By Alex Callinicos
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Time ticks away on the Tories’ collapsing cabinet

This article is over 6 years, 11 months old
Issue 2563
Theresa Mays government is in crisis over Brexit
Theresa May’s government is in crisis over Brexit (Pic: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916/Flickr)

Tony Blair’s latest intervention in the Brexit debate shows him to be unusually self-deluding even by his standards. He still doesn’t seem to understand that every time he opens his mouth he damages whatever cause he’s supporting.

But his advocacy of the “option of negotiating for Britain to stay within a Europe itself prepared to reform and meet us half way” is also based on an illusion. There’s absolutely no evidence the rest of the European Union (EU) would be willing to offer Britain a special deal to prevent Brexit.

The British vote to leave was part of a near-death experience for EU leaders. Faced with severe internal conflicts over the eurozone and refugee crises, they feared a wave of victories by anti-EU “populist” parties.

The defeat of the extreme right in the Dutch and French elections and a very mild recovery in the eurozone economy have revived EU leaders’ confidence.

The dominant figure, German chancellor Angela Merkel, has moved very quickly to respond positively to the election of the evangelically pro-EU Emmanuel Macron as French president.

The Franco-German priority is to restore EU cohesion.

What this will mean is another matter. One commentator, Wolfgang Münchau, says the Germans will agree to French calls for a more integrated eurozone “primarily as a vehicle to deliver more austerity”.

But EU leaders have little incentive to offer concessions to Britain that might reopen divisions—for example, between the rich western core and east and central Europe.

In any case, the nature of the exit negotiations under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty put most of the cards in Brussels’ hands.

Without a new trade agreement, Britain will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 facing new tariff barriers. These will hugely disrupt the City’s business and break up the supply chains on which British-based multinationals rely.

British business, big and small alike, is increasingly openly furious about Theresa May’s willingness to contemplate leaving without a deal.


Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, pointedly responded to Boris Johnson’s latest grandstanding by saying all he could hear was a clock ticking.

An anonymous EU negotiator told the Financial Times newspaper, “Every day that ticks away gives the Europeans more leverage, because the Brits are not prepared and never will be prepared. So the reasoning is that in the end they will be on their knees. They will be on their knees because they will not be ready.”

This points to the fact that, across the negotiating table, the Tory government is a shambles. The general election has left the Tories deeply divided. The Remainers believe that May’s lack of a majority means they can block a hard Brexit, while the Leavers are trying to fight back.

But the Tories also know what would happen if the government fell. Andrew Rawnsley wrote in last Sunday’s Observer, “Senior Tories tell me that Mr Corbyn would become prime minister if there was an election tomorrow.”

The Financial Times reported a few weeks ago, “‘There is a general mood of seriousness and a sense that if we screw this up, a Marxist government steps into the breach,’ says one senior Conservative MP. Another says: ‘The person holding the party together is Jeremy Corbyn. The fear of Corbyn is greater than any nuance in the Brexit negotiation.’”

There’s not much sign of this “mood of seriousness”.

Chancellor Philip Hammond complained about other cabinet ministers leaking against him to the media on last Sunday’s Andrew Marr show.

May herself has been reduced to what Rawnsley calls “the human sponge who soaks up all the blame”.

Of course Labour itself is divided. Chuka Umunna leads a fifth column of pro-EU backbenchers seeking to block with the Tory Remainers.

But Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell are quite right to want to get Britain out of the neoliberal single market. If they stick by their guns, Tory infighting may open the door to the most left wing Labour government in British history.

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