Brexit crisis: battle lines drawn as parties fracture

'Fck Johnson, fck govt' demonstration, London

On Tuesday 23 July the wealthy Etonian and flamboyantly self-promoting MP Boris Johnson was overwhelmingly elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom by paid-up members of the Conservative Party. His opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, was a distant second. Johnson won with just over 66% of the vote, 92,153 votes, to Hunt’s 46,656. The total number of UK parliamentary electors in December 2018 was 45,775,800, so about 0.2% of the electorate have, in effect, elected the new Prime Minister. DAVID YAFFE reports.

This is the first time a Prime Minister of this nation has been elected by party members. There are 159,320 eligible members of the Conservative Party, down from a peak of 3 million in the 1950s. Turnout of party members for this election was a little over 87.1%. Nearly 40% of those voting are aged 66 or over, predominantly middle-class white men living in the south of England. Two-thirds of party members are said to support leaving the European Union (EU) without a deal, compared to only one-fifth of the wider electorate. Such are the decadent features of our bourgeois so-called democracy.

On 24 July in a typically defiant and delusional speech outside 10 Downing Street after returning from Buckingham Palace where the Queen had confirmed his appointment, the new Prime Minister promised to complete Brexit by 31 October ‘with or without a deal’. He insisted, with no convincing evidence that the EU would eventually strike a deal with the UK before the 31 October deadline, without the ‘anti-democratic backstop’ that aims to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

That evening Johnson showed his ruthless determination when he announced a Cabinet of hardcore Brexiters and right-wing ‘free-market’ reactionaries, after 17 senior ministers were sacked or resigned from the previous government. He bullishly declared war on the ‘doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters’ and said ‘the buck stops here’. His government has a working majority of just two, counting the support of the deeply reactionary Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This will fall to one, if, as expected, the Conservative Party loses the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on 1 August to the Liberal Democrats (New Statesman 22 July 2019). Johnson’s uncompromising reshuffle will have put more potential opponents on the backbenches, with 30 or more Tory MPs declaring they will block a no deal Brexit. If Johnson’s revamped deal is rejected by EU negotiators, his fall-back plan of a no deal Brexit could be blocked in Parliament. The rousing call of his victory speech to ‘deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn’ looks more and more a distant fantasy. Many Tory MPs believe Johnson will have little option but to force an early General Election and that he is gathering a hard core team to fight it.

Ruling class split over Brexit intensifies

The European elections saw devastating losses for both Conservative and Labour parties as Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won a decisive victory. The Brexit Party, with 29 seats in the European Parliament and 30.5% of the vote, achieved more than double the seats of the Labour Party (10 seats and 13.6% of the vote, a loss of 10 seats on the 2014 European elections) and the Conservative Party (4 seats and 8.8% of the vote, a loss of 15 seats) combined. The Liberal Democrats made a noteworthy recovery with 16 seats from 19.6% of the vote, a gain of 15 seats, and the Greens with 11.8% of the vote won 7 seats, a gain of 4 seats. Finally the SNP with 3.5% of the vote won 3 seats, a gain of 1 seat. These results created huge problems for the two previously dominant bourgeois parties. How could they hold their increasingly divided parties together in the battle for political power, while combatting the forward march of the far-right Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, campaigning for Britain to leave the EU without a deal on 31 October?1

As we have consistently argued since we made clear our position as communists to boycott the EU referendum on 23 June 2016,2 the Brexit conflict is essentially a dispute between sections of the British ruling class over two necessarily, totally reactionary outcomes for British capitalism – staying as part of a European imperialist bloc or leaving and becoming an offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of US imperialism. This choice has been imposed on the British ruling class precisely because the parasitic character of British capitalism has made it increasingly incapable of withstanding the economic and political challenges of US or European imperialism as an independent global imperialist power.3 A relatively declining British capitalism facing a global economic capitalist crisis and growing imperialist rivalry has brought this choice to a head.

The response to the devastating losses in the European elections has seen a floundering minority Conservative government take a decisive turn in one direction by choosing Boris Johnson, as the new Prime Minister – a ‘do or die’ Brexiter arguing for Britain to leave the EU on 31 October. Labour, on the other hand, is gradually being forced in the opposite direction driven by a pro-remain majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party, despite a vociferous minority opposition fearful of losing their seats in leave-voting constituencies. In this context it is not surprising that Trump’s ‘America first’ nationalism and the growing US conflict with Europe are deepening divisions both between and within the two main bourgeois parties.

