Double bluff or full throttle towards the Brexit precipice?

13 September 2020

The Johnson government’s decision on September 9 to press ahead with its Internal Market Bill has caused uproar. Brazenly admitting that it violates an important part of the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the European Union in January, Johnson claims it was necessary once the government realised that the deal meant a customs barrier down the Irish Sea and made the Six Counties liable to EU single market rules, including ones on state aid. In fact this was widely recognised at the time as the major difference from the agreement presented by the earlier May Government, and many commented that it was a U-turn for a man who said there would only be a border dividing the United Kingdom “over his dead body.”

Now it transpires that in January the government was given ten-page civil service briefing that made this perfectly clear. In a word BoJo is lying again. But this is no minor fib as serious ruling class publications have pointed out. If it is used to provoke a No Deal Brexit this will be a violation of the pledge, made in the 2019 election manifesto, in which they claimed to have a “great new deal”, which “is signed, sealed and ready” and “puts the whole country on a path to a new free trade agreement with the EU”. 

The Financial Times editorialises very neatly what Johnson is up to

“The withdrawal treaty from the EU, that (Johnson) finds so unbearable as to justify breaching international law, was the core of his election campaign last December this was the “oven-ready deal “ he promised a weary public would “get Brexit done”. The promise worked. Voters returned the largest Tory majority in a generation. Mr Johnson’s campaign poetry has caught up with him. Far from getting Brexit done his own deal is, in his telling, getting in the way of moving on to a new relationship with the EU. Rather than take governing seriously, with honest deliberation about the trade-offs the country faces, he is doubling down on campaign mode. It is the political version of a Ponzi scheme: always move onto the next promise before you are asked to deliver on the last one.” (FT 12 Sept. 2020)

Likewise, a leader in The Economist states

“It is staggering see a British minister brazenly admit to Parliament that the government intends to breach international law yet that is what Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, did this week ….” The magazine’s Leader concludes “he should drop his plan immediately and return to the negotiating table to secure a good deal with Britain’s biggest trade partner which is what he promised voters he would do before last December’s election” (TE 9 Sept 2020)

To add insult to injury when the European Commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, arrived in London to discuss this he was given short shrift by the Michael Gove.

The Bill will mean breaking the pledge to avoid a customs border between the Six Counties and the rest of the island and represents a unilateral breach of part of the Good Friday Agreement into the bargain. Of course the Tory tabloids were ecstatic demanding, “Britain must TEAR UP Withdrawal Agreement” (The Daily Express).

However, Johnson’s adoption of the Donald Trump style of diplomacy shocked the older generation of Tory grandees. “Eurosceptics” like Michael Howard and Norman Lamont as well as former PM John Major have threatened a House of Lords revolt and some 30 Tory MPs too are threatening to rebel.

The question is, is this just demagogy aimed at mobilising the Tories Europhobic base, or perhaps a useful diversion from their gross mishandling of the covid emergency? Britain is lurching into its autumn second wave with a significant the rise in the R number showing virus cases doubling every eight days across the country. If it just a bluff and Johnson climbs down, this will undermine his already declining credibility on the Tory backbenches and reignite the splits there which the election landslide suppressed but did not extinguish.

Or is it seriously aimed to provoke a breakdown in negotiations with Michel Barnier and the Commission? Johnson himself is a man with no deeply held convictions apart from his own self-importance. Indeed, he made his decision on which side to back in the 2016 referendum based on what could bring him the top job. In 2017 he said in the Commons, “There is no plan for a No Deal because we are going to get a great deal”.

But a large number of the members of the Tory cabinet and the sinister Dominic Cummings would certainly welcome it. They are part of a cabal who formed the core of European Research Group and the Leave Campaign team who received enormous sums from hedge fund speculators, people who stand to make enormous amounts on prices going down. They rejoice in the principle (originating with Mark Zuckerberg), “move fast and break things”.

First they broke the link to the EU with a racist scare campaign. Then they “broke’ the Tory hierarchy around David Cameron and Theresa May and took control of the Tory Party and put Johnson in power. Finally they broke Jeremy Corbyn and neutered Labour as any serious opposition.

Now they see a No Deal Brexit as a lifetime opportunity both to enrich themselves in the crash and politically to shed not only EU rules and regulations on health, the environment and labour rights, but a whole slew of British ones into the bargain. In the confusion they want private investors to complete the privatisation of health, education, the utilities etc. They are ultra-neoliberals who see a bonfire of legal restraints on capital as leading lead to a historic boom a new era of “buccaneering” in increasingly chaotic world market free of multilateral entanglements. In fact, Brexit is far more likely to contribute to a historic bust than a boom.

Of course, this disruption strategy runs counter to the interest of all but the most parasitic sections of British capital. But the major sectors of financial, commercial and industrial capital have, like their equivalents in the USA, lost control of “their” party. Unlike their transatlantic cousins however, Britain’s bosses do not presently have an alternative party of government to hand.

Britain does half its trade total with the EU. An exit from EU on WTO rules could bring economic meltdown. Automobiles would face a 10 per cent tariff and agricultural product up to 3 per cent. But the great disrupters think they can use the spectre of disaster to railroad virtually any trade deal on offer from the USA though parliament. They think too that they face little or no serious opposition from the Labour benches where Starmer, though he condemned reneging on the Withdrawal Agreement has otherwise been near silent on the Brexit issue.

Labour is mesmerized by their defeat in an election where every dirty trick was pulled to boost the deeply ambiguous slogan get Brexit done. It fell victim to the idea that it had to pander to the minority of Labour voters who were hostile to the EU whilst trying to cling on to the Remain majority of its voters n members. This strategy failed.

Honesty was and is the best policy. Labour under Corbyn should have stuck to its opposition to Brexit and fought for a democratic referendum on any deal for leaving versus remaining and fighting to change all the capitalist and neoliberal rules and institutions, such as those which crucified Greece between 2009 and 2015.

Leaving the EU is deeply antagonistic to the interests of the working class, not because the EU is a benevolent force for social progress, but because a united struggle with the workers of Europe to create a socialist united states of Europe is a more progressive goal than the old “socialism in one country” pipe dream of the 1970s Labour Left, retained by the Morning Star today. And infinitely more progressive than Johnson’s buccaneering hedge fund Britain roaming the world seeking someone to rob and exploit.

Labour and the trade unions need to break from the Starmer leadership and the TUC’s silence and fight openly against the prospect or the reality of crashing out the European economy, and make that fight a launch pad to take over the banks, factories and transport. The alternative is to be thrown onto the scrapheap of mass unemployment and see our industries and services taken over by spivs and speculators.

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