Theresa May visits Angela Merkel in Germany in July 2016. Photo: Flickr/Number 10 Theresa May visits Angela Merkel in Germany in July 2016. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

Divisions and rifts run rife in the Conservative Party as they try to figure out what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means explains Chris Bambery

While attention has, for good reason, focused on Jeremy Corbyn and the battle for the Labour Party, splits and divisions over Europe still continue to haunt the Tories.

Theresa May has made it clear “Brexit means Brexit” and there’s clearly no serious will in the Tory ranks to try and overturn the referendum result: they’ve looked at the polls and how the Tory support voted. But there is a growing row about what Brexit means.

The developing split is between those who are desperate to retain access to the EU’s single market, representing the bulk of British business, and those who want a “hard Brexit.” The former camp includes Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The latter David Davies, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox.

May is balancing between the two camps.

What makes matters interesting is that May put Johnson, Davis and Fox in charge of negotiating Britain’s departure. Not only are they divided over a soft or hard Brexit but all summer Fox fought a turf war with Johnson over whether his department or the Foreign Office was in charge of matters.

The story swirling around Westminster is that May appointed the trio in expectation they’d fail and would be discredited. May would then be relieved of the key Brexiteers in her cabinet and left to oversee matters herself.

We got a taste of divisions within the cabinet earlier this week when May slapped down the idea of introducing a quota system for migrants, espoused by many of the leading Brexiteers, particularly Boris Johnson. This was seen as a slap in the face for BoJo. His two colleagues, Davis and Fox publicly backed the premier.

Cynics might believe this attack was aimed at grabbing domestic media attention, diverting it from the embarrassment of May’s performance at the G20 summit where she had no answers to queries about Britain’s new vision for its world role. The Japanese government went public demanding clarity on this, and Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Japanese car firms and other investors in Britain want to know.

The soft Brexit envisages Britain negotiating to stay in the EU’s single market. But already the Hard Brexit Tories are saying the price of this will be accepting free movement of labour with the EU, something they will not accept. Johnson and Hammond are thought more likely to compromise on this.

The problem for the soft Brexit brigade is that the deals Norway, Switzerland and other small non-EU states for accessing the Single Market means not just do they sign up to free movement of labour but they accept EU legislation and pay money into the EU’s coffers. If that was the deal on offer (it’s a big if!) the Tories would be hopelessly divided.

A majority of British capitalism (or the capital based here to be more precise) want access to the single market. The City of London and finance are lobbying to prioritising the maintenance of “passporting,” which allows them to make deals in any EU state. Philip Hammond has indicated that will be his priority.

But a report in This is Money suggests a section of Britain’s financial sector is moving away from trying to negotiate retention of passporting to trading on the basis of “equivalence,” having equivalent regulations to Brussels. They argue some US financial firms offer services to clients in the EU on this basis.

These are mainly hedge funds, many of whom backed the Leave campaign in the referendum, because they disliked EU limits on bonus payments and the tighter capital controls they demanded as part of a tougher regulatory system.

On a wider scale the Hard Brexit camp see the UK, with or without Scotland, negotiating free trade deals with other states through the World Trade Organisation. Many think Britain should simply declare it will operate on the basis of free trade and let other states play ball.

In reality things aren’t so simple. Let’s take the case of India. May met the Indian prime minister, Modi, at the G20. He indicated that in negotiations over a possible trade deal one thing he’d demand was an easing of visa restrictions for Indian citizens. That would not go down well on the Tory backbenches.

But what would India want from Britain in return for such a deal. The one thing Britain could offer was to provide more arms and to enter into a defence pact. That would alienate Pakistan and anger both China and the USA. Retaining Britain’s slavish alliance with the USA is the one thing that unites the Tories.

Underlying the lack of any plan B for British capitalism is the long term failure to address the UK’s relentless economic decline. Fans of Thatcher like to pretend she did but she didn’t. Rather having destroyed sections of industry seen as being unprofitable she had no strategy to replace them. The City of London, always adaptable, stepped into the breach with its agenda – which meant being let off the leash.