Johnson’s path to Prime Minister

With so many careerist, duplicitous Tory MPs suggesting their names go forward in a race to succeed Theresa May after her resignation on 7 June, the party overhauled its election rules to prevent too many MPs standing and to reduce the length of the race to succeed her. The number of nominations required to stand was raised from two to eight MPs in the first ballot on 13 June, with candidates needing the support of 16 MPs to stay in the race (the MP with the lowest vote passing that threshold would be eliminated), with 32 votes needed in the second ballot and so on until only two candidates were left. The Conservative Party members would then choose the new leader and Prime Minister from these two in a postal ballot, with the new leader to be in place in the week beginning 22 July. Ten candidates stood in the first round. Jeremy Hunt narrowly beat Michael Gove by two votes in the fifth round of voting to stand against the clear favourite Boris Johnson in the postal ballot.

Johnson is a self-promoting liar, incompetent, sexist and racist. In his Telegraph columns he has described Muslim women in burqas as looking like ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’ and referred to black people in Commonwealth countries as ‘flag-waving piccaninies’ having ‘water melon smiles’. He has described gay men as ‘tank-topped bumboys’ and same sex marriage as ‘bestiality’. He is reckless and thoughtless. In an offhand remark made in 2017, he told a Parliamentary committee that the detained British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been ‘teaching people journalism’ in Iran rather than being on holiday visiting her family. This was cited as proof in Iran that she was engaged in ‘propaganda against the regime’. While on an official trip to Myanmar in 2017 he was caught on camera reciting a colonial-era poem by Rudyard Kipling in front of local dignitaries. There are many more examples of this arrogant, uncaring, and impulsive behaviour. Yet he was still elected leader of the Tory Party by a large majority of members.

He was chosen by party members precisely because it was thought he was the only potential leader who could outflank Nigel Farage, and his latest political vehicle, the Brexit Party, which is posing a serious right-wing threat to the long-term survival of the Conservative Party. Johnson has, therefore, taken determined steps to turn the Conservative Party into a Brexit Party that will leave the EU on 31 October. As the Financial Times Editorial (26 July 2019) succinctly put it: ‘[Johnson’s] cabinet purge was no mere reshuffle, but the formation of a hardline pro-Leave government. Its goal is to deliver Brexit by 31 October with a deal or without, or if parliament blocks the latter – to be ready to fight a snap election.’

His Cabinet includes some of the most reactionary, extremist right-wing pro-Brexit members of the Tory Party. Dominic Raab, the new Foreign Secretary, has in the past proposed that: state schools should be allowed to make a profit, all levies subsidising green technologies on energy bills should be scrapped, the minimum wage for under-21s working for small businesses should be ended, and it should be made easier for companies to sack underperforming employees. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was a key person in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. She was sacked as International Development Secretary two years ago after it emerged she had held secret, unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, business people and a senior lobbyist. She has called for the foreign aid target to be scrapped and previously advocated bringing back the death penalty. Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, was sacked only 84 days ago by Theresa May over what was called ‘compelling’ evidence of his role in a leak from the National Security Council of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network. The arch right-wing Eurosceptic reactionary Jacob Rees-Mogg has been appointed Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons and will attend the Cabinet. Sajid Javid, a Thatcher devotee, is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Jeremy Hunt refused the offer of a government post as Defence Minister seeing it as a demotion, and is not in the government. Finally Dominic Cummings, the former head of the devious and deceitful Vote Leave campaign, who was found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to appear before MPs, is to be a senior advisor to Boris Johnson (The Guardian 25 July 2019). He clearly will be needed should there be a snap election.

Labour’s Brexit divisions

Jeremy Corbyn has gradually been forced to accept that he must reposition the Labour Party as a pro-Remain party, if he is to see off the challenge of an increasingly right-wing pro-Brexit Tory Party, as well as combatting the influence of a revitalised pro-Remain Liberal Democrat Party. The ambiguities of Labour’s position led to the electoral disaster in the European elections. The Labour Party suffered its worst losses in areas with strong Remain support, a loss of 14% in areas with highest Remain vote, compared with an approximate loss of 11% in the highest Leave vote areas. Some senior figures argue that shifting to a pure Remain position would cost the party support in the Labour heartlands, where some 3 million backed Leave in the 2016 referendum. A majority of seats being targeted by the party at the next election – 35 out of 50 – voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. A presentation by Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy chief, to a Shadow Cabinet meeting said ‘it was not obvious’ that a more Remain Labour position would win back enough voters from the Liberal Democrats to offset Leave voters in key marginals.

