Two senior members of Theresa May’s cabinet brawled in the House of Commons last week as MPs voted on Brexit legislation.
Theresa May was forced to intervene in a “blazing row” between two of her most senior ministers as tempers flared over military cuts.
Gavin Williamson, defence secretary, and Philip Hammond, the chancellor, had a “heated” exchange in the Commons division lobby.
It all jarred with May’s triumphalism after the Brexit phase one agreement was signed. In fact it took less than a day for the new-found Brexit consensus within the Tories to fall apart.
Brexit secretary David Davis said the agreement was a “statement of intent”, not legally enforceable, on Monday.
The Irish government shot back, warning that “both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the phase one agreement”.
The Brexit agreement was a fudge that allowed all sides to claim “sufficient progress” had been made. It’s not a final deal and only opens the door to future trade negotiations and detailed agreements on other matters.
There will be a two year “transition period” after Britain officially leaves the EU in March 2019. This will mean remaining in the EU’s single market, which restricts nationalisation and trade unions’ right to strike.
While the agreement does give some rights to EU nationals already in Britain, they will still have to jump through bureaucratic hoops. And freedom of movement for migrants will end after Britain leaves.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker was in high spirits. That’s because the EU has won recognition that Britain will pay at least £35 billion as a “divorce settlement”.
But the biggest winners are big business and the bankers. They want to remain in the EU single market because it protects their profits.
This was one heavy pressure on the Tories, but they also wanted to play to their own right wing base and chase racist Ukip votes.
Earlier this year May came down hard against the single market and for dumping freedom of movement. Business revolted and issued threats about leaving Britain.
Now the Tories have pointed towards the possibility of accepting all the single market rules. Agreeing “regulatory alignment” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—and between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain—would mean the EU regulations apply everywhere.
This prospect—unacceptable to the Tory right—was why Davis had to say the agreement was only a “statement of intent”. The negotiations that start now will be long and hard, fuelling Tory splits.
There is a real danger that opposition to May will come only from the racist right and the neoliberal “centre”.
The Guardian newspaper, for example, saw the agreement as an opportunity to push for its vision of Brexit.
“The arithmetic is on the side of a soft Brexit,” it said. “Not only is there a cross-party parliamentary majority in favour, polling suggests that there is real potential to mobilise public support around such an outcome.”
It was echoing the line of Tories who supported Remain, such as Evening Standard editor and former chancellor George Osborne. He refused to rule out returning to politics last week.
They all play to a false divide between “soft” and “hard” Brexit. It represents different versions of a pro-business agenda. The real divide is between those who want to defend workers’ and migrants’ rights and those who want to attack them.
Unfortunately Labour has failed to come out with a clear position. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer offers the worst of both worlds. He wants to defend the single market to woo big business, but refuses to defend freedom of movement.
The left needs to put forward a socialist, anti-racist vision for Brexit—that means saying “No to the single market, yes to freedom of movement”. That can help us exploit the Tory splits and drive this band of racist robbers from office.