Brexit is destructive. It means higher borders between countries, and a drive by the British government to slip down from EU-agreed social standards to what will suit getting a trade deal with the USA.
That’s true for any Brexit, and even more true for the “no deal” Brexit the Tories are edging towards.
Also, the moment of Brexit is bound to bring turmoil and dislocation. Even if you think that will be passing, and worth it in the long run, those will be complications which should be avoided when trying to devise virus-control policies in the depths of winter.
Since the Tories have a large majority, Labour may now not be able to stop Brexit, or even to delay it. But a government crisis caused by Tory resistance to Johnson’s “no deal”, “break international law” bias is still possible. In any case, not being able to stop Brexit is a different matter from positively approving it, or from offering to help the Tories out of their difficulties (even if the “offer” is a bit of “cunning” hypocrisy, designed in fact to sharpen the Tories’ internal divisions).
Yet Labour leader Keir Starmer has called on the Tories to “get Brexit done”. He offered to support the government’s Brexit plans if they dropped the element allowing them to make customs and state aid regulations inconsistent with the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
Strictly speaking, Starmer was “only” offering to support the Internal Market Bill – which got through on “Second Reading” with many Tories abstaining and will surely have trouble further down the road. But that is no excuse for the headline “Tories, get on with it” message.
The Internal Market Bill specifically breaches the Withdrawal Agreement, a treaty which the Tories signed with the EU. The government admits that. The Bill also allows ministers to make customs and state aid regulations regardless of their incompatibility with “any rule of international or domestic law whatsoever”.
Partly, the Tories may be hyping it up to squeeze last-minute concessions out of the EU, in the way that the USA tried to get concessions from Vietnam in the 1970s by offering the “madman doctrine” (“you can do a deal — or, you know, [president] Nixon is a madman, he might resort to nuclear bombs”). But they are also working to evade democratic scrutiny by Parliament, the courts, and society, and thus implement regressive, anti-working class policies more freely – in the spirit of populist right-wing regimes around the world, and in the spirit of Johnson’s attempt to send Parliament home in August 2019.
The evidence suggests that Johnson positively wants a “disaster Brexit” — “no deal”, or some botched last-minute formula adopted with little scrutiny — so that he can use the chaos, throwing society off balance, to rush through right-wing policies.
Even John Major and Tony Blair have been more vocal than Starmer about condemning Johnson.
At the TUC’s online Congress, 14-15 September, Starmer will call on Johnson to “Get your priorities right. Get on with defeating the virus”.
But if Starmer was serious about focusing on the pandemic, he would at least call for Brexit to be delayed, not sped through so that Brexit turmoil complicates and impedes virus-control policies.
Labour should at least call for a lengthy pause to deal with the virus and subject the growing Brexit mess to proper democratic discussion and accountability.
The row about the Internal Market Bill may be the harbinger of bigger crises over Brexit over the next months. The labour movement must be prepared for that; and it can only be prepared by telling the truth now about what the Tories are doing.
Remaining silent or hypocritically endorsing their plans is no substitute.