The Night of the Blunt Knives

People's Vote March. London, October 2018.

The UK is facing the greatest crisis in its post-war history. While the House of Commons is paralysed, the March deadline on Brexit is fast approaching, and no one, in either the UK or the EU, agrees with the government’s plan to leave. All the prime minister can do respond with delays because she’s run out of ideas. If she ever had any to begin with.

Bloodied and bruised, Theresa May is going to stagger into 2019. She has survived a cabinet rebellion and a confidence vote. The Tory confidence vote effectively granted the PM immunity from further coups for a year. The price for this immunity was a promise to stand down before the next election. This is a major defeat for any political leader.

There are few guarantees in British politics these days, though we are guaranteed the next PM will be a Conservative. We have no idea who he or she will be at this point. The next election is due in 2022 – thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – unless it can be hastened somehow.

A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is an eternity. May is probably just happy to have the breathing space to try to land her Brexit deal. What exactly motivates May is unclear. Could it be a sense of duty to carry out the people’s will? Or is it just she always wanted to be PM for the sake of it? Either way, she has become a sacrificial figure for the Conservatives.

Yet the respite was always going to be brief. Corbyn has just called for a no-confidence vote in May’s premiership. This is not to be confused with a no-confidence vote in her government, which could trigger an election.

By contrast, the no-confidence vote in the PM is a way of raising the pressure on May and keeping up the potential for more Tory infighting. The night of the blunt knives was an opportunity for the Conservatives to sharpen their blades for a later date.

The Future of British Capitalism

Beyond the confidence votes, Theresa May has stalled the vote on the Brexit deal until January. If this is the end game, the draft withdrawal agreement is probably the best the May government could ever deliver. It might even be the best deal any government could deliver.

Suspending the democratic process for a month isn’t going to save the government’s deal. The makeup of Parliament will not have changed by 14 January. If anything the opposing factions may have hardened their positions.

Yet there is the view that the Tories will find some way to persuade enough MPs to get the deal through. The threat of no deal might be enough to scare some ‘moderate’ Labour MPs to vote with the Conservatives. But this will not be easy.

The alternative is to run off the edge at full-speed and brace for impact. The Tory government would certainly keep its base happy if it did so, and its alliance with the DUP could survive. May could be removed and a new leader brought to the helm.

A no deal Brexit may satisfy the Tory hard-right and the base, but will it be enough to keep the establishment in power? It would mean sacrificing economic growth, and not just for the majority (who haven’t seen much growth anyway), but for the elite.

After flirting with a ‘soft’ Brexit for more than a year, the Conservative Party might have returned to its original 2016 position of putting electoral strategy before the economy. The problem remains how to reinvigorate British capitalism in a tumultuous break with global capital.

The Singapore model is a fantasy. Business is content with the tax and regulatory regime that the UK enjoys with the EU, and cutting back any further would be scraping at the bottom of the barrel. The level of disruption to existing trade relations is enough to outweigh any of the benefits gained. So it would be a bit strange for the UK to start building statues to Lee Kwan Yew.

This is why some think Brexit might favour a Labour government insofar as it may mean the state will have to play a major role in the economy. But this doesn’t guarantee Corbyn’s success in the short-term.

Many people are still calling for Corbyn to demand a second referendum. The problem is it’s not at all clear what strategy the Labour Party can take to defeat Brexit and maintain its coalition of Northern Leave seats and London Remain seats.

The difficulty for Labour is grounding its strategy in more than the opposing demands of its constituents. Even if a second referendum is held, the Remain campaign will likely be led by Blair et alia and this will most certainly deliver a second failure.

Photograph courtesy of Kris Griffiths. Published under a Creative Commons license.