Britain - While a weak and unstable May limps into Brexit, the working class has to prepare for the coming battles

Summer 2017

Theresa May won the June 8th election, but it was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. Her government is now much weaker and more unstable than it ever was. Calling this snap election was a political gamble for May and she's lost it.

Instead of the much larger majority she was hoping for in the Commons, on the basis of the Tories' 20 points lead over Labour in opinion polls, she lost her absolute majority. Instead of winning the clear mandate for Brexit - let alone for a "hard" Brexit - that she didn't have, she gave voters a chance to vote against her arrogant, nationalist line - and many more did, than she had expected. Instead of disarming the snipers of her party's rival factions by offering them a landslide victory and a secure future career, she gave them ammunition for yet more daring attacks against her.

In fact, in some respects, May's win in this election could even leave her in a worse position than a defeat might have. Because, in that latter case, at least, she and her party wouldn't have had to carry the political can of the Brexit process - which looks increasingly likely to be quite heavy.

Panic politics

This is why, since June 8th, May has repeatedly looked as if she was reacting in a panic to a number of apparently unexpected events. However, in her desperate attempts to resolve the immediate problems she was confronted with, she has only managed to create a lot more problems for herself, both in the short and in the long term.

So, for instance, in the immediate aftermath of the election, she came under violent attack from a number of Tory hard-Brexiters, including among her own ministers, who went on record in the media, predicting that her career would soon be over - when they did not openly call for a leadership challenge to topple her.

May's response was a hurried mini-reshuffle of her cabinet. She kicked out some of her personal advisers, who were blamed by the hard-Brexit factions for the party's poor election results. And, as a gesture of appeasement, she co-opted a number of prominent hard-Brexiters into her cabinet.

So, Michael Gove, a former leader of the Leave campaign and one of May's former rivals in the leadership contest which followed the Brexit referendum, was parachuted in as Environment secretary - which caused outrage among environmental NGOs, given his past record as a climate change sceptic.

Probably even more significant - and potentially more damaging - was May's appointment of Steve Baker as Under Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. In appointing him,, May has given a prominent role in the Brexit negotiations to the leading light of the European Research Group, the largest hard-Brexit group among Tory backbenchers, who is known for having publicly vowed to "destroy the EU". Which is hardly the best image for someone who is supposed to play a role in getting a "good deal" from the EU leaders!

Although this reshuffle was hailed by political commentators as illustrating May's "clever tactics", panic tactics would be a more accurate description. While it may seem safer for her to keep these hard-Brexiters under her thumb in government, rather than having them plotting behind her back, it is not usually very wise to let the foxes into the hen house! After the already-long string of upsets caused by loose cannons like Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, May's new appointments are more likely than not to compound her problems rather than solve them. Especially as they can only be interpreted by the hard-Brexiters as a sign of weakness.

Likewise for May's cosying up to the Northern Irish DUP in her desperate search for allies in order to regain the absolute majority she lost in the Commons.

In fact, May had another option, which would have been to seek a cross-party agreement with Labour. After all, hadn't Corbyn shown his willingness to support May's Brexit policy by imposing a 3-line whip on Labour MPs in the Commons' most decisive votes over Brexit? But then, of course, any hint at a possible deal with Labour would have caused a storm of outrage among Tory hard-Brexiters and, possibly, a leadership challenge, which May wasn't certain to win.

So, terrified by the prospect of a wholesale rebellion within her own party, May opted for the panic option - an alliance with the most unsavoury lot she could find in the Commons. Ironically, though, she has no guarantee either that this alliance will resolve her problems. In fact it is more than likely to present her with more problems.

First, there is the vexed issue of Northern Ireland's border with the Republic. While the DUP is firmly pro-Brexit, it is also determined to keep this border fully open - because, otherwise, many of its Northern Irish business constituents are likely to go belly-up.

But then, how could the internal Irish border remain fully open without creating a major breach in May's immigration policy - and a major row with her party's hard-Brexiters? The only way, would be to reinstate border controls between Northern Ireland and Britain which, in turn, would mean repealing one of the fundamental provisions of the Good Friday agreement. Except that none of this agreement's signatories are likely to accept such a major change. Even the DUP may well oppose it, given its constituents' insistence on being treated as British!

And second, May's alliance with the DUP's bigoted Christian fundamentalists is not exactly popular, even within the ranks of her own party. Ironically, it is the area where the Tories made their biggest gains in the June election - Scotland - where May's alliance with the DUP is threatening to spearhead a rebellion. The openly gay Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, did not take kindly to May's cuddling up to the DUP anti-LGBT crusaders. Understandably so. And she has quite an audience among the younger generation of the rest of the Tory party. May has gone out of her way to defuse this potential rebellion, in particular by lending her government's support to a proposal that will give Northern Irish women the right to have an abortion on the NHS in Britain, without having to fear Northern Ireland's reactionary legislation. Half-a-century after women won this right in the rest of Britain, it was about time!

