#97 - After the June election, the Tories tumble into Brexit with Labour on their tail

24 June 2017


Between the EU referendum last year and the "snap" June 8th general general election, the British political scene has been evolving quite fast and, for many people, in a rather confusing way. In and of itself, this is quite unusual. Which is why we felt that it would be useful to try to make sense of it and, more importantly, look at what the future might hold.

So, we will start from the most recent development - the outcome of the June general election - and the upheaval it has caused among the political establishment, as well as the mixed feelings it has generated within the working class.

It surprised nearly everyone that the result was a "hung parliament" leaving the Conservatives 8 seats short of the 326 they needed to win - against Labour's 262 seats. This was a major blow to Theresa May, who had expected a landslide victory, based on the polls when she called this election - proving that 6 weeks is a very long time in politics. She had said "she" was the only choice, to provide "strong and stable leadership" against Corbyn's weakness, but instead, she comes out of this election weakened and destabilised.

Of course we know that the working class has never made any qualitative gains through the ballot box. This is what history tells us. There was no reason for the June election to be an exception in this respect - it couldn't be, regardless of the result.

This is because the beauty of what the capitalist class describes as "democracy" under its rule, is, precisely, that the basis on which the whole system rests, remains intact, whichever way an election goes. In other words, the vested social interests and priorities which determine policies remain unchanged.

Whoever got into Downing Street, whether it was May or Corbyn, made no qualitative difference for the working class. Whoever led the government would have been there to manage the affairs of British capital to the best of its interests - and, in the present context, to take advantage of Brexit, whichever form it took, to uphold these interests at the expense of the working class. And the armies of unelected, immoveable, senior civil servants who man the government ministries, would have made sure that these vested interests were protected, whatever happened.

So the working class could expect nothing positive from this election and, therefore, has nothing to regret regarding its outcome.

That being said, the one thing that elections do, even under the fake "democracy" of the present system, is to provide a barometer which makes it possible to measure the direction in which the opinions, feelings and aspirations of the electorate evolve - and especially the evolution taking place among working class voters, which is our main concern.

Of course, the accuracy of this barometer is far from perfect, especially as it depends on two main factors. First, the range of different ideas that voters can express by voting for the various candidates or parties. And second, the illusions that voters may have regarding the importance of the election's outcome and, as a result, whether they choose to vote according to their opinions or just in order to influence the election's outcome.

On the first count, as we will see later, the June election did not offer a very accurate barometer, quite simply because there was no way for workers to express their real interests by voting for any of the contending parties. Which was why Workers' Fight did not support anyone in this election. But contrary to what we had argued during the Brexit referendum, we did not propose a boycott of the ballot. We did, however, insist upon the fact that, regardless of whom they voted for, workers would at some point be faced with a new offensive from the capitalist class and thus the need to fight.

On the second count, that is, tactical voting and the illusions voters may therefore have had about the importance of the outcome, one way or another, there is no doubt that in this election more voters than usual voted tactically. In other words, they chose to put aside what they really thought in the hope that the outcome would be what they considered the "lesser of two evils". And this was the case for Tory and Labour voters as well as those who usually support the smaller parties.

Nevertheless, despite all these distortions, this election still provides us with a barometer of sorts, whose reading we will try to interpret in the course of this forum. At the same time, its outcome has had a number of consequences, which are bound to have repercussions and which we will try to make some sense of as well.

From Cameron to May, the Tories' infighting

To set the scene, we need to go back to the referendum called by David Cameron over membership of the EU - Leave or Remain - in an attempt to quell the constant noise emanating from his backbenchers. Because, as we know, it is Brexit that is at the centre of the political scene right now, both as cause and effect.

The noise in Tory backbenches was, of course, fuelled by the success of Nigel Farage's Ukip, which temporarily became a third horse in the political race, its raison d'être being to "get Britain out of the EU" and regain "sovereignty and control" - in effect a shorthand for closing Britain's borders to immigrants.

To the horror of some, Ukip had come first in the EU elections in 2014 - beating Labour and the Conservatives, and literally putting the cat among the Tory pigeons. The consequent precariousness of some formerly safe Tory seats, and even defection to Ukip by one or two Tory MPs, despite the Tory win in the 2015 election, was a big problem for the Cameron-Osborne leadership duo.

So, to put a stop to his squabbling pigeons, Cameron decided to settle the issue once and for all, with his June 26th 2016 EU referendum. His "deal" of reforms to Britain's relationship with the EU was supposed to sell the idea of remaining within it, to the electorate. And let's remember, when it was proposed, the Syrian refugee crisis was beginning and African migrants were drowning by their thousands in the Mediterranean sea. But this did not prevent Cameron from playing the anti-migrant and anti-refugee card, for the sake of countering Ukip's influence among the Tory party and its traditional electorate.

Cameron's "Remain" proposal promised a restriction on immigration by cutting the rights and access of EU immigrants to tax credits if they were low paid, welfare benefits if unemployed and even the NHS - since all these benefits were to be linked to length of stay.

