Saturday, 23 March 2019

Theresa May and the Death of the Tory Party

A thousand obituaries have been written for Theresa May, and yet she's defied every single one of them. From the moment she bungled the election, the fall out from Grenfell Tower, and the long, calamitous June we've endured for nigh on two years, the premier-ship has weathered all storms. Sure, her first major squall smashed the bridge completely and swept her two most important - and able - lieutenants out to sea. But it also locked steering into position, ensuring subsequent buffeting by turbulence or tempest failed to knock her from her unidirectional course. Not even gaping chunks shot out of the hull by some of the worst defeats ever suffered by a government failed to sink the vessel. And as she limped into port, the deck in tatters and the sails but rags streaming from the masts, it looked like May inadvertently scuttled herself.

It wasn't just May's ill-advised choice of words and tone that marked the end of the road, it's the test she set herself. Last Sunday with the PM's blessing, cabinet members did the rounds to say the deal wouldn't be coming back if support can't be mustered for it. Come the week the Speaker was minded to rule out its return thanks to parliamentary standing orders, and in the days since the EU issued their two-lane extension - 12th April if May's deal wasn't agreed and nothing else was forthcoming, and 22nd May if it was to get the supplementary legislation through - the hard Brexit right and the DUP cried foul and reiterated their opposition. Then came her disastrous public address. There was no way, not even the remotest likelihood a third try could clear the Commons. For someone with no reverse gear, who confuses obstinacy for leadership, this is a recipe for paralysis. You could quite easily see May doing nothing except for pantomiming negotiations and waiting for the clock to run down again to get the deal through.

If the Twitter buzz retailing rumours and rumours of rumours is correct, then the end truly is upon us. Reporting earlier on Saturday, Alex Wickham of Buzzfeed had the low down on an awkward but fruitless encounter between the Tory whips' office and May. To all intents and purposes they told her to go. And the gossip about unnamed minister texting unnamed minister with a view to decanting May from Number 10 acquired substance as "Shippers" chimed in. He claims 11 ministers are planning to tell May to go at Cabinet on Monday, including Michael Gove who has "secretly assembled" a leadership campaign team. What chance an orderly transition after May? Um ...

Ordinarily, if a Prime Minister steps down the deputy takes over as caretaker until they are replaced by a new leader. On this occasion, this would be David Lidington - an otherwise anonymous and not obviously objectionable Tory, at least compared to the other "characters" that make up the government. The problem with Lidington, according to "Shippers", is that he's quite prepared to do Brexit as the full customs union with single market access monty, with the backing of the Labour Party. Curious that Sajid Javid is counted among the Leavers-for-Lidington, while Jeremy Hunt is very much not in favour of such a proposal. Even more bizarre is Gove who, despite his popularity among the backbenchers and the most prominent Tory in the Leave campaign after Boris Johnson, also has the hots for Labour's position, at least according to self-appointed ERG shop steward Steve Baker. Is this what hegemony looks like? Is Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister already?

For Tory watchers, this is very exciting. The left's path to and retention of power involves the disruption of the Tories and the dispersal of their voter coalition. Happily, they're on the verge of doing this necessary job themselves. For the government to adopt Labour's approach to Brexit will cause a major schism. The ERG and their friends will cry betrayal, of course, and Nigel Farage is sure to go through the "this ain't Brexit" motions. With luck, the hard right will decamp and split the party from top to bottom - but that's expecting a bit too much. As per their friends on the Labour right (literal friends, in some cases) who have a record of demobilising their base, what is more likely is their shrieks and squeals to start prising apart the Tories' electoral coalition and driving a wedge between the Conservative Party and those hard right voters for whom the hardest Brexit has become an S&M fantasy. Not ideal when your coalition is old, isn't replacing itself, and when leaving the EU is the glue holding the shebang together.

For May, the writing is on the wall and she will be remembered as a terrible Prime Minister. Even so, she has rendered a valuable service. In spite of herself she has led the Tory party to the brink of immolation. If the whole thing is touched off and goes up like a bomb, then history might be kinder to her than she could ever hope it to be.