But will this belated concession be enough to disarm the disgruntled Tory opponents to May's alliance with the DUP? Nothing is less certain. Especially as Ruth Davidson is a soft-Brexiter. She has been vocally demanding, on behalf of the mostly newly-elected 13 Scottish Tory MPs, a say in the Brexit negotiations. And this would put her in a good position to take the lead of an anti-hard Brexit opposition within the Tory party, thereby compounding May's problems with her party's warring factions.

The latest instance of May's panic politics was her reaction to the political scandal caused by the Grenfell fire. As we discuss this reaction elsewhere in this issue of our journal, we won't go over it here. Let us just say that, for all her attempts at passing the buck to local authorities, May won't be able to conceal the damning responsibility of each one of the governments in which she's held senior cabinet positions since 2010, nor the responsibility of some of her closest associates, like Immigration minister, Brandon Lewis. And who, in the Tory party, will want to share the blame for such obvious criminal neglect? No matter how much May tries to dump the responsibility onto local councils, her leadership is bound to come out of this scandal even weaker and more unstable.

May's balancing exercise and the hard-Brexit snipers

The beginning of the Brexit negotiations, against the backdrop of the on-going sniping at May by Tory factions, further illustrates the weakness of her position.

Predictably, May was eventually forced to concede: the divorce settlement with the EU will have to be negotiated first, before any discussion over the Britain's future economic relations with the Continent can start. This was always going to be a matter of balance of forces and, contrary to the nationalistic fairy tales peddled by the hard-Brexiters, and by May herself, tiny Britain just doesn't have the means to impose its own agenda on the 27 EU governments. And even less so, as, after all, the British economy is far more dependent on the EU's gigantic market, than the reverse.

So, not only will May have to reach an agreement on the divorce bill with the EU before any trade negotiations can start, but also on many more vexed questions - from the future status of EU citizens settled in Britain and of British citizens settled in the EU, to the issue of the right of EU citizens to cross Britain's border with the EU and conversely, the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the consequences of Brexit for Gibraltar, etc..

One problem for May, of course, is that each one of these questions is a potential weapon in the war between the rival factions of the Tory party. In fact, she can expect the Tory hard-Brexiters, even among her own ministers, to keep throwing banana skins under her feet, thereby causing her new problems at every step of the negotiations.

This was graphically illustrated at the beginning of July by Michael Gove popping out of his box with the sudden announcement that Britain is withdrawing from the London Convention on Fisheries.

Strangely enough, fisheries is not even part of Gove's ministerial brief as the post of Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been held by George Eustice since 2013. But never mind: Gove appears to see himself as some sort of prime minister in waiting, who can by-pass his cabinet colleagues.

Never mind either, that the London Convention is an old agreement dating back to 1964, which was subsequently overridden by EU fisheries policies and has long ceased to be relevant to anything. Never mind too, that the issue is actually of little economic importance: after all, fisheries account for just 0.1% of Britain's GDP. And while the issue is certainly dear to the heart of the country's few thousand professional fishermen, they would stand to lose a lot more than they would gain, if they were banned from fishing in EU waters as a result of Gove's bellicose announcement - if it could have any consequence, which it can't!

But what does Gove care about all that? What matters to him and the hard-Brexiters like him, is the sound of his own voice and its echoes in the media, not the credibility of what he says. For all we know, this untimely declaration may just be aimed at positioning himself as a possible alternative to May.

Whether this will create any upset in the Brexit negotiations is not his problem, no matter how much he brags about the fact that the British government has more than enough leverage to get the best conceivable deal, and to have its cake and eat it. In fact, of course, this is all posturing and overbidding - part and parcel of the internal, factional, politics of the Tory party. But then, this is nothing new, of course. Isn't Brexit itself a by-product of this faction-fight in the first place?

At the same time, though, May is facing another problem. Big business is increasingly vocal about its needs. Since 8th June, its mouthpieces in the financial press have been waging a relentless campaign, demanding that May should get on with the divorce negotiations as quickly as possible, so as to be able to get into the only negotiations they are concerned, with and which they are very worried about - those dealing with their future economic relations with the EU, not only in terms of trade, but, even more importantly, in terms of finances.

Lately, big business has been stepping up the pressure. On the eve of a summit between top business circles and ministers on the issue of Brexit, Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the bosses' largest organisation, the CBI, released a statement in which she said: "This is a time to be realistic. Instead of a cliff edge, the UK needs a bridge to the new EU deal. Even with the greatest possible goodwill on both sides, it's impossible to imagine the detail will be clear by the end of March 2019." And she goes on to talk about the need for an "indefinite delay" after March 2019, to give more time for talks to be concluded, during which the economic relationship between Britain and the EU would remain unchanged - and therefore, by the same token, Britain's duties towards the EU as well, including the free movement across Britain's borders.

