Notes From the Margins…

May’s Gambit

  • April 19, 2017
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Three years is a long time in politics, but for Theresa May, it clearly isn’t long enough. Only two days after telling the nation of her ‘sense’ that the country is ‘coming together’, the Vicar’s daughter has made it clear that she doesn’t want to remain in power until 2020: she wants to annihilate the opposition right now and entrench Tory rule for a decade or more.

On one level this isn’t a gamble in which May has much to lose, beyond her reputation as a ‘get the job done’ politician who doesn’t play ‘political games’.  This was already a lie to anyone with eyes, and her personal popularity suggests that a large section of the public either doesn’t have them, or simply doesn’t want to look.

Because what May is now doing is political manipulation and gameplaying at its most brazenly cynical.  It has nothing to do with ‘bringing the country together’.  Like Erdogan’s referendum in Turkey, it is a vindictive and ruthless power grab dressed up as democratic consultation,  intended to remove any parliamentary opposition to the Tory Party in general and to May and her hard Brexit clique in particular.

In her speech yesterday, May spoke of her government’s desire to pursue ‘  a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world.’   According to May objective was ‘  the right approach, and it is in the national interest. But the other political parties oppose it.’

To say that this falls short of the truth does not even begin to describe the lie that May has told here.  This decision was taken in the interests of the Tory Party and not the nation.   It is true that the other political parties have opposed aspects of Brexit, and have criticized May’s attempts to remove the negotiating process from parliamentary scrutiny, but such opposition has been muted and ineffectual – particularly from Labour, which virtually waved Article 50 through with a weary yawn.

Labour has fallen over itself in its eagerness to demonstrate that it does not oppose the referendum result.  But it has nevertheless insisted on membership of the single market and has given indications that it will vote against a deal that does not guarantee such membership.  This is where May is potentially weak, since she knows that there are Tories who might also vote against the government on the same basis, and that a 17-member majority might not be enough in the future to sustain her hardline position.

This is the real meaning of her chilling observation that ‘At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.’   Well of course there is division.  It’s called parliamentary democracy, and May’s juxtaposition of a divisive Westminster with a supposedly united nation is a blatant attempt to transform parliament into cheerleaders for Brexit.

I know there is a school of thought which suggests that May’s gambit is really a counterintuitive attempt to get a ‘soft Brexit’ in disguise, by shoring up her position within the Tory party, but this would credit the government with far more intelligence and common sense than it has shown so far.

It’s worth remembering that it was only on March 20 that May promised yet again that there would be no snap election, and just over two weeks since Article 50 was triggered.  In that time, the arrogance and stupidity of her aggressive negotiating position has already unraveled.   The EU has not accepted any of her main demands. There will be no cherry-picking and no trade negotiations until the terms of Brexit have been agreed.

In Europe, May looks like a clueless bluffer playing a poor hand.   But  she has interpreted her failure differently.  She seems to think that the EU has only adopted this position has another form of bluff, because it secretly believes that this position will induce the British public to change its mind.  So she wants to eliminate that possibility by winning a personal mandate and effectively making the British public complicit in her arrogant stupidity, and persuading them to sprint, rather than walk, with the government in its Lemming-like progress towards national oblivion.

She has a very good chance of succeeding.   The polls give her a lead of 18-21 one points over Labour, which remains in meltdown.  Many Labour MPs would clearly prefer to see Labour lose than see Corbyn win – not that there is the slightest possibility of the latter. Over the next six weeks Corbyn is likely to take the most vicious drubbing inflicted on any politician since Michael Foot, and many Labour MPs will be secretly enjoying every moment of it, apart from the ones who know their seats are at risk.

The ever more openly fascistic Daily Mail set the tone today with a screeching call to ‘Crush the saboteurs’.   The fact that no one has sabotaged anything will do nothing to mitigate such language over the next few weeks, in a campaign that is likely to drag the country even deeper into a pit of slime.   Despite the predictable ‘bring it on’ response from the usual suspects on the left, there is very real possibility that significant sections of the British public will accept this ‘stop the traitors’ line – or at the very least will accept May’s version of ‘stability’, the way they previously accepted Tory austerity.

In short, we are in truly dangerous political territory.   Only a few days ago the Daily Express was accusing the EU of vindictiveness because the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Agency look set to leave London.  The clue to these departures ought to be in the word ‘European’, but in the world of Brexit there are only ever two villains – the EU and the ‘fifth column’ of ‘Remoaners’ that conspires to thwart the ‘will of the people.’

May knows this perfectly well, and she knows that these newspapers will support her to the hilt.   The only way she can be stopped, to my mind, is through an anti-Tory alliance – regardless of whether you choose to call it a progressive alliance – which seeks to reduce the Tory majority and prevent May from getting the 400-odd seats that she clearly thinks she can win.

Such an alliance would be certainly difficult to achieve, and may prove impossible. Labour is unlikely to abandon its belief that it alone has the right to form a government, even when it patently has no chance of any such thing.   The Lib Dems are likely to be slippery partners and are too compromised by their years in coalition with the Tories to become a credible progressive force.

On one level it would suit them to see Labour destroyed, and to rebuild themselves by picking up Remain votes that see no hope in Corbyn, and they may well be content with that.    That said, there are things that Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru could agree on.   An anti-Tory alliance need not be presented as a for and against vote on Brexit itself, but on the terms of Brexit, and the right of parliament to scrutinise – and reject – any future deal that falls short of the government’s promises and leaves the country worse off than it already is.

There is also room for a common position on certain popular issues such as a defense of public services, social care and the NHS, opposition to Brexit ‘tax haven’ plans etc. Ultimately, such an alliance would have to put the broader cause of defending democracy over individual party interests, because regardless of the fact that May has just sought popular consultation, what she is really doing is attempting to remove one of the most critical political processes in British history from parliamentary scrutiny, and there is nothing democratic about that.

If she succeeds, the Vicar’s daughter will be able to do whatever she wants, even if it is clear that she and her fellow-fanatics are terrifyingly out of their depth and barely understand what they are able to do.   Unless something truly astonishing takes place over the next six weeks, May has effectively swapped the certainty of three more years for the very real possibility of a de facto one party state.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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