The Revolution Will Be Podcasted

Last week at the Media Democracy festival, Juliet Jacques of Suite 212 fame hosted a discussion under 'Podcasts - a tool for political change?'. Joining her on the panel was Jack Frayne-Reid of Mike Gapes's favourite podcast, Reel Politik (see link below), James Shield filling in at the last minute for Ayeisha Thomas-Smith of the New Economics Foundation podcast, and lastly Riley Quinn from TrashFuture.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Signature Politics

There was a time when a good part of my political work was organised around petitions. For calling attention to an issue and, of course, selling the ubiquitous newspapers, we found them a handy tool. As a form of activism or expression of solidarity, signing a petition is the least time consuming and cost-free type of political participation there is - bar sharing a Facebook post or retweeting something. This is why people need to calm down about the Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU petition currently ongoing and be clear about what it can achieve.

It clearly has tapped into something. After last night's disgraceful address of the nation by Theresa May, millions are incensed and exasperated at her pathetic attempt to annex the public to her project. The petition then is an outlet, of remain supporters forcing their way into the parliamentary process by the only means constitutionally afforded them inbetween elections. Speaking earlier in the Commons, Andrea Leadsom summed up the government's attitude by saying they will take a serious look at it once it has topped 17.4m signatures. At just over two million at the time of writing, there's a way to go.

Nevertheless, the petition is good organising and publicity fodder. It has dominated Twitter all day, which guarantees prime billing across all the new sites, and is good for raising awareness about this weekend's second referendum march - a demonstration likely to have a larger official(ish) Labour contingent on it than last October's. No doubt the demonstration will be very large - but is it going to make a difference?

It depends on what your objectives are and why you're on the march. While previously there were plenty of speakers and so-called notable personalities who used their remain creds to attack the Labour Party, a repeat might not be on the cards. Labour's signalled willingness to go for a second referendum over and above accepting May's deal, and Corbyn's careful refusal to rule out revoking Article 50 (who says he can't do the clever-clever?) is good position-taking from the standpoint of shoring up the party's voter coalition. We know there are (and still are) people active in the People's Vote movement whose dedication to the cause has a thing or two to do with driving a wedge between Labour's leadership and the mostly pro-remain base of Corbynism, especially among younger activists and voters. Not only has Labour's referendum and Article 50 pirouettes helped draw the sting from the issue, the decamping of Corbynism's worst critics to the absurd Independent Group has exposed their long-term intentions, put paid to their wrecking scheme and damaged their standing among their peers in the upper echelons of Remain. These people were only useful in so far as they were levers on Labour's position of "constructive ambiguity", and their use now is, well, not much.

In wider terms however, it won't make any difference to Theresa May. There could be three, four million people marching down the Embankment and surrounding Westminster and she wouldn't budge. Not because of her ruinous obstinance or "leadership", but because she knows those taking to the streets aren't her people. The march against the Iraq war, for example, was neither sufficiently aggro - as per the anti-poll tax campaign - nor composed of people who would make much of a difference in general election terms. Ever the cynic, Tony Blair knew that with the Tories four square behind his plans, the LibDems much, much smaller, and the threat from the far left derisory he calculated he could go for it and safely assume the 2005 general election wouldn't cause Labour much bother. And so it proved. May knows a demonstration of remainers, no matter how big it is, is never going to cause her party trouble - and is one reason why she's far more invested in pandering to her right flank than the liberally-Cameroony Tories of the Justine Greening/Dominic Grieve type.

Therefore, from the standpoint of putting pressure on May it won't. And with news coming through that the EU are prepared to grant an unconditional extension to 12th April, she can go about playing for time again. But in so doing, she's accelerating the welcome doom of the Tories. May is ensuring her party cops the lion share of the blame for the Brexit fiasco, and events like this Saturday's march are an episode, a moment, in consolidating a solid bloc of growing anti-Tory voters that could keep them out of government for a very long time indeed.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

An Authoritarian Without Authority

Brexit is deep in logic denying territory. It's almost as if events are actively gaslighting those paying close attention to them, so let us consider the events of the last few days in an effort to keep hold of our collective sanity.

