A year ago Liam Fox declared that striking a deal with the European Union (EU) would be “one of the easiest in human history”. This week the disgraced Tory minister was left with his tail between his legs.
Fox admitted that the “intransigence” of the European Commission is “pushing us towards a no deal Brexit”. His comments came hot on the heels of recently-promoted foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s prediction that “we’re heading for a no-deal by accident”.
For all the Brexiteer ministers’ bullishness, beating the banker in Brussels has not proved that easy after all.
The government is being buffeted by big business, Tory backbenchers and the EU’s rulers. Any proposals for a Brexit deal that Theresa May manages to cobble together will quickly unravel because of objections from one of these groups.
She’s managed to stumble on from one political fudge after another, but the time for making real decisions is fast approaching. If there’s going to be a deal, the Tories and EU will have to hammer out a withdrawal treaty by a summit in October.
The prospect of a no deal Brexit is sending shudders through global capitalism. After Fox’s comments currency speculators rapidly sold the pound, which saw it fall to the lowest level in 11 months.
And many ordinary people are fearful of a no deal Brexit and think May isn’t making a good job of negotiations.
The likelihood is that there will be a threadbare deal that leaves many negotiating points unresolved.
Theresa May came back from her holidays early to talk with French president Emmanuel Macron, and the EU looked as if it was loosening on some points.
But talking up “no deal” suits the EU, and both Remain and Leave supporters in the Tory cabinet and backbenches.
The EU is using it as a powerful form of leverage in negotiations. The shock of a no deal Brexit would be far more damaging to British capitalism than it would the 27-strong bloc of EU states.
Without a Brexit deal trade rules between the EU and Britain would likely revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations. These would impose some customs checks and duties at the border.
This would not mean the near-apocalyptic predictions that much of the business press claim—such as the “collapse” of the port of Dover. But the shock would initially hit the supply chains and profits of British bosses.
The EU’s rulers know that British bosses fear this scenario and that they are piling pressure onto the Tories. Big business is desperate to maintain access to the EU’s single market. It pushes competition and blocks policies such as nationalisation.
Businesses also want May to stick to her promised 21-month transition period after formally leaving the EU, which would buy them time to revise trade rules.
Remain supporters in the Tory party such as Jeremy Hunt find it useful to raise the spectre of sleepwalking into no deal scenarios. They hope this can increase leverage against their Brexiteer colleagues.
This jostling speaks to a deeper rift within the Tory party.
By painting themselves as the party of a right wing, nationalist Brexit the Tories were able to win back voters from Ukip. And now the Brexiteers hope to position themselves as those who stood up against any possible betrayal of a “soft Brexit”. This is what lay behind David Davis and Boris Johnson’s resignations from the cabinet last month.
Whether there is a deal or no deal, a Tory government will always try and make workers and migrants pay.
The left has a choice about how it responds. One option is to attach ourselves to the coat tails of right wing liberals such as Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell who call for a second referendum. But whatever the good intentions of some Remain supporters, the EU will do nothing to protect workers and migrants.
The other option is to understand that Brexit means crisis not just for the Tories, but for the majority of the ruling class. We should seize on their divisions, up the level of working class resistance against the Tories and fight for a socialist and anti-racist vision of Brexit.