The systematic use of scapegoating of foreigners by the whole political establishment (TV channels joined in with their "shock-u-mentaries" focusing on immigrant workers claiming benefits) drove the referendum campaign from beginning to end. It culminated in that poster which attempted to persuade people to vote Brexit by using the picture of a crowd of thousands of Syrian refugees waiting to cross a border in Eastern Europe - with the title "Breaking point: the EU has failed us all". It was all the more outrageous and cynical given that Britain had been - and still is - refusing entry to such refugees.

In addition, the factional overbidding within the Tory party induced protagonists to lie and make outrageous promises. Among these was of course Boris Johnson, who had actually changed his position opportunistically from Remain to Leave for the sake of his political career. Of course Theresa May did too, in the end. She stood with the Remain camp during the referendum campaign, but changed her colours as soon as her public loyalty to Cameron was no longer required.

As for the Corbynite left-wing Labour party leadership, it was very evidently uncomfortable supporting "Remain" given its own history of opposing the Common Market along with the likes of the late Tony Benn who took his cue from the nationalism of the Stalinist, Communist Party. Incidentally, what remains of the CP around the Morning Star newspaper along with a few unions such as the RMT and much of the so-called Trotskyist left stuck to those old nationalist, Stalinist guns in the referendum, supporting Brexit. And to dissociate themselves from the often overt racism of this camp they renamed it "Lexit" - or "left exit" - even if there is only one exit and it is quite far to the right. We will come back to the ambiguity of Corbyn's own position later.

We all know the result - Brexit scored 51.9% and Remain scored 48.1% with a high, 72.2% turnout. And it meant, contrary to what we are constantly being told, that the majority of the British electorate did not vote for Brexit! What's more, in Northern Ireland 56% voted to Remain, in Scotland 62% and in London 60%.

Whether Cameron really cared personally about remaining in the EU or not, he instantly resigned when the result came out and washed his hands of the whole affair, by also resigning as an MP.

Then that farcical Tory leadership contest followed, with candidates bidding for the PM post from every side. Because, predictably, the referendum had settled nothing: all the old Tory party rivalries and in-fighting re-erupted; the most likely contender, Boris Johnson had to withdraw when Michael Gove, who was supposed to back him, flung his own cap into the ring instead, and then all the other final rounders - Liam Fox, Stephen Crabb and hard Leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsom - were excluded or else dropped out.

So vicar's daughter May, demurely looking the part, was left as the only acceptable candidate. She had supported Remain during the referendum campaign, so seemed a good bet for the City and big business and given that she had been a hard-line Home Secretary for 6 years, tightening immigration rules, she also suited the Tory Right-wing.

Once in the PM saddle, we heard May say "Brexit means Brexit" for the first time - something we've heard ad nauseam since. She proceeded to stock her Cabinet with a few prominent Brexiteers including her leadership rivals Leadsom, Johnson and Fox - while naming David Davis as her Minister for Brexit. Whether anyone believed her first speech proclaiming a government for all the people, including the "Just About Managing" - "Jams" - is probably no longer relevant after nearly a year of her austerity regime, which has hit the Jams even harder.

From May's Cabinet selection it was obvious that she had decided that appeasing the Tory Right was the best way to forge some kind of unity behind her leadership. But that also meant appearing to follow the "harder Brexit" (no deal is better than a bad deal) position of the likes of Davis, Fox and Johnson. Nevertheless, May's first Cabinet was still made up of a majority of former Remainers, including her Chancellor Philip Hammond. But none of the problems which had sparked off the whole process were even resolved. The Tories' in-fighting and overbidding continued - and still do of course, up until today.

Labour's own infighting and switch to support Brexit

There were, in parallel, big splits and rivalries going on in the Labour Party all this time, as it engaged in its own battles over leadership and orientation.

By late 2015, having lost two elections, many Labourites were finally drawing an obvious conclusion, that the taint of the Blair-Brown years had to be thoroughly expunged. Ed Miliband had failed miserably to do this, partly at least, by being too close to the Blairite old guard. Nevertheless, the party had to be revamped and the project which was undertaken was the restoration of what were meant to be perceived as "Old Labour" values - the kind which Tony Benn, or veteran MP for the former mining town of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner, represented.

It was to this end, that some of the more vociferously anti-Blair faction, despite being a minority in the Parliamentary Party, decided to put forward a left-wing candidate for the leadership, choosing Jeremy Corbyn. Nobody expected it to go any further. They got the backing of enough PLP MPs to proceed, just for the sake of the contest, despite the fact that most of Labour's MPs were "New" Labour, owing their cushy parliamentary careers to Blair and Brown.

The fact that Corbyn defied all expectations and won, was thanks to a perverse consequence of Miliband's reform of the Labour Party's election rules. That is, that new individual members and supporters could now vote for the leader, after paying a £5 membership fee - the objective at the time, being the dilution of trade union members' vote.

By his success, and indeed his continued success, since he faced and won a second leadership challenge after the EU referendum, Corbyn has demonstrated that his albeit mild "radical" language and simple demeanour are enough to restore hope among a Labour milieu whose only desire is to be given a reason to believe, once more, that Labour in government can make a difference.

