Theresa May's statement to the Commons. Photo: BBC Theresa May's statement to the Commons. Photo: BBC

John Rees counts the days left for the Prime Minister

After two years of negotiations, endless hours of debate, a whirlwind tour of the country to sell her Brexit deal, it all ended in humiliation as Theresa May was forced to postpone a Parliamentary vote for lack of support.

This is truly a rudderless government adrift in a storm of its own creation. Once David Cameron had unleashed a popular vote on the European Union, and once the referendum had voted to leave, it was always likely to end like this.

This is what it looks like when a ruling class party saddles itself with a policy diametrically opposed to the desires of the majority of big business. The natural allies and sources of support are now being denied to the government.

Theresa May’s helplessness is a direct function of the fact that her party is too divided to accurately reflect the majority view of the major corporations, which is steadfastly in favour of membership of the European Union.

But the government’s attempt to escape the sword of Damocles is unlikely to be successful.

It’s one thing to shelve Plan A if you have a Plan B. But May’s statement to the Commons made it absolutely clear that the very best she can hope for from the European Union is some more ‘assurances’ over the Northern Ireland backstop.

But, firstly, there is no real evidence that the only objection to her deal is to do with that backstop. Many of her own MPs, both Remainers and Brexiteers, have much wider objections than that. It is highly unlikely that they will become enthusiastic supporters of the deal simply because the EU increases the number of meaningless reassuring flourishes to the text already on offer.

And even if the Northern Ireland backstop were the only, or the main, objection that many MPs have, it is absolutely clear that May believes that the backstop will be part of any deal when it eventually makes its way to the floor of the House of Commons.

So what we have here is delay with no purpose. There will be no new deal, and no substantive change to the Northern Ireland backstop.

Meanwhile, with every day that passes, a government consumed by the divisions within its own party is signally failing to govern the country.

It is now a daily occurrence to find new reports of record poverty, inequality, cuts, austerity, falling wages, and imperilled services dominating the press.

In every corner of the country, in every working class community, desperation is growing. Alongside it, there is frank incredulity that the government could take so long to achieve so little.

This is a government which has lost far more than a Parliamentary majority. It is a government that has lost every last shred of popular legitimacy. It is a government that has few friends on its own backbenches, never mind support from the people.

There is no solution to this political crisis in a second referendum. Indeed, a second referendum would allow the government to claim that it has consulted the people on the key issue of the day, will respect their view, and remain in office.

A second referendum is practically the only political manoeuvre which can now save the Tory government.

It would of course, not even address the issues of austerity and plummeting living standards which, outside the political class, are the issues uppermost in working people’s minds.

The majority of MPs would like to remain in the European Union, but party divisions, and the irremovable obstacle of the popular vote for leave, prevents them from assembling a majority to enact the favourite outcome of big business. A second referendum might give that chance. But it would do so at the cost of postponing a general election, lengthening perhaps fatally, the period over which the momentum of Corbynism has to be sustained to win a general election.

The political crisis can now only begin to be resolved by a general election. The political process is imploding, and the political establishment have no way out of the disaster they have created.

The duration of the logjam in Parliamentary politics has simply been lengthened by May’s announcement.

It is time now for all of us who have had to watch the car crash of the Brexit negotiations unfold before our eyes to end our period as spectators, and to enter the field as actors in our own right.

The whole labour movement and the left need to unite behind a project of forcing the political class to call a general election and pave the way for a Corbyn government. Only this can begin to reverse the effects of austerity, effects which are of far greater significance to the lives of working people than the outcome of the Brexit debate.

We must concentrate our minds, and mobilise our supporters, to make sure that a moment of supreme weakness for the British establishment does not go unexploited by the labour movement.

The issue that has caused this division is the European Union, but what could be gained by the labour movement is so much greater than any outcome of the Brexit debate.

Neoliberalism and austerity have blighted working people’s lives for two generations. To begin the business of reversing that historic attack would be of a wholly greater significance than the Brexit debate.

The Tories divisions over Brexit have given us an opportunity far greater than we might have expected. It is time now to mobilise, protest, and demonstrate that we simply will not tolerate the rule of this shambles of a government any longer.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.