Over the weekend, May indicated she planned on dragging her deal back to the Commons for the third time. Again, having learned nothing from the fourth and the all-time worst defeats ever inflicted on a government, she thought it would be a simple task to to table it again. There were also indicators from some hard leavers, like Esther McVey, that they were prepared to stomach her deal because it was the nearest to their idea of Brexit they were ever going to get. And the possibility of the DUP changing their minds thanks to more Northern Ireland cash was talked up in an effort to create a buzz, or at least an impression of movement. Why? In the hope of shunting a few Labour MPs in the direction of the deal too.

And then John Bercow happened.

The government protesting against his "ambush" is, as with all things the Tories say about their opponents, completely disingenuous. At the very beginning of the meaningful vote process the Speaker plainly and bluntly stated the government would not be allowed to keep bringing the same deal back after its defeat, as per the rules of the parliamentary rule book, Erskine May, and upheld on several occasions since 1604. In fact, by allowing it to come back a second time you might argue the Speaker has shown considerable leeway and generosity. To get around this, the government have to do more than just find another form of words. They could put forward their deal with Labour's second referendum amendment, or negotiate something different. Instead, they have threatened to refuse Bercow a peerage - the second time this pathetic threat has been aired - and proceeded as the Speaker hadn't ruled on the matter, talking up other obscure parliamentary routes to circumvent the Speaker's authority. Bizarre.

Well, Theresa May might consider Bercow's statement beneath her notice but Donald Tusk certainly didn't. Her letter formally requesting an extension to the Article 50 process to 30th June is, like everything else, subordinate to Tory party management. At this afternoon's Prime Minister's Questions the point was reiterated. The truth of the matter is she fears participating in the European elections for reasons other than their being an utter farce. Her concern is an insurgent force to the Tories' right, be it UKIP or Farage's vanity vehicle, not just taking seats but sticking a great bloody crowbar into her party's widening divisions. Nevertheless, Tusk's reply - Delphic as always - suggested the EU would be receptive at giving this deal more time if there was a plan and a positive vote attached to it. Nothing on what they are prepared to do to avoid no deal, nor ruling out the possibility of someone else coming to them with something else.

And typically of May this bounced right off her tin ear. In her appeal "over the heads" of parliamentarians, she obviously thinks if Farage and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Corbyn can do the populist thing she might as well have a go. As a number of folks have pointed out, opposing "the people" to parliament is not a good idea, especially when the political mood is febrile and, lest we forget, last time matters were at fever pitch a MP was murdered. Who, apart from the unhinged fools who spend all day every day outside of Westminster shouting "traitor!" at passing MPs or the grizzled loner dreaming of getting their hands on a "traitorous" member is this sort of rhetoric supposed to appeal to? May is past caring. As an authoritarian lacking all authority, there is nothing she won't say, nothing out of bounds if she thinks it will serve her ridiculous ends. Up to and including dog whistling political violence.

The more things change the more they stay the same. In May's mind, her inflexibility and rigidity demonstrates resilience and leadership, when in fact it's a symptom of weakness and an unwillingness to face up to political realities. A deal can be done. Labour's customs union approach, or the similar scheme hawked around by Nick Boles (who, nevertheless, has voted for May's deal twice and probably will do so again) has a greater chance of getting through the Commons - especially if May whipped for it in a 'it's-this-deal-or-remain' scenario. But she isn't about to do that because the tenuous unity just about keeping the Tories together would be torn asunder. Still, she has today allowed a glimpse of her Plan B. Assuming the EU grant an extension, which is likely seeing as the Irish Republic are desperate to avoid a calamitous Brexit, but May's deal is rejected again and again, those are three months in which disgraced minister Liam Fox potters around the world signing continuity trade deals (this week Liechtenstein, next week Andorra?), three more months of Brexit contingency planning, and three more months to sort out side deals on the down low with the EU to keep things going after exit day. She won't get her deal, but she will be the Prime Minister who more or less kept her party together, produced Brexit and, with it, controls on immigration. Damn all the rest - to her own satisfaction she will have delivered her political objectives: the cracked promises she began her blighted premiership with.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