Once he felt in his position, Corbyn began to play the party unity card. But he also moved, albeit discreetly, towards a more overtly pro-Brexit policy. And central to this was the curtailment of the right of workers to move freely across borders in search of work and a better life. In January this year he told an audience in Peterborough that "We are not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don't want to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out."

In the meantime, formerly hostile Labour MPs were belatedly admitting that they needed a figure like this "man of integrity" as some describe him, to win back their lost electorate. Apparently acknowledging the need to rebuild illusions in the party's willingness to represent the interests of what used to be its natural constituency - that is, the working class. Corbyn's Labour was, however, put to the electoral test sooner than they expected.

May's failed gamble

Indeed. Theresa May surprised everyone on 18 April, by announcing that there would be a general election in just 6 weeks time, on June the 8th. She presented it as necessary for her to have a stronger mandate in order to negotiate a successful Brexit - for the "nation", of course! She accused the other parties of threatening to jeopardise her negotiations with the EU and thus threatening the Brexit deal itself, saying, " Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country."

And of course she also went on to explain how "It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, who want to reopen the divisions of the referendum, and Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP."

May had calculated that she'd easily win, given the Tories' 20-point lead in the opinion polls at the time. And she knew very well that by 2020 she definitely would not, since the consequences of the Brexit process would profoundly damage whoever was in charge. A Conservative victory now would give the government two more years in power.

May didn't put it like this in her speech of course. She spoke about this ensuring "stability" going forward. The Financial Times agreed, writing: "The opinion polls are overwhelmingly in her favour to win a landslide majority... One thing is certain: this is going to be a very bad election for a divided Labour party and a weak Mr Corbyn. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, are set to make some gains in Remain-supporting metropolitan areas." This newspaper is eating its words.

May certainly needed to be able to have something with which to bribe the Brexiteers in her parliamentary party, to keep them quiet. And a government with a large majority and two extra years in power, would have done the trick. This was the only way she could then live up to the expectations of the largely anti-Brexit business and City constituencies in the EU negotiations.

Because, as it happened, she had nothing to fear from any of the Remainers: they were unable to jeopardise her position, at least as far as votes in the House went, thanks to the backing of Corbyn's Labour party for Brexit. We shouldn't forget how he imposed a 3-line whip on his MPs to vote for the triggering of Article 50, which formally started the Brexit process at the end of March.

June election: Corbyn's revamping of Labour, May's weakness and instability

In this election, Corbyn had set out to prove his critics wrong and he did. His campaign was more like that of a rock star on tour, playing to his adoring fans wearing tee-shirts with his name on and waving placards and banners with "yay for Jezza" slogans, with added allusions to Jesus Christ the saviour...

But what about the 128-page Labour Manifesto - so originally entitled "For the many not the few"? Did it win workers' votes for Corbyn?

In fact the Labour manifesto was cleverly leaked to the press a week early. And it was designed to look radical - with a few eye-catchers like renationalising energy, water, Royal Mail and of course the railways - all with due compensation of course. This allowed Corbyn's team to say that for the first time since the advent of Blair, Labour policies put clear blue water between the Tories and Labour and that no-one could today assert that they were "all the same". This was now "real" Labour!

But of course beyond the re-nationalisation eye-catchers, were pages and pages reassuring big business and the City that it was Labour's priority to look after them, to ensure investment and of course, to have tariff-free EU access, even with Brexit. On taxation, this is what it says, for instance: "Our new settlement with business will ask large corporations to pay a little more while still keeping corporation tax among the lowest of the major developed economies". A "little" more? Not radical at all.

If some supporters had hoped that this would be a manifesto for socialism, they would have been disappointed. There was no trace of class politics to be found on its pages. It is old, nationalistic labour, with pro-business Blairite inclusions. On the page headed "Negotiating Brexit" for instance it reads "Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first."

As for Corbyn's former generous approach to migrants, a clear Brexiteer position has opportunistically replaced this: the manifesto reads, "Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union." So it is now there explicitly in black and white. It goes on to say that " Labour will develop and implement fair immigration rules. (....) We will replace income thresholds with a prohibition on recourse to public funds." But what does this last sentence mean? Is this implying a ban on welfare benefits and the NHS for skilled migrants, rather than only allowing them to stay if they earn over a certain amount?

Whatever the media may have said, in their hysterical anti-Corbynism, about this manifesto, what was left out of it is almost more significant than what was in it. For instance Corbyn's lifelong opposition to Trident nuclear submarine renewal, no doubt to allow the Unite union bureaucracy to give Corbyn their full backing. And there was no commitment to reverse the welfare cuts already implemented over the past decade and which have pushed so many below the poverty line.

When asked about this, and why Labour had prioritised a cut in tuition fees over reinstating proper welfare benefits, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said it was "unaffordable". But no doubt Labour's election team calculated that more votes could be garnered from the middle class who would benefit from free tuition, than from those people struggling on inadequate benefits.

