Theresa May danced on a tightrope over Brexit this summer.
The toxic campaign being waged by rival wings of a deeply divided Tory party has left her presiding over a zombie regime.
Yet she’s managed to stumble on by piecing together deals that have papered over the party’s divisions. The lack of an obvious replacement and Tory fears of a Jeremy Corbyn government have kept leadership challenges in check.
That strategy is reaching the end of the road.
The war inside the Tories intensified this week with a new offensive from Brexiteer former ministers and backbenchers.
Boris Johnson savaged May for “handing over £40 billion for two thirds of diddly squat”. “We have gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank,” he wrote in his Daily Telegraph column.
Johnson’s attack was not the only one. Former Brexit secretary David Davis said May’s Brexit proposals, known as the “Chequers deal”, were “worse than staying in” the European Union (EU).
And he pledged to vote against the proposals ahead of March 2019, the date when Britain officially leaves the EU.
These were well-timed interventions before the opening of parliament and the Tories’ autumn conference in Birmingham at the end of September.
The Tories’ horrow show has led to growing momentum for a second referendum.
Many people support it because of fears about the rise of the far right, racism or the future of the NHS. And many see the EU as a progressive alternative—or at least a block—to the vile Brexit-supporting reactionaries within the Tory party.
There are serious problems with this argument. Whatever people’s intentions for supporting the People’s Vote campaign, its leadership is a collection of scoundrels. They offer no alternative to the Tories’ austerity or racism.
Tory backers include MP Anna Soubry. As minister of public health in 2012, she was at the forefront of pushing through the hated Health and Social Care Act that entrenched privatisation in the NHS.
Then there’s Blairite MP Chuka Umunna, a key mover behind the Labour Campaign for the Single Market (LCSM). Its pamphlet said Britain hadn’t used “significant restriction within EU law” to limit freedom of movement for migrants.
This shows that the main dividing line isn’t between those who voted Remain and Leave. It should be between those who support workers’ and migrants’ rights and those who want to push through more austerity and racism.
The Chequers deal is a bad deal because it’s based on Tory policies.
It would dump freedom of movement and seek to keep EU single market rules that ban nationalisation of whole industries such as the railways. And Tory planning documents for a no-deal scenario show they would do that anyway.
The most effective response is the same as to any Tory attack—to mount a fightback on the picket lines and streets. A second referendum would draw a line of division in workplaces that would make it harder to build that sort of united resistance.
There is an underlying argument that says to stop right wingers we have to back the “liberal centre”. Hanging onto the coattails of liberals would be a disaster for socialists and anti-racists.
It would send a message that we have nothing to say to working class people who voted leave out of a deep anger at the establishment. This would be a gift for the far right.
The socialist alternative includes recognising that the EU isn’t progressive. The EU’s Fortress Europe policy has turned the Mediterranean into a mass grave of refugees, and single market rules block socialist policies.
A socialist and anti-racist Brexit would say, “Yes to freedom of movement, no to the single market.”
Those arguments have to be made alongside our overriding task of building a united movement against the resurgent far right and racism.