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It became necessary to destroy the party to save it

As the latest feeble attempt at (not) reaching a deal with the EU27 comes to its inevitable conclusion, Prime Minister Johnson will seek to blame everyone but himself for the failure.  First among those upon whose head he will cast blame will be the shady “Brussels bureaucrats” who have supposedly sought to punish Britain for having the audacity to rip up its EU membership card.  Next will be the so-called “enemies of the people” in Parliament who, Johnson will argue, have stood in the way of the people’s will from day-one.

The reality, though, is that Brexit is from beginning to end a Tory crisis that was never truly about Europe.  Conservative commentator Matthew d’Ancona at the Guardian spells this out:

“It was a Conservative government that called the referendum, and a Conservative prime minister who – having squandered her party’s majority in the 2017 general election – bought the support of the Democratic Unionist party with taxpayers’ money so she could stay in power and finish the job. Brexit is a Tory gig.”

Johnson himself wrote in the Telegraph six years ago:

“As it happens, I think the question of EU membership is no longer of key importance to the destiny of this country…

“If we left the EU, we would end this sterile debate, and we would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by ‘Bwussels’, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”

Brexit always was a quasi-religious feud between different factions of the Tory Party back in the days when that party could reasonably claim to have been a “broad church.”  But too much bad blood has been shed since the beatified St Margaret of Finchley was forced to resign – in large part because of her stance on the EU – in November 1990.  Those Tories who had given up on their hope of moulding the party into an anti-EU force resigned and joined Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party.  Others practiced a form of entryism that would have been easily understood by the Trotskyist left of the 1980s, in the hope of one day overthrowing the Tory centrists.

By 2015 – and not least because of the policies of his Tory/LibDem coalition government – Prime Minister David Cameron was struggling to head off both threats. In 2014, UKIP had won the European elections, polling more votes and winning more seats than the Tories.  And in response to this threat, there was growing discontent among Eurosceptics on the Tory back benches.  It was to head off this threat that Cameron included the promise of a referendum in the 2015 general election manifesto; safe in the knowledge that his LibDem coalition partners would veto it once the election was over.

It didn’t work out that way though.  A weak Labour campaign together with the referendum pledge resulted in Tory victories in traditionally Labour ex-industrial seats.  Meanwhile, the LibDems were punished for their collusion with Tory austerity policies; losing 49 of their 57 seats.  Cameron was left with a small majority (12 seats) and no excuse for not holding the referendum.

The seeds of defeat could be found in the reason Cameron called the vote.  Not as a means of opening a debate about Britain’s future in or out of the European Union; but rather as a means of silencing the hard right of the Tory Party once and for all.  Just as the 1975 referendum had taken the Europe question off the table for a generation, so Cameron expected that victory in 2016 would see off his critics for good.  This, though, shaped the referendum campaign into a domestic argument within the Tory Party… A narrative the mainstream media was happy to go along with.

Worse than this and unbeknown to the mainstream media and the political class, a large part of the electorate had lost faith in the entire neoliberal project in the days following the 2008 crash.  Statistics showing a dramatic decline in newspaper readership and a loss of trust in TV and radio were explained away by reference to social media.  In reality, they were evidence of a growing trend across the western states to disbelieve centrist narratives supporting the neoliberal consensus.  And so, when the Remain campaign opted to parade a bevy of neoliberal luminaries across mainstream media to tell the unwashed masses to do as they were told; the result was a swing to the extremes.

The closest thing to a left wing “remain and reform” viewpoint in the mainstream came from discredited New Labour politicians like Blair and Straw who were widely held to be culpable for the woes that have beset ordinary Britons in the years since the crash.  Voices – including the newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – that might have swayed 5 to 10 percent of traditional Labour voters back to the Remain side were deliberately marginalised by a political class which, in the end, would prefer a hard Brexit to a social democratic government.

While the leaders of the Remain side became increasingly worried as referendum day approached; no such concerns were felt on the Leave side.  The leading figures of the Leave campaign – Farage, Johnson and Gove were convinced that they would lose; as became evident after the polls closed.  With indecent haste, Farage conceded defeat just minutes after the polling stations closed at 10.00pm on 23 June 2016.  We had to wait until the morning of 24 June to see the dejected look on Boris Johnson’s face; which provided the proof that he had intended becoming a “gallant loser” as the best means of challenging Cameron’s leadership at a later date.

Cameron himself chose to resign immediately after the defeat; leaving those who had campaigned for a Leave vote to try to explain what Brexit actually meant – something neither side had done in the course of the campaign.  This should have ushered in a three-month Tory leadership campaign in which the proponents of various types of Brexit would vie to become Prime Minister.  Instead, in desperation, the majority of the Tory parliamentary party projected the ghost of Margaret Thatcher onto the hapless Theresa May; in the hope that a woman might clear up the mess left by the Bullingdon boys.

