With her precious Brexit deal thoroughly defeated in parliament for a second-time, Theresa May seems to have finally run out of road. Commentators on all sides are imploring the war-weary prime minister to stop flogging a dead horse and move on. But where can she go from here? The Tory government is in office but not in power. One disaster follows another in a never-ending circle. May looks (and sounds) like a dead-woman walking.
The result of last night’s vote came as a surprise to nobody. Even the scale of the defeat, with May losing by 149 votes, elicited little more than a shrug. After weeks of pleading in vain for more concessions from Brussels, the Tory leader herself no doubt expected her deal to be firmly rejected once again. Yet she had no option but to plough on.
Now MPs will face two more consecutive votes as the Brexit clock runs down. Tonight, parliament will choose whether to depart from the EU without a deal. Assuming this is voted down, tomorrow the House of Commons will decide whether to extend the rapidly approaching Article 50 deadline beyond 29 March.
This latter course of action is the most likely scenario. But it is merely another can-kicking exercise, solving precisely nothing. At the end of the day, there needs to be a majority for some sort of alternative to the default option of a no-deal, train-crash Brexit. Yet parliament has proven, time after time, that it is completely paralysed over this question.
Exasperated EU leaders, meanwhile, are in no mood to offer an extension if it simply going to result in further months of confused squabbling.
Jeremy Corbyn has therefore correctly called for a general election to break the Brexit deadlock. No doubt this will cause consternation amongst the remaining Remainers inside the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). But the truth is that there is no majority for their preferred option of a second referendum either.
Old Mother Hubbard
With the different factions at each others' throats, the May government increasingly resembles a Mad Hatters’ Tea Party. In exchange for their support, many Conservative MPs are demanding their leader’s head on a plate.
Several cabinet ministers have said Theresa May should announce her resignation plans in order to keep the party together. Few believe she will remain in office for long after Britain’s departure from the EU.
Having escaped a vote of no confidence at the end of last year, and with her ill-fated Brexit deal now well and truly dead, May is facing mounting pressure to resign. It is clear that her political life is coming to an end. Like Old Mother Hubbard, she has nothing to offer.
“Nobody in the cabinet thinks she will still be prime minister by the end of the year,” said one cabinet minister. “I suspect the ‘men in grey suits’ will be visiting soon after Brexit day.”
These mysterious “men in suits” are the Tory ‘grandees’, who tell unpopular leaders when their time is up. Soon they will be knocking on the prime minister’s door at Number 10 Downing Street.
Today’s Tory party, however, is no longer that of Eden, Macmillan or even Churchill. That was destroyed by the Thatcherites.
This political degeneration is part and parcel of the ignominious decline of British capitalism. These once far-sighted representatives of big business now cannot see beyond the end of their own noses.
These days, it is the Tory right-wingers in the shires who have control. The inmates have taken over the asylum and have transformed the Conservatives into an intensely reactionary, Eurosceptic party.
David Cameron once described the UKIP membership as “closet racists”, “fruitcakes” and “loons”. This now accurately describes the rank-and-file of the Tory party. Furthermore, party ‘democracy’ has given these rabid reactionaries the right to elect the Tory leader.
Rather than representing the interests of big business, as has been their traditional role, the Tory party has been taken over by narrow ‘sectional’ interests.
The plea by David Cameron “not to keep banging on about Europe” fell on deaf ears. Euroscepticism poisoned the entire organism. The more that Tory leaders (and potential leaders) “banged on about Europe”, the more popular they were in the backward ranks of the party.
This led eventually to the disastrous EU referendum, the result of which shocked and horrified big business. Brexit has produced the biggest open split in the ruling class for 200 years.
House of Cards
Whichever way May turns she alienates one side or the other. She is desperate to prevent a split in the Tory party. But every time she tilts towards the Eurosceptics, she ends up angering the Tory Remainers. This has even resulted in the departure of three ‘moderate’ Tory MPs, who have joined up with a layer of Blairites to form The Independent Group.
