Boris Johnson is likely to become the new Tory leader and prime minister, some time in the week after 22 July. If by some fluke he throws the leadership contest, almost surely someone equally hard-Brexit will win. This sharpens the choices on Brexit, and narrows further the space for temporising.
Johnson is less a right-wing ideologue, and more a mainstream opportunist, than Mario Salvini in Italy. But his choice is to project the Tories so as to appear as Brexiter as Farage (and thus recoup votes). His choice is to cut away from the EU and to veer towards Trump.
Neither Johnson nor any other Tory candidate think that Britain can develop as a walled-off economy. They want trade deals. Above all the top Tories want a trade deal with the USA, on Trump’s terms, with all the neoliberal provisos about investor rights and opening public services to profit-piracy. And with none of the dimensions of opening borders and limited social levelling-up which exist in the EU. They see that reorientation as a way to “complete the Thatcherite revolution” in Britain. To win that, they are willing to pay the price of a new “hard border’ in Ireland.
Socialists want to bring down borders, by free association between nations. A federal united Europe has been a left-wing slogan for over 100 years, and even back into the 19th century. Because the working class has not been able to take power and make that united Europe in a socialist way, and because the old system of walled-off states in Europe was unviable from any realistic point of view, the capitalist classes have made a quarter-united Europe in their own bureaucratic, neoliberal way.
The socialist answer must be to build on the quarter-progress, to push through it, rather than regress to the walled-off past or to prefer the US option. The fantasies of “Lexit” (a “left-wing” Brexit) faded long ago. In the months of jockeying in Parliament about Brexit formulas, none of the pro-Brexit Labour MPs have proposed anything Labour or leftish. They have supported one of the Tory options — May’s deal (perhaps with tweaks) or “no deal”. The Morning Star, the paper closest to the Labour Leader’s Office, backs the more right-wing Tory option: “no deal”. Lexit has become Texit — one or another form of Tory exit.
We don’t know how Johnson will try to finesse the difficulties that brought down Theresa May. All his options are risky. He may take the risk an early general election, or a snap referendum, timed in the hope of carrying it on the crest of a Tory-leader election victory. That prospect sharpens the choices further.
On 17 June, Labour’s right-wing deputy leader Tom Watson made a much-trailed speech calling for Labour to back Remain. Some in the Labour Party will say that proves Remain is a right-wing cause. It proves nothing of the sort. In 2016 most of the capitalist class backed Remain. They voted the same as most younger or big-city working-class people, but for different reasons.
The capitalists saw the status quo as safer than a dash for a US trade deal which might not come off, and for a “completed Thatcherite revolution” which might reduce the UK’s social infrastructure to the public squalor which prevails in the USA alongside private hyper-wealth. Working-class Remain voters valued EU’s freedom of movement and limited social levelling-up. For most of the Remain capitalists, those were acceptable prices to pay for the safety of the status quo. Since then most (not all) capitalists have settled for something like Theresa May’s deal — a formula to try to keep many of the trade and investment advantages of the EU, though not all, without the social elements. Working-class Remainers are, of course, not against keeping supply chains free-flowing. But for us, the core is to develop workers’ unity and build on the EU’s free movement and limited social levelling-up.
With a strong and clear argument along those lines, Labour can treat working-class Leave voters with respect (rather than trying to manipulate and placate them), and win many of them over. In case, socialist principle leaves no choice but to try. Remain is more a working-class cause now than it was in 2016, when the mass-media debate was conducted almost entirely between different shades of Tory opinion. Watson was a key mover in pushing Jeremy Corbyn to abandon the defence of free movement within Europe which Corbyn maintained for five months after the June 2016 referendum, before collapsing under pressure from Watson and nationalist-minded sections of the self-proclaimed left. He is not to be trusted now.
His new move is opportunist, designed to put him in line with the overwhelming majority of Labour opinion. But it is not a shift to the right. It is a feint to the left, such as right-wingers often make under pressure. That Watson’s speech appears as a threat to Jeremy Corbyn is entirely the fault of Corbyn and his leader’s office. After the Euro-elections, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, and John McDonnell rightly called for Labour to back a new public vote and say it would vote Remain. Corbyn eventually said that Labour should back a new public vote on any deal, but then (30 May) shelved that by saying a new vote was “some way off” and refusing to commit to back Remain in that new vote.
Many Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) are voting this month on their motions to go to the Labour Party conference in September. Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty are working with Labour for a Socialist Europe and Another Europe is Possible to push clear left-wing anti-Brexit, pro-new-vote motions. In other CLPs the decision on motions to conference will not be taken until nearer the final deadline on 12 September.
We will keep pushing in those areas. And we will be out on the streets. We will join left blocs and organise a clear socialist presence on the 20 July and 12 October anti-Brexit demonstrations. We will organise new and more vigorous local Labour for a Socialist Europe groups. We will be out in shopping centres with Labour for a Socialist Europe stalls, spreading the arguments, pulling in new supporters.
Dominic Raab has said he could “prorogue” Parliament — send it home, deny it a vote — in order to push through Brexit. The other Tory leader-candidates differ only in wanting to “prorogue” the whole electorate in order to do that. Don’t let them!