A Devourer of Souls

Twitter is such an innocent-sounding word. Yet in the dystopic social media landscapes of 21st century late capitalism it is a crusher of spirits and devourer of souls. It is an expansive news service, a friendship network, trolling board, and niche fandom simultaneously and ceaselessly packaged in one simple, easy-to-use interface. That makes it ground zero for, well, everything. For folks not plugged into the juggernaut, or those who've never known anything but always-online describing its novelty is difficult. My account marked its first decade on the 10th of this month, and for me and hundreds of millions of others it has transformed how we do the daily politics and the very way we think and react.

What was Twitter like 10 years ago? One should studiously avoid nostalgia, which is often more dangerous than any ideology. But it was different. Size mattered, and it was several orders of magnitude smaller. When I joined there were no hashtags and, consequently, trending topics. The retweet button wasn't invented, threading was far in the future and, yes, there were only 140 characters. It was a platform still finding its feet, as were all of its users. See for yourself with the inane bullshit that was my first day on the platform. However, its use very quickly became apparent. Not long after joining, the G20 rolled in to London for one of its high profile summits. During the days of protest PhD productivity fell as tweets and reports rolled in from on-the-ground participants. Of course, sat behind a computer screen in a dingy office seeing micro blogs roll in didn't feel like you were there in the crowd, but the immediacy of the reporting and its real time updating engaged you in a process of observation and feeding back. Then Ian Tomlinson, a bystander going about his business, was assaulted by the police and died later. The Graun had the footage but it was the collective refusal of the Twitterati to let the story disappear, and ensuring it was put in front of broadcast hacks day on the platform day after day ensured it became a story. Later that year, Twitter was used to get round the gagging order Trafigura slapped on the media to cover for its toxic waste dumping off Cote d'Ivoire. And it became the tool of choice for people protesting against Iranian theocracy, successfully bypassing regime media and getting their messages out - a pool of tactics that helped the Arab Spring along a year later.

The possibility of Twitter being something more than a glorified chatroom helped its profile, and very quickly practically all the Westminster lobby hacks and key MPs were on board. And yet, initially, it appeared to be very much a left-liberal dominated space. The dearth of Tories and the rest led Kerry McCarthy to declare at the 2009 Labour conference that we didn't need the backing of The Sun any more, because we had Twitter. A bit premature perhaps, but already there was an appreciation of how it could body swerve the controls and checks of the establishment media.

Early Twitter was no paradise. There were big fights and bad blood, the red mist descended from time to time and creepy men did their creepy internet thing. But the comparatively small numbers created an illusion of the collapse of social distance and, if anything, expanded the boundaries of Westminster hackery while intensifying the points of contact within it. For a brief period, you could even be feted by the great and the good for compiling a few tweets. But as it evolved, Twitter resembled more the society hosting it. To my mind there were two big changes as we moved into the new decade: the persistent and ubiquitous presence of Justin Bieber trending topics, announcing Twitter was now the plaything of masses of teenagers, and later in 2013 the very public exposure of the platform as a means for harassing and threatening women. This was the first time Twitter - the company - was forced to confront issues of personal security as it blew up in the mainstream media, much to the pleasure of the tabloid press who were now feeling the social media pinch on sales and revenues. This was the moment the block button and report functions were introduced, but here we are six years on and one can still issue rape and death threats with near impunity - as leading women politicians will tell you.