Theresa May’s mission impossible was to simultaneously reunite the Tory party while delivering a version of Brexit that would meet the traditional conservative maxim of providing both sides with some of what they wanted without either being able to claim complete victory.  May’s apparent prevarication, however, served only to raise suspicions on both sides.  Those on the Remain side of the Tory party feared that May would lead the country into an economically disastrous Brexit; while those in the Leave camp believed she intended betraying the referendum result by delivering a BINO (Brexit in name only) deal.

This led May to make the two fatal errors that were to turn a problem into a full-blown crisis.  In order to silence her critics, May chose to – having promised not to – hold a general election.  Taking opinion polls at face value, May assumed she would be returned with a majority of 50-100 seats; providing her with a new intake of MPs who owed their allegiance to her.  As Cameron discovered before her, Hubris is a terrible thing.  In an election marked by her insecure, “control-freak” personality, her poll lead rapidly evaporated; the election itself depriving her of her majority and leaving her dependent upon the votes of the hard right DUP to govern.

By losing her majority, May had failed her first aim of reuniting the Tory party.  The clamour for action from the emboldened hard right of the Tory party led to her second fatal error – the decision to appease the hard right by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without actually reading it – which guaranteed that the UK government would be unable to reach a favourable deal with the EU27.  This is because prior to triggering Article 50, any failure of the negotiations would result in Britain remaining in the EU; whereas after triggering Article 50, failure would result in Britain crashing out without a deal.

The transitional deal that May eventually secured from the EU27 was about the best on offer.  Her inability to sell it to parliament had less to do with the deal itself – which effectively maintained the status quo while the future relationship was being negotiated – than with suspicion about the end state that the UK was transitioning to.  Remain-leaning and soft Brexit MPs couldn’t vote for it because they feared it was a step on the road to Britain becoming a Singapore-style deregulated offshore tax haven.  Leave-leaning MPs in contrast rebelled against it because they feared it would be a means of locking the UK into the EU indefinitely.

Theresa May’s premiership was remarkable due to her stubborn refusal to resign in the face of defeats that would have had most male leaders scurrying to spend more time with their families.  The vultures circled on election night in 2017 as the scale of her defeat became apparent.  Nevertheless, despite having to sacrifice her two advisors – Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – May was able to carry on; largely because party managers feared another leadership contest.  But when May scored the biggest ever parliamentary defeat in British history in January 2019 – when her Brexit deal was rejected 202 to 432 – the writing was on the wall.  The defeat of a microwaved version of the same deal by a closer 308 to 312, made a leadership challenge inevitable; although May managed to hang on until 24 May before finally announcing her resignation.

Such were the superficial contortions of a parliamentary Tory party whose obsession with Europe had rendered impossible any attempt to govern from the political centre.  Prior to the leadership election to replace May, however, few had realised just how successful the hard right faction had become in capturing the Tory membership.  It was only in mid-June that a YouGov poll revealed just how demented the Tory party had become:

“[A] new YouGov survey of Conservative Party members reveals just how much Brexit has changed the mood of the membership, subverting traditional loyalties and reshaping political priorities.

“So dedicated to accomplishing Brexit are Tory members that a majority (54%) would be willing to countenance the destruction of their own party if necessary. Only a third (36%) put the party’s preservation above steering Britain out of the EU.

“Party members are also willing to sacrifice another fundamental tenet of Conservative belief in order to bring about Brexit: unionism. Asked whether they would rather avert Brexit if it would lead to Scotland or Northern Ireland breaking away from the UK, respectively 63% and 59% of party members would be willing to pay for Brexit with the breakup of the United Kingdom.

“A similar proportion (61%) would also be willing to countenance significant economic damage done to the British economy in order to leave the EU.”

These views help explain the elevation of Dominic Cummings to the Rasputin role within Johnson’s court.  Dig beneath the political intrigue and the media circus, however, and we find that something profound has been going on beneath the surface.  This is in part explained by political economist Mark Blyth during a lecture at McMaster Department of Philosophy; where he likens neoliberalism to an acid that has eaten its way through the fabric of western societies.  First, neoliberalism undermined labour markets:

“Ending cost-push inflation and marking the end of labor cartels’ ability to claim productivity gains…”

But neoliberalism didn’t stop there.  Instead:

“It eats through product markets, creating massive price deflation on the one hand and monopoly profits on the other; marking the end of national production cartels.”

