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THE formation of a government headed by Boris Johnson opens a new stage in the political crisis of Britain’s ruling class.
Why? Because it is a regime apparently committed to a policy that contradicts the interests of big business.
Most of the big financial and economic monopoly corporations do not want Britain to leave the EU. They regard the result of the 2016 referendum as a major defeat, as any reader of the Financial Times will testify.
But they were prepared to accept Theresa May’s “semi-Brexit” if an exit could not be stopped altogether.
Her EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill would at least have maintained alignment with the EU single market’s capitalist “freedoms” in most sectors of the economy during a transition period, when a permanent alignment could be negotiated.
However, that Bill was rejected three times by the votes of pro-EU MPs who wanted to dilute or kill it and anti-EU MPs who insisted upon a full Brexit and nothing less.
This latter group opposed the loss of British decision-making sovereignty resulting from EU membership, especially — for many Tories — in areas where EU social and environmental policies might impose costs or restrictions on capitalist enterprises and markets.
The failure of May’s hokey-cokey compromise produced a parliamentary stalemate that Johnson’s new Cabinet claims it can break with an alliance of pro-Bill and anti-Bill MPs passing a new Brexit package.
In particular, the new Prime Minister wants to get rid of the Withdrawal Agreement’s “Irish backstop.” This would bind Northern Ireland and — by extension — Britain to the EU single market into the indefinite future, should no alternative arrangements be agreed.
Pro-EU politicians in Britain, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland (where Sinn Fein has flip-flopped from its previous Eurosceptic stance) have engaged in much irresponsible, fact-free scaremongering on this issue.
They argue that Brexit or “no backstop” would violate the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and thus reignite large-scale violence.
There is nothing in the GFA binding Northern Ireland or Britain to EU membership, the single market or tariff-free trade with the Irish Republic. Indeed, these matters are not mentioned at all.
Meanwhile, Section 10 of the 2018 EU (Withdrawal) Act outlaws any attempt by UK authorities to build any kind of north-south border infrastructure in Ireland. Only the EU would contemplate committing such madness in defence of its precious capitalist “freedoms.”
Prime Minister Johnson’s other chief objection to the Withdrawal Agreement was the divorce settlement to be paid by Britain to the EU, now estimated at £36 billion if we leave on October 31 (the fourth appointed “Brexit Day”).
Yet the EU has reaffirmed its refusal to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement or negotiate a fresh one. However, it is willing to revisit the accompanying Political Declaration.
This could be amended to reformulate the Irish backstop, or subsume it in a formulation about possible UK-EU “free trade” and no-tariff arrangements.
Amending the detailed Withdrawal Agreement provisions on the divorce settlement will be much more problematic technically and — for the EU — financially.
Britain’s net contribution to the EU in 2018 alone was £9bn.
Nevertheless, it is possible that the new Tory government will fall back in line with the party’s corporate paymasters when the Westminster Parliament reconvenes in early September.
Johnson was a latecomer to the Brexit cause and may present a revamped withdrawal package that maintains alignment with the EU single market.
As mayor of London, he unfailingly represented the interests of the financial City. He might yet try to bribe, bully and bluster his way to a Commons majority. Or, for all his protestations, he might apply to the EU for an extension in order to achieve the same aim.
On the other hand, he has threatened to advise the monarch to end (or “prorogue”) the new parliamentary session before October 31, so that we leave the EU at midnight without a withdrawal agreement, which is the default position in law.
This is the nightmare scenario for much of big business in Britain. It would undoubtedly disrupt trade, not least because of the lack of contingency preparations by the previous Tory government.
However, the likely scale of disruption and longer-term economic damage has been exaggerated by the usual suspects — the Treasury, the Bank of England, the CBI, the TUC — whose doom-laden pro-EU predictions about voting Leave or not joining the euro have all crashed so far.
Prorogation would be furiously resisted by MPs, whether in the Commons or before the Supreme Court.
They will be defending “parliamentary sovereignty” in order to overturn the “popular sovereignty” of June 2016 and to keep sovereign decision-making powers in Brussels, Strasbourg and Kirchberg (with the EU Court of Justice).
SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs, like the Scottish and Welsh legislatures, prefer these powers — in more than 100 policy areas — to remain in the EU forever than come to Edinburgh and Cardiff.
At the same time, there is always the danger that an unprincipled, egotistical demagogue such as Johnson might use prorogation to impose unpopular and reactionary measures in non-Brexit matters.
But whether his regime implements any kind of Brexit, with or without proroguing Parliament, we can be sure of three things.
First, Johnson’s new Cabinet is further to the right ideologically than its predecessor, although the difference should not be exaggerated.
Ex-PM May and her chancellor Philip Hammond were more obedient servants of the ruling class, more pragmatic and more committed to maintaining economic, social and political and stability than the likes of Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Gavin Williamson.
But this does mean we should expect reactionary fiscal, trade, social, employment, labour relations and foreign and military measures further down the road, if this government survives.
Second, there will be immediate attempts to mask this reactionary character with “populist” announcements that appeal to a large section of the working-class electorate.
As well as Brexit, these will include tax cuts, a rise in the statutory minimum wage, more street-level policing and increased investment in transport, the NHS and housebuilding.
Third, the general election campaign has already begun. The scurrilous campaign to paint Jeremy Corbyn as an unpatriotic, anti-semitic apologist for terrorism who would leave Britain defenceless will intensify and plumb new depths.
For the left, the main question must be: how can today’s political crisis be resolved in favour of the working class and the labour movement?
Hurling insults at Johnson and claiming that Britain is on the verge of fascism will strike most people as puerile, hysterical or defeatist.
Committing Labour to support a second EU referendum and remaining in the EU will be doing the work of Johnson, the Tories and the Brexit Party for them.
Detailed analysis of voting in the 2016 referendum, the 2017 general election and the 2019 EU elections indicates that disillusioned pro-Brexit Labour supporters or defectors to the Brexit Party substantially outnumber those who have or would switch from the Lib Dems and Greens to an unconditionally anti-Brexit Labour Party.
Instead, Labour must come out fighting for public ownership of strategic industries and services; economic planning and a real regional development policy; massive investment in productive industry, renewable energy and transport infrastructure, housing and public services; a federal Britain; proportional representation for Westminster elections with the franchise at 16; compulsory and enforceable equal pay audits in the private as well as public sector; non-racist immigration and nationality policy; and a non-nuclear defence strategy based on co-operation not US- or EU-led confrontation and sanctions.
These are the alternative policies that should be put forward when escalating the protests against Tory government policies.
A left-led Labour government is still within our grasp, just, but the time is now overdue to marginalise and drown out the saboteurs.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.
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