That said, it is highly unlikely that the manifesto had much to do with the unexpected swings in the vote which were seen in this election. Those workers who would be directly affected by renationalisations may have agreed with the idea - but many are part of a generation which was not "born yesterday" and does not believe in politicians' promises.

But the fact is that Corbyn significantly increased Labour's share of the vote - by a hefty 9.6% to 40.1%. His supporters boast that this was more than any other of the party's election leaders since 1945 and point to Blair's swing in 1997, when he won by a landslide, which was only 8.8%. In passing it should be said that the Conservatives also increased their share of the vote, by 5.5% - also a historic increase!

However Labour took 30 more seats than in 2015, regaining 6 seats in Scotland, having been reduced to just one in the last election. Labour also took safe Conservative seats like Kensington - where Emma Dent Coad won by a margin of just 20 votes with a swing away from the Conservatives of 21.2%. They also took Canterbury, which is also historically Conservative, by a 187 vote margin, and a 20.5% swing to Labour.

So why and how did Labour make such gains? Certainly the youth vote will have made some difference. Not due to new registrations to vote, because these only increased by 0.1% compared to 2015. But an exit poll for the New Musical Express magazine, showed an increase in younger voter turnout, even if it was still way below the average 68.7% : some 53% of 18-24year-olds voted, compared to 41% in 2015 - and, we are told, two-thirds of them voted Labour.

But it seems that Labour gains were largely thanks to an anti-Tory or even anti-Theresa May vote, rather than positive enthusiasm for Labour, Corbyn or the Labour Manifesto. It was not just austerity as such, but the housing crisis and the tangible deterioration in public services - especially the NHS, which exacerbated feelings of discontent among the electorate. These cuts and closures were blamed squarely on the Conservative government. And the only way that voters had to express these feelings in the election, was to vote Labour. In fact it is possible that the Tories' contempt for Corbyn and the absurd personal campaign against him by right-wing newspapers like the Sun, Mail and Express, could even have helped him gain votes, going by the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

To put it in a nutshell, voters who blamed the incumbent Tory government chose to vote Labour. In this sense, Corbyn effectively managed to reinstate the two party system.

So what about the Conservative election strategy? This no doubt also contributed to their poor result, helping Labour.

May had made the choice of running what amounted to a "presidential campaign" placing herself as far above party politics as possible, refusing to participate in any of the televised debates of the party leaders. As for the Tory manifesto, it made no attempt to disguise its offer of little more than further cuts and austerity. The "little more" in this case, being a return to legal fox-hunting!

This 88-page manifesto, entitled "Forward, Together" can only be described as grandiose with a capital G - since a lot of its aims were written in capitals - like its "Great Meritocracy", its "Great Repeal Bill", etc. Above all, it projected Theresa May herself as the Great Fixer and the negotiator of the best possible Brexit deal. However, very foolishly her austerity singled out the elderly. They would no longer get winter fuel payments and those in need of social care, would have to pay all of these costs, whether at home or in a care facility, apart from the last £100,000 of assets, which the state would allow them to pass on as an inheritance. So just 4 days after the manifesto was launched, aspiring President May was forced to do a U-turn over what was now referred to as her "dementia tax". Which obviously did her serious harm and probably was another factor, along with her "no deal is better than a bad deal" stance on Brexit, which pushed some of the Conservative electorate to vote Labour, as we see happened in several constituencies, including in usually safe conservative Kensington, where 69% of voters had voted for Remain last year.

Of course, Ukip was wiped out, no longer having a reason to exist and the Lib Dems lost votes due to the fact that they chose to fight the election entirely on the basis of remaining in the EU, when most voters who voted Remain in the referendum had already given up hoping that this could happen.

In other words in this election, being pro- or anti-EU was not what defined voting choice. The result was largely the consequence of a form of tactical voting. People voted against what they did not like, rather than for what they did like. And while it is true that Corbyn has presided over a reversal in Labour's fortunes based on overall vote share in this election, this does not mean that his relative success, if it can thus be called, can necessarily be repeated - or at least not in the same way.

To sum up: not much future store can be set by this election's ballot results. Voters could well revert to type in the future. But, nevertheless, Corbyn has achieved quite a lot for the Labour Party through this election, even if this was Labour's 3rd successive loss. He has revitalised the party and put it in the running once more as a potential party of government. So for the moment, the Blairite faction of the PLP has put their knives away. But Corbyn will have to be vigilant, because they undoubtedly will go for his throat again, as soon as they have opportunity and reason to do so.

As for the arrogant Theresa May, she failed in every respect to achieve her gaol in calling the snap election and remains weak and unstable.

After the June election

So what is the balance sheet of the June election, after all that?

Despite the parliamentary arithmetic, the Tories remain in power, as a minority government with Theresa May as Prime Minister. And she is likely to stay there, at least for the time being, and in the absence of any more disasters, even though she looked even more shaky after the 14th June Grenfell inferno and her inability to face the victims. In fact this provoked the Tory-supporting Sunday Times that weekend to present her as a leotard-clad cartoon-figure entitled "Blunder Woman" while reporting that backbenchers would submit a vote of "no confidence" if she did not pull herself together within 10 days.