Having achieved this, neoliberalism eats its way through the political parties that ushered it in as a response to the crisis of the 1970s.  As Blyth points out, these parties are the product of twentieth century economies based around national production and national trades unions.  And while both left and right attempted to reinvent themselves in the 1990s and early 2000; the best they could offer was a pale version of their previous incarnations.  And after telling us that greed was good, that banks were the foundation of a modern economy, and that we should all be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich…,” they duly discredited themselves in 2008 both by the glaring failure of the system and their inability either to explain or to offer a credible path out of the crisis.

The rise of populism – whether of the Brexit/Trump or Corbyn/Sanders variety – is the direct response to the discrediting of the mainstream parties.  The same is true of establishment media outlets which continue to spew a neoliberal narrative without once acknowledging that the neoliberal consensus is over.  They have nothing to offer and we have stopped listening.

Nor is Blyth the only thinker to arrive at this conclusion.  Writing in the Guardian, historian David Edgerton observes that:

“If any prime minister in the past had shown such a determined ignorance of the dynamics of global capitalism, the massed ranks of British capital would have stepped in to force a change of direction. Yet today, while the CBI and the Financial Times call for the softest possible Brexit, the Tory party is no longer listening.

“Why not? One answer is that the Tories now represent the interests of a small section of capitalists who actually fund the party. An extreme version of this argument was floated by the prime minister’s sister, Rachel, and the former chancellor Philip Hammond – both of whom suggested that hard Brexit is being driven by a corrupt relationship between the prime minister and his hedge-fund donors, who have shorted the pound and the whole economy. This is very unlikely to be correct, but it may point to a more disconcerting truth…

“What is interesting is not so much the connections between capital and the Tory party but their increasing disconnection. Today much of the capital in Britain is not British and not linked to the Conservative party – where for most of the 20th century things looked very different…

“Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer one where British capitalism does the world’s business. Everywhere in the UK there are foreign-owned enterprises, many of them nationalised industries, building nuclear reactors and running train services from overseas. When the car industry speaks, it is not as British industry but as foreign enterprise in the UK. The same is true of many of the major manufacturing sectors – from civil aircraft to electrical engineering – and of infrastructure. Whatever the interests of foreign capital, they are not expressed through a national political party. Most of these foreign-owned businesses, not surprisingly, are hostile to Brexit.”

The consequence of the absence of organised capital behind a party that defined itself as the party of capital is that the Tories are adrift; their policies shaped more by forces outside the party than by those within it.  In an article for Prospect, Gaby Hinsliff points to the quiet revolution that has occurred within the Tory party:

“While much of the Conservative press, not to mention a Johnson-led Conservative government, frets over votes lost to the Brexit Party, something significant is happening beneath the radar to the 29 per cent of Conservatives who in 2016 voted to Remain. Boris Johnson still pays lip service to them—in this year’s deliberately upbeat, good-humoured party conference speech he boasted of leading a ‘one nation government’ that would focus on schools and hospitals, just as soon as it got Brexit out of the way. But a few good jokes don’t obliterate what is for many moderate Tories an uncomfortable reality. They have spent months being alternately ignored and shouted down, watching as their champions within the party—from Ken Clarke to Amber Rudd, Nicholas Soames to Rory Stewart, who will be standing as an independent to become Mayor of London—were pushed out into the cold or, as in the case of Scottish leader Ruth Davidson, chose to step away.

“The quiet exodus of moderate Tories has been masked in the polls by Johnson’s greater success in winning Tory Leavers back from Nigel Farage. But beneath the radar a sizeable minority—not just Remainers but some Leavers who wanted a soft, orderly Brexit and are spooked by talk of a “do or die” departure without a deal—are wrestling with their consciences…

“Tory Remainers first started jumping ship in significant numbers this spring, after it became clear Britain wouldn’t be leaving the EU by March after all. One in eight people who had voted Conservative in the 2017 general election swung to the Lib Dems in May’s European parliament elections according to polling by the former Tory donor Michael Ashcroft; and for the two thirds who said they had no intention of going back at the next general election, it was clearly more than a protest vote…”

It is no accident that the LibDems, emboldened by their success in the European elections, have begun to reinvent themselves as the new party of the centre right; attempting to fill the space that the UKIP-Tories have chosen to vacate.  This is the final irony – and perhaps the one good thing if it condemns them to defeat – to emerge from the Brexit debacle.  The Tory party that called a referendum to save itself from UKIP ended up morphing into UKIP 2.0 as a consequence of the result.  To paraphrase the US commander in Vietnam who burned down villages to prevent them falling into the hands of the Viet Cong: “It became necessary to destroy the party to save it.”

As you made it to the end…

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