Remember that illusion of a collapse in social distance? More and more people used Twitter as an outlet for their frustrations. Who knew that powerless and voiceless folks would use a social media to directly connect with leading politicians, business people and celebrities and tell them what they think? In Westminster terms, this was most unwelcome. In pre-Twitter days MPs and other media people could insulate themselves from how they were perceived by most. In a constituency surgery, they can move from the occasional ear bashing. On doorsteps one can jog on when faced by an angry punter. The poison pen letter lacks immediacy, and a lackey can ensure the boss never sees it. Twitter took that away. So when sundry Labour MPs started undermining Jeremy Corbyn's leadership by calling into question every decision, briefing against him in the media, and trying their damnedest to obstruct and sabotage they were genuinely shocked to receive "negative feedback". It's a bit like whingeing about getting thrown off a Select Committee because you've resigned from the Labour Party - the very idea their actions would conjure forth repercussions is shocking precisely because far too many of them have spent political lives wrapped in cotton wool.

It wasn't long before informal, intentional groups began emerging out of the froth. There's always been a left Twitter and a right Twitter, but as far as UK politics were concerned we saw the coalescing of the hash tag tribes when the political temperature heated up. UKIP supporters were early adopters, following the media scrum surrounding them between 2013 and 2015. They were trailed by the cybernats who, unsurprisingly enough, were excited into being thanks to the Scottish referendum. The harmless Milifandom was a thing for five minutes, before giving way to the Corbynist Twitter tribe on, um, Twitter. And since the referendum Follow Back Pro Europe did their level best to become the most annoying of the tribes, though they were given a run for their money by the much smaller and not-at-all racist Brexit brigaders. And this is where Twitter is locked. When politics are fraught and there is real polarisation, you can expect it to play out online too.

Given the character of the society in which we live, I suppose this was inevitable for a number of reasons. Twitter, especially politics Twitter, is essential infrastructure now and (mostly) reflects the priorities of bourgeois politics as defined by leading politicians and media gatekeepers. But it is so much more. Like nearly all forms of social media, Twitter has accumulation logics built in. Follower counts, retweets and likes are all proxies for worthiness, of crude measurements of social capital and status. Hundreds of thousands of followers are indicative of wider standing in legacy media, not how good your Twitter game is. Intimately bound with this is the attention economy, of a competition between media products, not least the outpourings of user generated content, between each other and other media all screaming, fighting, demanding attention. As users proliferate, new streaming services come online, more programmes and films are produced, everything, everything is forced into Darwinian combat for eyeballs and time. It's how the political economy works, and by extension those who don't do it for a living are forced into the same game to attract an audience. There is the reactive character of social media, and Twitter in particular - something Richard Seymour has recently written on. That we become participants in the media and its recurrent shit storms. For instance, the anti-semitism wars would not have a sustained presence in mainstream coverage were it not for the constant feeding frenzy as all-comers pile in and react. All analyses, all attempts to try and get to grips with what's happening are drawn into the same inexorable reactive logics, and drives the controversy on and on and on. Of course, the observation capitalist mass cultures valorise reaction over reflection is nothing new. But what is is our consumption by the fray, of analyses ordinarily to spiky for media digestion being fully assimilated into a new political economy of reaction-mass processes. Without wider social change, it's difficult to envisage how this pit can be escaped.

Twitter, like all social media, is more than a simple expression and significant cultivator of neoliberal subjectivity in online spaces. It hooks into the economies of identity production - an increasingly important vector for capital accumulation as well as social control - and by virtue of the networks connects people of like minds, while reinforcing the notion of identity as liberal property rather than as something fluidic that resists and is always surplus to the onslaught of fixed locations that try and pin it down. Hashtag tribes, for example, are enduring and appear fanatical and irrational because their points of fixity deliver rigid cognitive maps largely impervious to nuance, and define themselves in proprietary terms vis a vis binary opposites. Which makes them ideal fuel for the reactive economies of the Twitter feed. However, precisely because there is a surplus of identity, a slippage, the possibility of its overcoming is present through the very same communicative networks that help constitute social media's panoply of neoliberal avatars in the first place. As with all things capitalism touches, the potentials for oppression and liberation are co-present and co-produced, and one aspect of socialist politics is simultaneously a disentanglement and struggle to forge networks into something that challenges capitalist logics.