Of course May has committed a blunder - some Tory commentators call it the worst in Tory history. Like Cameron, she tried to settle the rivalries in the Tory Party and pull everyone behind her by winning a huge majority in this election. But her gamble failed just like Cameron's with his referendum.

To prevent her backbench MPs from jumping at the opportunity to replace her, May has now had to make further gestures towards the Tory right-wing: co-opting unpalatable factional figures into positions where they are likely to cause the least upset, like Gove in Environment, and Lidington as Justice minister. And at the same time, she has won the favours of the DUP, in a so-called "confidence and supply" agreement, allowing her to pass her Queen's Speech through parliament as well as future Budget-related legislation and, possibly, some of the most contentious Brexit bills.

But May is now sitting in a glass house. Her essential ally, the DUP, has not extricated itself from its unsavoury past, even if it is now the respectable face of unionism in Northern Ireland. It cannot be forgotten that it was originally founded as the extreme right wing of Orange loyalism, by the fundamentalist Christian and sectarian bigot, Ian Paisley back in 1971. It still opposes gay and women's rights. And its opposition to the right to abortion has already caused tension between May and Scotland's young gay Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson.

The DUP did support Brexit, but also wants to retain a soft border between the North and South of Ireland - the having cake and eating it problem. What is more, it has its own working class electorate which it needs to keep on board, and this probably explains the abandoning of almost all of May's austerity measures in the Queen's Speech.

As to May's pledge to give £1bn to Northern Ireland, it is nothing short of ironical - and blatantly cynical. Especially as it is presented by all and sundry, including Corbyn, as an "unfair handout" to the region. As if the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, wasn't caught using public funds which were ear-marked for the environment, to line the pockets of her business supporters! It's not hard to guess that this money will not be used to make up for the loss of EU funding for Northern Ireland's much needed social and infrastructure projects. In short, it's just a bribe which will feed the DUP's nepotism - period.

Will this unsavoury alliance allow May to stay on and deal with the warring factions of her party, with the pro-European Hammond in charge of the Treasury, pushing for his preferred soft Brexit option? Maybe, but maybe not. The fact that some of May's own ministers, like Priti Patel, do not exclude a leadership challenge, shows that the Tory Right could well still sabotage her unstable, weak government.

The Brexit negotiations start with another U-turn

So, now that the dust of May's snap election has settled, what is going to happen with Brexit? As we know, the official negotiations began in earnest in Brussels on 19th June. And, immediately, the true balance of forces between tiny Britain and the EU 27 determined the rules of engagement.

For months, May and her Brexit ministers had been huffing and puffing, boasting that they would force the EU to discuss both the conditions of Britain's divorce and its future trade relations with the Continent, all at the same time. David Davis had even gone so far as to boast that, should the EU refuse this agenda, he would trigger what he called "the row of the summer". In fact, there was no row. Davis had to toe the line set by the EU, by agreeing to discuss the divorce conditions first, without preconditions of any kind.

So, what are the actual issues involved in this divorce? The first issue, although probably the easiest, is that of the famous "divorce bill". By leaving the EU, the British government is breaking its commitment to provide funding to thousands of joint schemes. They include, for instance, the popular Erasmus exchange programme allowing students to do part of their studies at any European university, at no cost - which, ironically, is a huge money spinner for British universities, since in most other European countries, university studies are virtually free!

Other joint schemes are research projects that no single European country would be able to fund on its own, such as the European synchrotron nuclear research facilities and a whole range of space research projects and satellite launching programmes. Still other schemes are costly, but vital, all-European investment programmes. For instance, regarding the railways, there is the design of a unified train speed control system and the development of a European-wide high-speed train network. In the medical sphere, there is a joint medicine testing programme, which avoids having to replicate the same tests 28 times in all of today's 28 member states. Etc.

A lot of work and money has already been put to good use in these schemes, and the loss of Britain's share of the funding will result in the 27 other EU states having to pay more. Nevertheless, the very idea of a divorce bill has already generated uproar among the Tory right and they have produced heaps of literature attempting to deny it can be justified. As if the other EU member states could be expected to pay the cost of the British government's decision to walk out of the EU. These hard-line Brexiteers know this is nonsense, of course. But they can't resist playing their politicking game.

So how large will this bill be? The Financial Times came up with an estimated net bill of 60bn euros.

60bn euros is still a large sum, amounting to over a third of the annual NHS budget. But the Financial Times, puts it into perspective as follows: "In sterling terms it is £53bn, which is only 2.5% of Britain's annual economic output. If the UK borrowed the money today, public sector debt would rise from 86.6% of GDP in 2016-17 to 89.2%. Compared with the damage wrought by the financial crisis, which raised Britain's debt to its current daunting levels from 35.5% in 2007-08, it is a drop in the ocean."

