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Boris Johnson in Downing Street

Boris Johnson in Downing Street. Photo: Andrew Parsons / Number 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Whichever way the prime minister looks, he is presented with a circle of problems that is becoming increasingly difficult to square, argues Martin Hall

It’s been a bad two weeks for the Vote Leave faction in Downing St. The departure of communications chief Lee Cain was followed by the announcement that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s Chief Advisor, had quit.

The victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election has played a part, too. While we shouldn’t overstate the importance of Trump losing in considering what’s going on in the UK executive, it is the case that it has made it easier for the majority wing of British capital to reassert itself against the outliers. There will be no friend of Brexit and insurgent right populism sitting in the White House. There are few, if any, friends of Dominic Cummings sitting in number 10.

What is clear is that 11 months on from the show of Tory unity in the general election, the cracks within the ruling class over the UK’s direction of travel regarding trade and international alliances are showing stronger than ever.

Despite the attempt by the Vote Leave faction and their supporters in the corporate media to portray a doughty prime minister, determined to lead a Britain ruling the waves once more, and face down the naysayers at home and abroad, and in Brexit terms the opposite poll of the liberal media presenting a picture of the lunatics taking over the asylum, it was always likely that the interests of the state, the City and big business would align with majority opinion in the Tory party in an attempt to reclaim control.

While the last election returned a majority of leavers in the Tory ranks for the first time, that doesn’t equate to a mass of populist, alt-right insurgents prepared to go to war with their own backers.

As talks recommence in Brussels, Boris Johnson has no good options regarding Brexit right now. He is at heart a pragmatist, not an ideologically-driven Brexiter, and while the former tendency has won out for the present, it’s not clear which of the unpalatable choices on the table he’ll lean towards over the coming period. What is the case is that his bargaining position is severely weakened at present, whichever way he goes.

If he keeps down the road he’s on, and continues to try to push the Internal Market Bill through, and refuses to back down on the level playing field issues regarding state funding, he might not get a deal and there will be all sorts of potential issues for business, from delays in ‘just in time’ supply chains to a withdrawal of passporting for financial services. His friends, donors and much of his party won’t like that.

Moreover, he’ll be doing it without a friend in the White House. This has weakened this option, regardless of how likely or not a quick trade deal with the US ever was.

If he returns to negotiations with Brussels and gives any indication of being conciliatory, he’ll be in such a position of weakness after almost a year and a half of hard-headed bravado that it is hard to envision how he won’t end up with a poor agreement that will privilege the interests of the EU, leave the UK subject to many of its rules without a seat at the table, and render it incapable of striking trade deals and intervening as it sees fit economically. Sovereignty will be up in smoke. His base won’t like that. Neither will leave voters in general.

At the moment, he’s still making defiant noises, and stating that that he’ll force through the Internal Market Bill – recently rejected by the House of Lords –  on the grounds that it’s the only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement.  His chief negotiator is sounding confident, and Johnson has reiterated his belief that the UK will prosper if a deal is not agreed in time for the end of the transitional period on December 31st.

Of course, he has to do this at present.

That being said, it’s probably not just bluster. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of what some are calling the “law-breaking clauses” in the Internal Market Bill for Tory Brexiters. They are key in concrete terms to the future use of state aid as they see it, and perhaps more importantly for the entire Brexit project as sold, key to sovereignty. Furthermore, they are seen by the government as critical to the UK’s integrity and as a vital protection against a Brussels interpretation of the Irish protocol that will divide the UK – for example, in the event of any future dispute.

If Johnson continues to go down this road, he will be calculating that the EU 27 won’t lose a valuable free trade deal over this question.

What is the wider context of the position Johnson is in? U-turn and concession after U-turn and concession. A British public seeing at close hand the devastating effects of the continued farming out of contracts to the Tories’ mates, as Serco’s role in the total failure of test and trace becomes clearer and clearer – with an underfunded NHS getting further stretched by the Covid crisis, perhaps to breaking point.

Of course, the Tories were never going to use Brexit to firm up the public sector, and give it the impetus it needs to withstand the ravages of neoliberal outsourcing. They were never going to use the freedom that being out of the EU represents to step into industrial disputes, such as that going on currently in Barnoldswick involving striking Rolls Royce workers.

But they will want to use spending as they see fit in areas where they will consider it in the interests of British business.

Also, they are playing a dangerous game with their newfound supporters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’, where there is increasing evidence that support from those first-time Tory voters is ebbing away, as anger rises over the inadequacy of the measures put in place for workers and business during lockdown.

This drives home once more just quite how disastrous Labour’s Brexit position was going into the last general election. That rising anger is not finding expression in the Labour Party, notwithstanding new initiatives from its left trying to hold Starmer to account for the change of direction between 2017 and 2019, and in the process trying to rebuild trust in those areas lost to Labour.

The likelihood of the first party of capital realigning with the majority of its backers – either through a softer Brexit or an increase in crony capitalism outside the EU – was a principal reason why the insurgent case for a Brexit from the left was so vital, particularly at a time when the second party of capital was led by a socialist – one capable of clearly outlining and fighting for a Brexit in the interests of working people, and in so doing channelling the anger people felt in deindustrialised areas ravaged by free trade, the privileging of the market, and years of being taken for granted by Labour governments.

The left needs to continue to find ways to articulate that, and find its way back into those communities in every way possible. 

For Johnson, on the other hand, whichever direction he faces presents problems. If he steps down in his face-off with the EU, he risks an outpouring of anger from leave voters, and few benefits from Brexit. If he keeps going down the narrowing path that he’s on, he’ll be doing it with fewer friends to walk with him along the way, both close at hand and over the Atlantic.

And time is tight.

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