Socialist Worker

May cannot unite a Tory party that’s deeply split over Brexit

by Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2524

Theresa May laid out her plan for Brexit on Sunday—at her first Tory party conference as prime minister.

Theresa May is trying to present a Tory united front over Brexit

Theresa May is trying to present a Tory united front over Brexit (Pic: UK Home Office)

Forced to choose between clamping down on immigration and staying in the European Union (EU) single market, May made clear she was going to prioritise immigration.

She also revealed that she would trigger Article 50—which begins the formal process of leaving the EU—by the end of March next year.

“We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again,” she said.

In a blow to those hoping to water down the referendum result, May said parliament would get no veto.

This set her at odds with many in her own party. Around 80 Tory MPs attended a pro-EU fringe meeting vowing to be the “resistance” to any “hard Brexit”.


Former ministers Nicky Morgan and Stephen Dorrell were among those who publicly warned against ditching the single market.

The single market, enforced by the European Court of Justice, helps businesses exploit workers on a Europe-wide level.

Even the man who is effectively May’s deputy, chancellor Philip Hammond, hinted that he didn’t share her priorities.

“There is an implicit term of the mandate we received from the British people,” he said on Saturday. “They do not want to see the economy suffer.”

Compare that to the line from Brexit minister David Davis that “the clear message from the referendum is this—we must be able to control immigration”.

The single market, enforced by the European Court of Justice, helps businesses exploit workers on a Europe-wide level.

Its rules block nationalisations and has been used to ban strikes.

Socialists should not defend it.

Bosses do—particularly during a fragile and limited economic recovery—and that puts pressure on the Tories to uphold it.

It’s a problem for May that the right’s focus on attacking immigration means she can’t do that.

So in reality her Brexit plan, seeking to give “some certainty to businesses and investors”, is far from “hard”.

May is to implement the EU’s Article 50 before making any changes to British law.

Then her Great Repeal Bill will overturn the 1972 act that saw Britain join the European Economic Community (EEC). But it will carry over all measures that have passed from EU into British law since then.


While Tories are not to be trusted, May pledged not to tear up regulations on workers’ rights, contrary to much of the Remain campaign’s scaremongering.

Even on immigration the Tories are walking a tightrope.

There has been widespread horror at the idea of EU migrants in Britain being kicked out.

Davis promised “to protect the rights of EU citizens here so long as Britons in Europe are treated the same way”. “That’s something I am absolutely sure we will be able to agree,” he said.

Yet he also vowed to “bring the numbers down”. It’s not possible to do both—restricting the numbers can only be done through restricting migrants’ rights.

Despite May’s attempt to put a brave face on it, Brexit is a challenge that the British establishment didn’t want and the Tory party can’t agree on.

Their divisions can help us fight against discrimination and scapegoating of migrants.

At present the Brexit debate is dominated by right wing voices.

It is crucial the left puts forward its own anti-racist, pro-worker, anti-capitalist demands—and fights for them.

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