Between big business pressure and the Brexiteer snipers

In fact, the Financial Times goes much further than that in its reasoning: "The big question for the public finances is not the size of a one-off bill, but whether Brexit harms or improves Britain's economy and tax receipts in the longer term... On cautious assumptions the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated the Brexit hit to the public finances was likely to be between £20bn and £40bn every year. A big hit to the economy would produce even larger estimates of the financial damage of Brexit. In these circumstances, a £53bn bill to leave the EU would be the least of Britain's worries."

This puts in a nutshell the position of the big companies operating in Britain - whether British-owned or not. In fact, since the June election, their mouthpieces in the media have been waging a concerted campaign, urging May to disregard the Brexiteers' overbidding and put their interests first. So they want May to get on with the job, sort out the divorce settlement with as little quibbling as possible, and get the best possible deal for them in the trade negotiations.

The very same message was spelt out by the car industry trade association, the SMMT. And it is bound to be heard by the government, because SMMT members are responsible for the bulk of Britain's industrial exports and account for over 1m jobs. But also because it is dominated by big multinational car giants - including Ford, BMW, Renault-Nissan, Honda, Tata (the owner of Jaguar-Land-Rover) and French car giant PSA (now the owner of Vauxhall) - which all have the means to move part or all of their activity out of Britain if it's best for their profits.

Probably even more important for the government is the pressure exercised by big finance - which represents the bulk of Britain's overall exports.

It is worth recalling that the growth of British finance would never have happened without Britain's membership of the EU. For decades, it has been living a parasitical life as an intermediary between massive US private funds and the EU economy, which provided a source of profits to these funds. For this reason, London was able to become the world's largest currency market, thanks to the massive presence of US banks in London. But these US banks are now having second thoughts because of Brexit, and a number among the biggest, like Citigroup and Morgan-Stanley, have already set up shop in the EU and have contingency plans to move thousands of jobs to the Continent. And, for the British finance industry, this means losing the huge profits it was making from getting a cut out of the large financial investments that these banks made in the Euro zone.

Likewise, London also managed to host the bulk of the euro clearing business: around 3/4 of all financial transactions in euros are handled and finalised in London, for a total daily value of 1 trillion euros! As long as Britain was part of the EU, this could work, in so far as this clearing business remained under the control of the EU financial regulators. But once Britain is out of the EU, this won't be the case any more. And, for months, now, a number of rich EU members have been bidding for the privilege of hosting this euro clearing business. If these bids are successful, the City, which employs over 100,000 people in this sector, will turn into a ghost town.

The position of the British capitalist class and big companies is, therefore, unambiguous. Whether Brexit takes place or not is not really a problem for them. If things get ugly, they will find a way to salvage their profits. But they're doing all they can to push May to take the least disruptive course.

But no matter how much May would like to please big business - and she undoubtedly does - she is still caught in the cross-fire between the bosses' demands and the snipers of the Tory right.

One of the largest groupings of the Tory right in Parliament seems to be the so-called European Research Group (ERG), comprising 80 Tory backbenchers who chose as their bible May's Lancaster House speech, back in January this year, in which she pronounced "no deal is better than a bad deal'. At the time, May was trying to get the hard Brexiteers on her side. But since then, she has been forced to tone down her rhetoric in preparation for the negotiations. So she tried to neutralise the ERG by co-opting its leader, Steve Baker, into her government. But this didn't work. Shortly afterwards, the ERG elected a new leader whose first move was to warn May that should there be any "backsliding" over Brexit, she would immediately face a leadership challenge - something that May can now hardly afford. What's more, even if it doesn't go that far, the ERG would still have the means to derail any government legislation, if it's opposed by Labour: the ERG would just need to get its members to abstain.

Are the ERG's warnings just empty threats? Maybe, but maybe not. As to May, she now has too little room for manoeuvre to dismiss these threats out of hand, due to her weakened position.

The on-going threat against EU workers

The next step in the divorce negotiations is the agreement over the future status of the 3m EU residents in Britain and 1.2m or so British residents in the rest of the EU. After this, the terms for the movement of EU citizens in and out of Britain will be negotiated. Compared to the question of the divorce bill, this could turn out to be far more explosive.

The details of May's so-called "fair and serious" offer for EU citizens living in Britain, illustrate the tensions which are building up around these issues. In a nutshell, all EU citizens who entered Britain before a cut-off date which remains to be negotiated, would be allowed to build up a sort of 5-year probationary period of residence, which may (or may not) include a 2-year "grace period" after Brexit. Then, they would be able to apply for a special "settled status" giving them access to the same rights to work, healthcare and welfare, as British citizens, for the rest of their lives. Well, in fact, not quite the same rights as British citizens, though, since they will become the first people living in Britain who are compelled by law to have an ID card! But let's make no mistake. Coming from a control freak like May, the next thing we'll know is that this compulsory ID card system is to be extended to all foreigners, and then, guess what? To everyone else, of course...

Besides, unlike the present situation under EU law, the children and spouses of EU citizens won't have the same automatic right to this "settled status". Even more worryingly, May stops short of spelling out what rights EU workers will have during this 5-year probationary period. But she does indicate that the over 130,000 EU citizens who have already been through (and paid for) the nightmarish process of filling the 85-page permanent residence form concocted by the Home Office, will have to reapply from scratch in order to get their "settled status"!