Many in finance must sense that Germany in particular might do a deal. The German ruling class preferred Britain being in the EU on balance because it meant the City was inside the tent pissing out. Now it will be outside the tent.

Meanwhile there is no agreement on when the UK should trigger Article 50, starting the formal negotiations over leaving the EU within a two year deadline. May has said it won’t be before January 2017 but many believe she’ll delay until the French and German elections are out of the way later next year. That means the Brexit deal would be agreed in the build up to the 2020 Westminster general election, and the danger there is that it becomes a central issue in that election, reviving Tory dissension over Europe.

Above all there is clearly no plan for Brexit. On Monday [5 September] David Davis delivered a much heralded speech to the House of Commons which we’d been told would reveal much, if not all. In reality it was waffle.

Incredibly so confident was David Cameron’s government of securing a Remain vote, there was not a team of senior civil servants charged with plotting a blueprint for Brexit in case the vote went Leave. It is no way to run a business let alone a supposed great power.

Since the June vote things don’t seemed to have got much better.

A former British ambassador, Charles Crawford, writes in The Telegraph that he asked a senior diplomat to a major EU state what he’d been instructed to say about Brexit, privately and publicly. The reply was. “we don’t have any instructions.”

For some four decades the Tories were divided over Britain’s membership of the EU. That has not gone away, despite the referendum result. Its May’s luck the chaos within Labour means the lack of any coherent opposition beyond the 56 SNP MPs lets her off the hook repeatedly (Jeremy of course is not to blame for this, his Labour opponents are).

So what to do?

One danger is in lining up with those demanding a referendum re-run. They are overwhelmingly middle class and scornful of working people in Sunderland, Barnsley and Newport who voted Leave, despite the increasing evidence they were doing so in order to kick back against the elite. Listening to people on last weekend’s march in support of a re-run referendum suggesting poor people without an education should be denied the vote I was not just sickened but thought those people have got plenty more worries than you have about your second home in the Dordogne or your sibling accessing the Erasmus programme.

So let’s not go there.

Opposition to May is going to have to come from outside parliament. Having deposed George Osborne and ripped up his austerity programme we need to keep up the pressure. First stop the People’s Assembly demonstration next month outside the Tory conference in Birmingham. That also means building support and solidarity for the junior doctors across the length and breadth of the land. This is a crucial battle which the May government is determined to win, and is already employing every dirty trick it knows.

Secondly, we should be demanding free access for all EU citizens, come what may, but also attacking the EU over the horror of what is happening in the Mediterranean and its shabby deal with Erdogan in Turkey to remove refugees from Europe to camps there.

But we also need to be putting forward our alternative agenda based on boosting growth via state investment, prioritising welfare, sorting out the appalling housing situation and the desperate need for a programme of industrial growth. To their credit Corbyn, John McDonnell and Dianne Abbott are trying to do that in trying circumstances.

This was very much the meat of the pro-independence campaign in Scotland two years ago. The Corbyn phenomenon means its moving centre stage in England and Wales – it would be music to the ears of Leave voters in the likes of Sunderland, Barnsley and Newport.

One of May’s first acts was to merge the Department for Energy and Climate Change  with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to create the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This was rightly seen as demoting the need to tackle climate change but it was sold on the new department having its priority a programme of industrial regeneration. What’s happened to that? We should be demanding and popularising our own programme.

A simple demand is to axe the Hinkley Point C Nuclear plant and divert the cash into the NHS.

In Scotland the Radical Independence Campaign is reforming with a conference on 1 October, in expectation of a second independence referendum. One thing it aims at doing is linking up with allies south of the border who share its concerns and its vision.

Brexit opens up a debate about where Britain is going, and where Scotland is. In terms of what sort of economy and society we need there is a growing consensus in both countries about the need to hammer out a radical programme – from the Corbyn camp to many in the SNP. Co-operation is possible and necessary.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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