That, of course, is easier said than done. 10 years on Twitter and I haven't worked it out, despite the mass eruption and rude intrusion of large numbers of people onto the battlefields of British politics - but challenge them we must.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Third Time Lucky?

Writing an "open letter" in the Sunday Telegraph begging your MPs to back your deal is not a good look. Then again, following the worst and the fourth worst defeat for a government in Westminster history, what are you supposed to do? I might suggest coming to an accommodation with the party opposite to reach a consensus on a much softer Brexit would be a start but we can't well have that. If anything Theresa May's letter to "patriotic MPs" is aimed exclusively at her own benches, doubling down on the double whammy her Brexit deal has already suffered. Nothing has changed, but the choice is back me or no Brexit. Is it working?

Despite the Article 50 vote clearing the Commons last Thursday, May wants to give it one more heave - assuming the Speaker allows her unchanged motion to return. Therefore having the likes of Esther McVey make encouraging noises on Sophy Ridge this Sunday morning helps May with her bean counting. As a Brexiteer but not a dyed-in-wool Moggite, she is representative and typical of a layer of Tories who could be swayed by May's messaging. However, as Philip Hammond observed, the deal won't be coming back unless there is clear movement among the Tories and their sometime ally, the DUP. Probed about whether any more money is going to be awarded Northern Ireland, he tried his shifty best to claim we would have to await the outcome of a review into regional spending. You don't need Louise Mensch's esteemed talent for Kremlinology to interpret this as anything other than the admission that more is on the table should the DUP ride to May's rescue. By May's reckoning, if the DUP are in the bag than enough Tory MPs are going to shift. And then her would-be facilitators on the benches opposite could then move in sufficient numbers.

Then again, there is a then again. Because May is utterly absorbed in bringing her party into line (plus ├ža change), she hasn't paid much attention to what's going on on the opposition benches. As it stands, Labour are going to be whipping on a second referendum amendment on the returning motion. That is, Labour will commit to supporting May getting her deal through the Commons if there is a second public vote on it. This move is not without risk, but is preferable to no deal and, indeed, May's deal. The first problem is getting the amendment to pass. As a few mainstream centrist commentators not beholden to the so-called People's Vote campaign have noted, there is no majority in the House for another try. Well, ordinarily, yes. This one though is a bit different. Presumably all the oppositionist parties save the DUP are going to vote for the amendment, notwithstanding some skulduggery from The Independent Group because it's not "their" amendment. But when it comes to Labour itself, its move is in line with party policy, which makes for a handy dilemma for leave-inclined MPs thinking of breaking the whip. Vote against the amendment and expect aggro come reselection time, vote for it and fear the consequences on polling day. If their numbers can be held down and enough Tories come over ... It's very much a long shot, but even outside chances are still a chance.

In no uncertain terms is May about to whip for Labour's amendment, though it's the surest - and perhaps only - way of getting her deal through. For without it, and though the Tory numbers are moving in her direction it's not likely to be enough. If, however, the amendment did get through then we might have the delicious prospect of May whipping against her own government's motion, which widens the schism in her parliamentary ranks. Or goes for it and, um, widens the schisms in her parliamentary ranks.

If the amendment falls, and with it the fresh attempt at passing the deal, or May pulls it, or Bercow disallows it, all eventualities are stacked with serious political pain for the Conservative Party. No deal would be a catastrophe for the country, and the Tories cannot but be blamed as the authors of the disaster. Though some are bound to try pinning it on Jeremy Corbyn. Somehow get the deal through at the third time of asking, then this divided and dysfunctional mob go into negotiating the future relationship for all this to play out again. Strike a deal with Labour, be it over a softer Brexit or a referendum guarantee, and the Tories are going to simply eat themselves. Or, depending on what kind of extension the EU comes back with, more division and rancour as Brexit is menaced by the growing likelihood of a referendum or Article 50's revocation or the prospect, horror of horrors, of a general election. There are no good choices, a habit of May's we've grown accustomed even when there wasn't a dire national emergency, but the fates are closing in and the Tories are caught on all sides.