This is the tired old British bureaucracy at its worst! And rather than being a "fair and serious" offer, it is a recipe to force EU workers into a precarious status, exposing them to every possible kind of discrimination.

Of course, May is under pressure from big companies which are pushing for an agreement which will result in as few obstacles to the free movement of workers as possible - because they need to have the extra manpower at hand, both skilled and non-skilled. But these companies do not care whether their EU workforce is the target of discrimination. In fact, they would certainly find it quite convenient to have a two-tier workforce at their disposal, since it would enable them to drive a wedge between workers. So EU workers can expect no help from these companies.

What's more, in an atmosphere which is already overloaded with xenophobic prejudices, it would be easy for Right-wing Tory snipers to blow out of all proportion any apparent concessions made by May on immigration issues, and to whip up anti-migrant prejudices. This is precisely why May is desperately clinging on to immigration targets, regardless of the fact that such targets have long proved to be unachievable. She knows that the Tory Right's overbidding on immigration is far more likely to provide a springboard for a leadership challenge - that is, assuming the right-wingers manage to find some heavyweight who is prepared to carry the can of the Brexit process and sacrifice his or her future political career in the process.

Beyond Brexit, the threat of the world crisis

So the Brexit negotiations are hardly likely to be plain-sailing, not just in terms of the negotiations themselves, but, more ominously, in terms of the possible flare-ups or, even, open political crises, that could result from the hard Brexiteers' overbidding. What's more, there is a real risk of a whole section of the working class - immigrants in general, but more specifically EU migrants - being turned, once again, into scape-goats as a result.

This is bad enough. But there may be a lot worse coming. Brexit is persistently portrayed as being a British-only issue. In today's world, this is pure nonsense, of course. Yet, both "soft" and "hard" Brexiteers keep repeating that Brexit can only improve the position of the British economy in relation to the rest of the world. However, strangely enough, they stop short of even mentioning the fact that the world - including Britain - is still in the middle of a deep economic crisis.

The commentators of the financial press are not always so stupid though. They often reflect the fact that the capitalist classes have no confidence whatsoever in their own system. After all, being a capitalist in these days of crisis means that you try to make profits by anticipating which part of the system is most likely going to go down the drain.

One of the issues which is constantly raised by these commentators is the on-going development of speculative bubbles across the world. Among the bubbles developing in the rich countries, some are strikingly similar to those which triggered the present financial crisis. In this respect, the US - which, we are told, is supposed to be pulling the world economy forward - is, once again, the worst offender. A recent report issued by the International Monetary Fund noted that the combined pile of credit card debt, car loans and student loans had reached over $3 trillion - an all-time high compared to the country's GDP. The problem being that a large part of this debt is likely to be unrecoverable. Companies' debt is also at an all-time record in the US, at a time when, according to the IMF, "their ability to cover interest payments is at its lowest since 2008".

This sprawling wave of speculative bubbles has been developing far beyond the rich countries. And it is beginning to take its toll in the so-called emerging economies. Loans to countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil or Saudi Arabia, among others, have been recently downgraded to junk status by international rating agencies - meaning that they are considered to be close to worthless. What happened is that when the central banks of the rich countries pushed interest rates down to record low levels, international investment funds were quick to grab all the cheap money they could get and to lend it to cash-starved emerging economies at a much higher interest rate. So much so, that the rate of growth of these loans has been doubling every year over the past three years, and their outstanding stock is now close to equalling the entire US GDP.

Of course, with differences in interest rates as high as 10%, the profits offered by this kind of business were quick and easy. Or at least they were as long as the borrowers were able to service their debt. Except that this sudden massive flow of money towards the emerging economies has only managed to produce new real estate bubbles. Now, massive unrecoverable debt mountains are building up and threaten to have a boomerang effect on lenders from the rich countries.

This is the backdrop against which Brexit is supposed to boost the prospects of the British economy. Financial volatility has reached such a point that a simple statement made by Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, is enough to cut the exchange rate of the pound by several per cent in a matter of hours. The fact is that financial operators who manage massive volumes of speculative funds are permanently on the lookout for possible factors of instability. So everything gets amplified beyond all possible predictions. And it is not hard to figure out that every tension, every up or down in the Brexit negotiations, will have immediate repercussions on financial markets. Nor is it hard to figure out that the first victim of this instability will be the pound itself - as has been the case since the Brexit referendum - and that this will come at a price for the working class here, with even faster-rising inflation.

What is impossible to predict, though, is the impact that this instability will have on the world financial system as a whole. Who can tell what boomerang effect will be triggered by the Brexit process? No-one. Least of all those Brexiteers who live in a world of grandiose dreams, harking back to the good old days of the British empire!

Preparing to fight the coming offensive against the working class

What has always been clear from the very start of the Brexit saga was that, whichever form it took and whoever was in charge, Brexit would be aimed at preserving the interests of big business.