Meanwhile, Britain's banks and financial institutions seem to have decided to take their fate into their own hands, without waiting for May to do their bidding. Many of them have already made preparations to set up shop in one or another of the EU capitals - for those which haven't already done so - and this, without seeking May's endorsement. But, in addition, they have initiated direct negotiations with Brussels in order to ensure that there is a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU for financial services - by far the largest source of profits for British finance. And, of course, the heavyweights of big finance are not going to bother with the delicacies of the Tory party's internal wrangles. Too bad for May if their initiative makes things even more difficult for her in her relationship with her party's factions.

So, more than ever, May is involved in a balancing exercise, except that, thanks to losing her gamble in the June election, she's in a far worse position. To save her neck from the hard-Brexit snipers, May has to play along, to a certain extent at least, with their nationalistic overbidding, with the risk of undermining the negotiations and harming the interests of big business. But, at the same time, in order to do her job as a loyal trustee of British capital, she must expose herself even more to the attacks of these snipers. This is called squaring the circle. But that is her problem!

The working class and the Brexit threat

Our problem, as revolutionary communists, however, is the impact that all this mess will have on the working class.

We do not and cannot know what the final shape of Brexit will be, nor even what sort of time-scale we can expect. But what we do know is that the capitalist class and its state will do everything it can to take advantage of the situation, whatever it may be, to turn the screw of exploitation even further on the working class.

The so-called "fair and serious" proposals that May dared to make about the future status of EU citizens in Britain is an illustration of what the working class should expect - and prepare itself to fight.

Because, to all intents and purposes, these proposals would just reduce EU citizens, many of whom have been settled and working in Britain for years, if not decades, to the precarious status of second-class citizens, who would have to carry special ID cards, unlike everyone else in Britain. Unless of course, the government's hidden intention was to extend this Big Brother policy to everyone else too, at some point, something which would be quite in keeping with the past control-freak tendencies that May displayed in her role as Home minister.

On this subject it is worth remembering how, when Cameron was negotiating restrictions on EU workers' rights to welfare, before the Brexit referendum, his ministers were considering extending these restrictions to everyone else. In particular, they were hinting at the possibility of extending the requirement to have worked a number of years before being able to access welfare benefits - something which would have drastically hit young workers, given the current level of unemployment among them.

In any case, better be safely prepared, than sorry. And the best way for British workers to protect their own rights in the future is for them to start by helping EU workers to protect theirs! Not only that, but given the fact that the 3m or so EU workers represent quite a significant slice of the British working class, particularly in big industries, this is the best and only way to preserve the unity of the working class against the capitalist exploiters. If the bosses feel they can get away with screwing one section of workers without resistance from the rest, they will then proceed to go all the way. It is in the interest of the working class to preserve its unity at all costs, so as to preserve its collective muscle.

But there is more to this than we are told. The fact that the economy is increasingly suffering from the preparations for Brexit is now an open secret, despite the government's official denials. Prices are rising, real wages are falling, household consumption is shrinking while household debt is back to its pre-crisis level, and on the rise. Big retail chains, which had been relatively unaffected so far, are beginning to cut jobs. The latest figures on car sales - usually a reliable barometer of the general direction in which the economy is moving - show the biggest fall in six years. In every respect, the domestic economic situation is bad and getting worse.

But if the domestic economy is in a bad shape, so is the world economy at large, which is logical, since we are still in the middle of the worst economic crisis we have experienced in many decades. The way in which the pound has been collapsing as a result of the simple announcement of Brexit, is an indication of what is in store. In a world which has an oversupply of idle capital, because the capitalists themselves no longer trust their system to return enough profits and prefer to speculate rather than to take the risk of investing in the real economy, the slightest upset may have big repercussions and trigger a downward spiral across the planet. Brexit has the potential to be such an upset, especially if the overbidding of the hard-Brexit snipers causes fits and starts in the negotiations - and even worse, if they result in an inconclusive or incomplete settlement.

In any case, the odds are, that the economic situation will carry on declining - assuming it does not go all the way down the drain, in a far more brutal way than we've seen so far.

This means that the capitalist class will expect the state to bail them out, and they will turn to workers, demanding sacrifices to "save jobs". Their politicians will also come to the working class with a huge bill for it to pay, in order to "save the economy". But the working class already went through that experience after the 2007-8 banking crash when it was expected to pay for the bailout of the system. At the time it was

caught unawares and the refusal of the union leadership to organise any fightback for fear of upsetting capitalist profits, disarmed and paralysed it.. This must not happen again. Forewarned is forearmed. Not one minute should be lost. The time to prepare for the battle to come, ahead of the coming offensive of the capitalist class, is now!