Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a brilliant novel called The Reprieve, set during the Munich crisis of September 1938. He showed how the agreement that ended the crisis solved nothing, simply postponing the outbreak of the Second World War by a year.
The decision of the European Union (EU) to postpone Brexit until Halloween is the same kind of reprieve—though the stakes are lower and the conflict is among rival liberal capitalist states. But nothing has fundamentally changed.
The balance of power is still strongly in the favour of the EU, which has made it clear it will offer Theresa May no further concessions. This puts the ball in the House of Commons’ court. And in all probability it will continue to be paralysed by the division between hard Brexiteers, supporters of a soft Brexit, and hard Remainers, none of whom command a majority.
There’s a lot of sloppy commentary that this is a crisis equally for the Tories and Labour. But this is very far from the truth. It was May who chose to make the Tories the party of Brexit and to craft what would inevitably be a hard Brexit.
When big business became incensed over the economic consequences of a sharp break with the EU, May tried to retreat. The effect—reflected in the withdrawal treaty she negotiated last November—has been to please no one. Under intense flanking fire from both wings of her party, and without a parliamentary majority, she is stuck.
It looks as if public opinion thinks the same. It’s become a Remainer cliche to criticise Jeremy Corbyn for not being able to exploit the Tory crisis. But now Labour has moved ahead in the polls. And the “reprieve” means that, unless a miracle happens, Britain will soon participate in a real poll, for the European parliament.
May desperately tried to avoid this, and one can see why. It looks as if the Tories will be slaughtered. An Opinium Research poll last weekend put them at 17 percent, with Ukip close on their heels at 13 percent and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party at 12 percent.
Labour tops this poll with 29 percent, despite losses to the Greens and the right wing breakaway the Independent Group, now called Change UK.
The Euro elections will probably make it harder to break the deadlock. A compromise with Labour would involve Britain staying in a customs union with the EU, something that 170 Tory MPs including ten cabinet ministers have publicly opposed. The haemorrhage of Tory support rightwards in the polls will strengthen resistance to any compromise. The uproar from some Brexiteers that greeted May’s negotiations with Corbyn are just a taster.
Comparisons between May and Sir Robert Peel underline what a bad place she is in. Peel was the Tory prime minister who in 1845-6 defied his party’s protectionist traditions and repealed the Corn Laws. He found himself in a minority in his own cabinet and could only carry repeal with the support of the opposition Whigs.
The Tories split, with Peel’s supporters allying with the Whigs to regain office. The most famous Peelite, William Gladstone, eventually merged them into the Liberal Party. It took the Tories 30 years to form another majority government.
I doubt if we will see the rise of the Mayites. The most prominent Remainer in the cabinet, Amber Rudd, had the support of three percent of the Tory party membership in a recent poll. According to the Financial Times newspaper, she “is poised to be a kingmaker”, with Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson competing for her support in a future leadership election.
It just seems very unlikely that May has the political strength or support to defy her party and force through a compromise. This means two things. First, the Tory party, dominated by competition to be the hardest Brexiteer, is likely to move even further out of alignment with big business and its interests.
Second, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, in which Britain breaks completely with the EU, may have receded but it hasn’t gone away. When Halloween approaches, May or whoever succeeds her may find the EU less willing to offer yet another reprieve.