However, the politicians' rivalries have created a situation which their capitalist masters would have preferred to avoid. Well, this is not the first time in history this has happened and probably not the last either. It just goes to show that the capitalists have the lackeys they deserve - characters who are just as power-hungry as their masters are profit-hungry. In fact, the politicians of the capitalist class can be just as irresponsible towards the interests they are meant to defend, as their capitalist masters are, when they push their own system into a crisis due to their frantic profiteering.

Now, to go back to today's situation, if the whole Brexit process could be reversed, this is probably what British capital would choose. But there's no-one among its political personnel who is capable of reversing this process. Instead, British business will do whatever it takes to get the political personnel it has to make the best out of a bad situation.

So, the Brexit negotiations should be seen for what they really are - a balancing act in which May is trying both to prevent her party's right-wing snipers from derailing the process, while defending the interests of British companies against their European competitors. This is what May calls defending the "national interest" which, of course, has nothing to do with the interests of the working population.

And then, of course, the balance of forces is overwhelmingly against the British side, which does not carry much political or economic weight in front of the EU 27 countries and their huge common market and resources. May's chances to squeeze significant concessions from the EU are slim. And if she does win some concessions, it will not be something for nothing - she will have to make concessions too. But this is assuming she can get her party's factions to agree to them - which is a big "if".

Over the past year, big business and ministers have been busy trying to find ways to offset the overheads that Brexit will impose on them. May has already made secret deals with the big car companies, to ensure that they retain their operations in Britain. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, as was highlighted by the planned legislation included in this month's Queen's Speech. For instance there will be provisions to replace the subsidies provided so far by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy to landowners - with the bulk benefiting the biggest landowners, including the Queen herself!

In other words, British capital as a whole will be expecting the government to make up for all the losses it might incur as a result of Brexit - whether they are due to the termination of EU subsidies, to the restoration of custom duties, etc. What's more British capitalists can also be expected to use this golden opportunity to increase their parasitism on the state by demanding some form of bailout - whether they really need it or not.

In this respect at least, there are some similarities between what is in store as a result of Brexit, whichever forms it takes, and what happened as a result of the financial crisis. Even if Brexit does not cause a major upset to the world economy - which would inevitably have a proportional impact on the British economy as well - its price tag will be considerably larger than the estimated 60 billion euro cost of the so-called "divorce bill". And, of course, it is the working class which will be presented with the bill for this new bailout just as it was for the bailout which followed the financial crisis. Except, that unlike what happened in 2008, this bailout will be designed to shore up the profits of British capital as a whole, not just its financial sphere. And the odds are, therefore, that it will be even more costly.

This will mean a new wave of cuts in public sector jobs, public services and welfare expenditure. Ironically, not only will the NHS fail to get the £350m/wk that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove promised it would get during the referendum campaign, but it will most likely be awarded a big budget cut as a result of Brexit.

But cuts and attacks on public services won't be the only means used by the capitalists and their politicians to make the working class foot their Brexit bill. In fact, for months already, workers have started making down-payments towards this bill - with the rising inflation which affects almost everything. And this has already a significant impact since, while consumer debt is back to its pre-crisis peak level, the volume of retail sales has began to fall. Even before Brexit, therefore, the standard of living of the working class is falling.

And we can already see more attacks coming. For instance the review of casual employment ordered by May recommends that workers on zero-hours contracts, should have a statutory right to request a fixed number of paid hours from their employer. But there is no question of a statutory duty for employers to grant such a request. In other words, this so-called statutory right will be a perfect recipe to be sacked under the most spurious pretext. And this is just one example. A lot more of these bogus "new rights" can be expected to come out of this review, which will make it even easier for bosses to employ casual workers.

This means that the working class is now facing the prospect of yet another wholesale offensive from both the bosses and their government, which is likely to be at least as bad, if not worse, than what we saw as a result of the financial crisis - and which will be a lot worse if, in addition, the world economy is destabilised by the impact of Brexit.

On the positive side, the working class is in a better position this time than it was after the financial crisis broke out ten years ago. Indeed, as opposed to what happened then, when workers were taken completely by surprise by the banking crisis, today, it is already possible to see the storm clouds gathering, with some months ahead of us.

But this means that the working class needs to take advantage of these early warnings to prepare itself in order to be able to respond in kind to the coming offensive. For this, it will need to regroup all its forces and among all sections of workers: because whatever their job or industry, whatever their language or nationality, all workers are part of the same class, they have the same exploiters and the same interests.

To defend its collective interests, the working class should expect nothing from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, for whom nothing can be achieved in this society without going through the capitalists' own parliamentary institutions. Nor should it expect anything from trade-union leaders who are always so afraid that workers' strike action might rock the boat of their cosy partnerships with the bosses. What the working class will need to build is a party of its own, which represents its political interests and is prepared to lead its fights, by challenging the capitalists' control over the means of production. Yes, for the working class, there is only one way to defend its collective interests against the coming attacks - and it is to use its collective strength in order to go on the offensive against a capitalist class whose reckless profiteering and irresponsible politicians keep threatening society with chaos and poverty.