Despite this confusing evidence, the move of the Tory Party to a strong pro-Brexit position has eventually forced Labour’s hand. In early July Corbyn found himself under pressure to reshuffle his advisers and shift Labour towards unequivocal support for remaining in the EU. Senior figures hold Seumas Milne, Labour’s Director of Communications and adviser to Corbyn, responsible for ‘carefully crafted equivocations on Brexit’. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest ally, declared in early June that he would support a second referendum, would vote Remain and campaign for Remain. On 8 July, trade union leaders, including Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, who had been opposed to a second referendum and a Remain position, agreed that Labour should campaign for remaining in the EU against a no deal Brexit or a Tory deal. If Labour won a general election before Brexit, Labour would negotiate its own Brexit deal with Remain on the ballot paper. In an article in The Observer (21 July 2019) in response to the growing likelihood of the Tories adopting a hard no deal Brexit, Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, said that he will work with Tory ministers when they resign from the government to stop a no deal Brexit.

The battle lines are drawn

According to the IMF a no deal Brexit ranks alongside US trade policy as one of the chief threats to the world economy. It forecast that global growth would slow to 3.2% in 2019, the weakest rate of expansion for a decade. Any pick-up in later years would be thrown off course by a no deal Brexit.

Ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond has stated that a no deal Brexit could cost the UK up to £90bn a year. Public finances are already showing a marked deterioration. The Office for Budget Responsibility has already stated that even a ‘relatively benign’ no deal Brexit would see public finances deteriorate by £30bn a year. UK productivity has fallen for the third quarter in a row and the pound has plunged to a two year low. It fell a further 2% against the dollar as investors priced in the likelihood of a no deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson’s threat to take Britain out of the EU without a deal on becoming Prime Minister received a serious setback in Parliament on 18 July when Conservative Party rebels, including Chancellor Philip Hammond, voted to block any attempt to prorogue Parliament to force through a no deal Brexit. MPs voted by a majority of 41, 315 votes to 274, to support an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill requiring ministers to keep the Commons updated in October on the progress of restoring the Northern Ireland Executive. This will make it difficult for the Prime Minister to suspend Parliament in the run-up to 31 October.

Johnson’s election was welcomed by Donald Trump, who called him ‘Britain Trump’. ‘He’s tough and he’s smart’, the US President said, claiming that the UK needed a leader in his own image. The response of the EU was very different. The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier accused Johnson of laying down ‘unacceptable’ terms for talks on a new exit deal. Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing European Commission President reinforced Barnier’s message when he told the Prime Minister that the existing exit deal was ‘the best and only agreement possible’. The battle lines have been drawn. With Trump’s US or with the EU. The British Parliament will be forced to decide. The next few months will be decisive.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 271 August/September 2019


  1. At a special European Council meeting on 10 April 2019 EU leaders granted the UK an extension to Brexit with a new deadline of 31 October. EU27 leaders had taken note of the letter sent by UK Prime Minister Theresa May asking for a further extension to the Article 50 period. They agreed to an extension to allow more time for the ratification of the withdrawal agreement in the UK parliament. EU27 leaders stressed that the UK would have to hold European Parliament elections if it still were a member of the EU between 23 and 26 May 2019. If the UK failed to hold the elections, it would have to leave the EU on 1 June 2019.
  2. David Yaffe ‘EU referendum: the position of communists’ in FRFI 251 June/July 2016, on our website at www.revolutionarycommunist.org/capitalist-crisis/4349-eu-referendum
  3. See David Yaffe ‘Britain: parasitic and decaying capitalism’ FRFI 194 December 2006/January 2007 at www.revolutionarycommunist.org/capitalist-crisis/1042-britain-parasitic-and-decaying-capitalism-frfi-194-dec-2006-jan-2007

 

Our site uses cookies to improve your browsing experience. By using the site you consent to the use of cookies.
More information Ok