They say Europe is the issue that does every Tory leader in eventually. This time it's poised to consume the entire party.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Tiesto - Urban Train

Been down to London town for the Media Democracy Festival. And all I came away with were good laughs with comrades, pages of notes for future blog posts and the desire to hear this choon again.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Brexit's Groundhog Day

How many times can you write 'extraordinary' in a short article? Let's have a go. It's extraordinary to see the so-called People's Vote campaign calling on pro-referendum MPs to abstain on, well, another referendum amendment put by former PV darlings The Independent Group. It's extraordinary for eight (eight!) members of the cabinet to vote against the government's position on extending Article 50, these were Alun Cairns, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson. No prizes for accurately forecasting Williamson's company in the no lobby - one can't let Boris Johnson claim the Brexit limelight alone when it comes to the bloodletting of the future Tory party leadership contest. But forgive me, I realise there's one missing from the inglorious roster. Yes, that would be Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary. He voted against the very extension motion he spoke to in the Commons. Extraordinary.

Believe it or not, the day could have been even more so had a couple of MPs changed their minds. In an audacious bid to grab control of the Brexit process from Theresa May, the government retained its position with a majority of just two. Extraordinary. Had it passed May's deal would well and truly be dead and with it quite possibly the Prime Minister herself, for it's hard to see how she would have gone on with Brexit taken off her. Yet to have dodged a bullet that came this close, will it be enough to give her pause where repeat humiliating defeats have not?

Whatever. We're now in the twilight zone. Parliament has consented to request an extension of Article 50, and far from taking back control the process is temporarily in the EU's hands. Cue much fretting over meetings Nigel Farage has (allegedly) had with Matteo Salvini, and secret backbench Tory delegations to Poland. Funny how these so-called patriots scab on their country's (bourgeois) interests and never have to account for it. Anxieties abound over what concessions the EU are going to demand in return for the extension. There's concern Spain will re-open the question of Gibraltar, that the commission will wrangle again over membership subs to the EU, will only agree to an extension of a set length, and there's the terribly tricky waters of the European elections and resultant shifts in balances of power in the EU. Everywhere you look, uncertainty begets more uncertainty and the nervous breakdown of the British political system continues unabated.

Yet the unexpected could still happen. While we ponder and speculate about an extension to the end of June, or up to a year or whatever, the possibility of May's deal coming back for a third try is amazingly, unbelievably, extraordinarily alive. Supposing the Speaker lets the deal return, which is still up in the air, there is some suggestion of significant movement on the Tory benches. After Wednesday's removal of no deal and Tuesday's drubbing reality has dawned on some ERG-types and Brexiteers that this would be the best Brexit they can get. David Davis, for instance, is supposedly among their number. If the alternative is a softer Brexit a la Labour's and the more reality-based wing of the Tory party, or a second referendum, or an election, or the revoking of Article 50 they're going to go for it. That in itself will shift some, but not enough. However, the very spectacle of a movement might see some of Labour's leaver MPs, reluctant or no, pile in. While it is true they aren't prepared to sacrifice their careers to spare the Prime Minister the blushes of another record defeat, some of them will change their minds if it appears the vote's going to be close. And so the ghastly, tedious vision of her deal coming back after the majority against falls to double figures, and again, and again, time after time, with a minor modification here and a new choice of words, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Extraordinary.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Brexit and the ERG

Theresa May loses again. In typical tin-eared fashion she is resolved at giving her now twice defeated deal another go next week. And perhaps, at the 11th hour of the 29th March deadline, an additional try then. The poor old banger she's repeatedly smashed has a few more prangs to go yet before it can be interred at the scrapyard.

This post, however, is not about the Prime Minister. It's about our hard right Brexit friends. Now no deal is off the table (again), there are reports of (some) reluctant supporters from the European Research Group stable coming forward and saying they will now vote for May's deal. Faced with the choice between May's Brexit and the possibility of no Brexit, they've had to wind in their offshore tax haven/Singapore fantasy and choose the road closest to their objective. And besides, there's still a trade deal to do with plenty more opportunities to push things in their direction. After all, that was the advice Michael Gove freely dispensed as he got behind Chequers.

