples of the world. In other words, he was stating the obvious: if you, the working class, damage our interests by forcing Brexit on us, then we shall see to it that you pay a heavy price.

Evidently, there is fear amongst our rulers that the austerity-fuelled rage of the masses will threaten their interests or even their survival as a class. The ruling class understands the potential power of the working class better than the working class currently does itself.

We can expect the scaremongering and propaganda to keep ramping up as Brexit day approaches (hopefully) on 29 March.