17 October 2019 — WSWS
In the end, yesterday finished with statements by a spokesman for Boris Johnson’s Conservative government that no Brexit deal would be reached as negotiations with the Tories’ political partners, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and technical talks with the European Union (EU) were ongoing.
Earlier there had been positive noises from the EU that the basis of a deal on Britain’s leaving was close. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she believed it was the “final sprint” and she was “increasingly of the belief” that a Brexit agreement would be reached. European Council President Donald Tusk nevertheless spoke obliquely of the UK’s “late doubts,” centring on whether the DUP could be persuaded to back a proposal that would mean a customs border running down the Irish Sea. This is something Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had said no British prime minister could agree to.
With DUP leader Arlene Foster taking a hard line in public, and Republic of Ireland premier Leo Varadkar stating that he too still had issues, there was talk of a multibillion backhander to ease the way for a DUP climbdown. Talks with the DUP took place into the late evening as a key meeting between EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and EU ambassadors was repeatedly put back.
This morning the DUP issued a statement that it cannot support Johnson’s proposed deal but will “continue to work with the government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.” It is clearly angling for further concessions, rather than closing the door on an agreement.
French President Emmanuel Macron and various EU officials were already warning that a delay on the October 31 Brexit deadline may be needed because the two-day EU summit, beginning today, would be unlikely to finally work through Johnson’s proposal for avoiding a hard border in Ireland.
Whatever happens, in the UK Johnson will need 320 MPs to agree his deal.
The DUP is the most obvious kingmaker, with its 10 MPs part of Johnson’s arithmetic. Together with the DUP comes not only the Tory’s 60 strong pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) and particularly the 28 hard-line ERG “Spartans” who would not agree any deal that is unacceptable to the unionists.
He will also need most of the 21 Tories Johnson expelled last month for their efforts to block a no-deal Brexit, now 20 after Sam Gyimah joined the Liberal Democrats—who may back a deal rather than risk a second referendum they may lose.
This may leave Johnson depending on winning support from Labour’s benches from 19 MPs who have made clear they want no part of a second EU membership referendum that would be massively unpopular in their constituencies, but do not want to risk a no-deal outcome. One leading figure, Stephen Kinnock, claims that the real number ready to vote with Johnson is as high as 30 MPs.
It is even possible that some pro-Remain MPs vote with the government if there is a promise of a “confirmatory ballot” second referendum that would pitch Johnson’s deal against staying in the EU. A second referendum promise may be enough to secure backing from the Liberal Democrats, for example.
Johnson has so far continued to combine assurances that he will ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline if no deal is reached by Saturday, as mandated by the Benn Act, with declarations that the UK will leave the EU on October 31. Numerous means have been floated for the government to bypass the Benn Act’s provisions.
In such fraught circumstances for Britain’s ruling elite, divisions in the Labour Party are emerging as the central conflict in parliament rather than among the Tories.
There are conflicting positions on how to respond to whatever proposals Johnson makes, at a “Super Saturday” sitting of parliament the government has already requested, or perhaps later if an agreement is delayed. Most centre on how best to sideline Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal that he first leads a “caretaker government” to block Brexit and secure an extension and then seek a general election. Only after having the opportunity for Labour to negotiate its own Brexit deal has Corbyn agreed to hold a second referendum. This is official party policy after September’s annual conference.
So far there is little to suggest Corbyn will be elevated to caretaker prime minister by the Liberal Democrats, the small Change UK group and pro-Remain dissident Tories supporting a no-confidence vote. Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson continues to state that Corbyn doesn’t have the numbers and is unfit to be prime minister anyway. But Labour’s Lord Andrew Adonis claims that secret negotiations to prepare a no-confidence vote in Johnson have won the backing of enough Tories to succeed as Swinson must reverse herself, given that what “the Liberal Democrats are committed to over and above all is preventing Brexit.”
This may be a moot point if Johnson requests an extension based on continued EU discussions on his deal. However, this does not affect the insistence of pro-Remain MPs, led by Labour’s Blairites, that a second referendum must take place before any general election.
The start of this week was dominated by reports that Corbyn’s key ally, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, was now working with the Blairites to overturn Corbyn’s policy and even engineer his downfall in a “silent coup.” Denials have inevitably followed, including McDonnell declaring at a Labour rally Monday evening, “We just have to tell the media out there: they will never divide us.”
Even so, before this public show of unity, Unite the Union, the Transport Salaried Staff’s Association (TSSA) and Communication Workers Union (CWU) were issuing formal complaints to Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, protesting 37 members of Corbyn’s staff being summonsed to “informal meetings” headed by McDonnell ally, Sir Bob Kerslake, about their future roles in his office.
There was a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party earlier on Monday, in which Corbyn loyalists Ian Lavery and Andrew Gwynne, in charge of coordinating Labour’s election campaign, told MPs the party had “never been in better shape” for a snap poll.
One MP told the Politics Home website that Lavery only “united the PLP in one clear unambiguous position: we cannot have an election.” Kevan Jones MP reportedly asked Mr Lavery and Gwynne, “What colour is the sky on your planet?” while another said, “Half of us think we will lose to the Lib Dems, the other half are looking over their shoulders at the Brexit Party.”
Last night, Shadow Brexit Minister Jenny Chapman said she expects Labour would support any amendment put forward Saturday to attach a confirmatory referendum to a Johnson deal.
Corbyn is left, as usual, straining to maintain unity with his party’s right-wing MPs and protecting them from the party’s membership. He closed Monday’s rally, speaking directly to the Blairites, McDonnell and his other main backer, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, by pledging, “I want to bring the movement and the party together. That has been my whole objective during this whole saga over Brexit.”
Yesterday he was busy placating his pro-Brexit faction, telling the media that Labour MPs who back Brexit will not have the whip removed as he believed in the “power of persuasion rather than the power of threat.”
This will do nothing to please the dominant pro-Remain faction but will convince them they can continue to do whatever they want under Corbyn’s protection.
Whatever happens Saturday, the Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech requiring that any Brexit deal is put to a “People’s Vote.” There will almost certainly be a large vote in favour on Labour’s benches, even if Corbyn whips against it, that might bring matters to a head.
Meanwhile Corbyn’s central leadership core will continue to break apart, with the Skwarkbox website reporting that Labour’s “northern MPs are now in discussions to build on their successful rearguard action” against McDonnell and Blairites Tom Watson and Sir Keir Starmer, “by caucusing as a parliamentary bloc” against “an attempted ‘remainer take-over’.”