While we're talking about the ERG, here's the latest episode from Politics Theory Other. In this installment, Alex interviews Kojo Karam about the politics of the ERG and like-minded Tory Brexiteers, and makes an interesting and entirely plausible argument that their attitude to the British working class is not a million miles from the colonial administrator mindset. What UK workers need is a touch of the global south here to solve the productivity problem and get our class to knuckle under. Definitely worth a listen.

And, as always, the podcast could do with your support - please donate here.



Tuesday, 12 March 2019

End of the Road

Congratulations to Theresa May for setting another record. Losing by 391 votes to 242, her Brexit deal enters the hall of dubious fame which, before she crashed and burned earlier this year, was exclusively occupied by Labour governments. With the fourth worst defeat for a government in British political history under the Tories' belt, was tonight an exercise in futility or were there any politics teaching moments contained therein?

The first, which is worth reiterating, is May continues to subordinate the national interest - which for convenience sake we'll define as what's best for British capitalism from the standpoint of jobs, inward investment, growth etc. - to the problematic of party management. Since her catastrophic failure back in January, she has pantomimed a negotiation process, making promises to hither and thither, found a concern for workers' rights, more (moar!) money for towns and cities ravaged by her government's cuts to local authorities, and all the rest of it. But her idea of Brexit is too hard for, well, anyone with an ounce of political sense and feel for economic realities, and too soft for those who would profit from a chaotic departure from the European Union.

The only Brexit that could potentially command a majority in the Commons is the customs union-based version long pushed by the Labour Party. If May was properly serious about "delivering on the referendum vote" then she would have compromised her red lines and gone with what was achievable when it became clear her preference was not a go-er. Politics is the art of the possible, a dastardly communist once said. But she hasn't because Brexit never really meant Brexit. For May, Brexit meant keeping the Tory party together as a going concern. With Labour lost to Corbynism, the Liberal Democrats down and out and centrist politics out of sorts, the only reliably bourgeois vehicle left are the Tories. Yes, the very same dysfunctional mob responsible for the mess in the first place. As far as May is concerned, she is serving the national interest by pursuing the class interest of keeping their shit together. Any other Brexit, especially Labour's Brexit, brings the possibility of a split into the equation. And we're talking a proper split, not a TInG-style farce.

This is her game, but how do we account for her ineptitude - as Richard Seymour asks? Well, we don't really need an explanation for it. May's personality traits are well known. She's particularly dogmatic and will stick with something. This may have made her appear strong-minded and someone not to be tested during her Home Office years in the mercurial coalition government, but when it required a deftness of touch, like the project of forging a new period of hegemonic dominance, which was within reach once, or an election campaign going off the rails, or managing the Brexit process her one-dimensional character and, yes, incompetence soon manifested. It's hard to comprehend how she thought her playing for time would be perceived as anything other than playing for time. Or that her tough talking at home for the benefit of the right wing press and the thinning party faithful wouldn't be picked up by Brussels negotiators, and likewise her emollient tones with the EU wouldn't set alarm bells ringing back at home. But then again, I guess neither you nor I are criminally incompetent. May's instinct is to protect her party and preserve it, but married to an inflexible politics and rigid approach to getting anything done she has proved the author of her agonies and humiliations. And, if anything, exacerbated the difficulties the Tory party faces.

Now what? Presuming no deal falls in the Commons this Wednesday, and the vote to extend Article 50 is carried, unless the EU intervene and insist the UK government comes back with something else May will trot off to Brussels with the same deal. She will claim it has undergone significant changes invisible to all save her, and here we will be in a month or two's time. The Prime Minister's deal definitively reached the end of the road in January, where it careened into the nearest brick wall. All she's done tonight is backed up her busted old banger and driven it pell-mell back into that very same wall. Unless someone takes the keys away and escorts her from the vehicle, she will try reversing again to give it another go. Please someone, do it. And render a kindness.