The men in grey suits are busy looking for a way out of this intractable impasse. They managed to avoid such a scenario last time with May’s coronation. They pulled this off to avoid a catastrophe. But now the situation is far more precarious.
May has lost all respect. There is a whiff of doom about the whole government. Leading players are busy jockeying for the coming Tory leadership election. Such people are very ruthless when it comes to self-interest and political careers.
Cabinet leaks are increasingly common. Open threats of government resignation and rebellions are increasingly numerous. Smears are not unknown. Behind the scenes, divisions and factions abound within the ruling circles. The clubs in Pall Mall must be awash with gossip and the bars around Westminster flush with rumours.
It is like a real-life version of the House of Cards. All the hallmarks are there: the cynicism, intrigues, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and backstabbing – all washed down with several large glasses of gin and tonic.
The race is on
The main problem for the grandees of the Tory Party is: who could replace May? Who is the “safe pair of hands”?
Two years ago, the establishment deemed May to be such a “safe pair of hands”. But her premiership has turned out to be a disaster. This reflects the parlous state of British capitalism. Whatever the ruling class does – and whomever they choose – will turn out to be wrong.
The Tory MPs have the power to select two candidates for Tory leader. Then the Tory ranks get to pick the winner. Of course, for them, the more right-wing and Eurosceptic, the better!
The race is already on. The most ambitious are already jockeying to be chosen, feverishly working behind the scenes – and even out in the open.
At the moment, Boris Johnson seems to be a front runner, with the support of his svengali, Jacob Rees Mogg. But Johnson is still disliked by his colleagues, and was forced out of the race in 2016. He was regarded as a useless foreign secretary.
Nevertheless, he is well-known – a darling of the Tory rank and file. His racist remarks about burka-wearing Muslim women “looking like letter boxes” and black people having “watermelon smiles” go down extremely well with these bigots.
The other Eurosceptic contender is Dominic Raab, a former Brexit secretary. A grassroots “Ready for Raab” campaign on social media is actively promoting his candidacy.
Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, may seek to win round both Remainers and Leavers. But his remarks that the EU was like the Soviet Union may limit his appeal.
“Jeremy’s hopes are resting on coming through the middle, as a calm voice amid the madness, like John Major,” said one minister. “But the problem is, the more he tries to appeal to the right of the party, he is losing the left. No one really knows where he stands.”
Sajid Javid, home secretary, is also likely to throw his hat into the ring. While popular with Tory MPs, he is less popular in the Tory membership, given the racism in the ranks.
In another era, Philip Hammond, the most pro-business of May’s cabinet, would have been a prime choice. But he has scuttled any ambitions of becoming leader with his support for the softest of Brexits.
“In doing so I made myself deeply unpopular with the group that actually decides the leadership of the party,” Hammond admitted in an interview with the Financial Times. He has become the scourge of the Tory Brexiteers.
One Tory backbencher drew a cricketing analogy, which summed things up: “This leadership race looks like a selection for the fourth 11.”
For a socialist Labour government
The lack of real talent in the Tory party is an accurate reflection of the position of British capitalism. To paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian: every ruling class gets the leadership it deserves.
From one of the most stable countries in Europe, Britain has become one of the most unstable. The ruling class and their ‘representatives’ are in a tight spot. They are left defending a system that is falling apart; futilely attempting to uphold a broken status quo.
“Britain misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity” was an old Fenian slogan. Likewise, with the Tories in a mess, it is now Labour's opportunity – to force a general election.
Labour must go on the offensive. May and her ragtag government are in disarray. And yet the right wing of the Labour Party are directing their attacks not against the Tories, but inwardly against Corbyn and the Left.
A bold general election campaign, however, could cut through this, putting the Blairites on the back-foot. This was seen in 2017, when Corbyn responded to May’s snap election call by putting forward an inspiring programme of left-wing policies, backed up by a dynamic campaign of mass rallies and door-knocking.
This is what is needed once again to end the stalemate in parliament. Only by kicking out the Tories and bringing a socialist Labour government to power can we end the Brexit crisis and solve the problems facing working-class communities across the country.