Britain: Splits widening within ruling Tories

This government is “the blind leading the blind”. It has to stop making “stuff up now on the hoof”. It cannot continue to say “one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday. It’s just not acceptable.” These were not the comments of the Labour front bench, but of leading Tory MPs.

They reflect the growing frustration at the government’s woeful handling of the pandemic, and their fears that the resulting mass discontent could be transformed into mass action, particularly in response to a new Covid peak.

Nine months ago Johnson walked into Downing Street triumphant, having won the biggest Tory majority since 1987.  In our post-election special, printed the morning after Johnson’s victory, the Socialist was a lone voice when we pointed out that “the seeming strength of Johnson’s government will be shattered by coming events”, and that the Tory Party “is bitterly divided, and Johnson has only been able to win by distancing himself from his own party, using populist rhetoric to falsely claim he is standing up for ‘the people’.”

From fissures to chasms

Today the fissures have reopened between different wings of the Tory Party and could quickly become chasms. Johnson’s premiership, and even the Tory government, could be under threat in short order.

For the millions of people facing job losses, eviction, and cuts in pay and conditions there is an important conclusion to draw from the growing splits in the ruling party. As the A-level students have shown, this government is weak and can be defeated.

If the leaders of the trade union movement were to take clear action – starting with mass protests against the ending of the furlough demanding work or full pay – they could land a decisive blow against this government for the rich.

Johnson’s government, like all its Tory predecessors, is a viciously anti-working class, pro-capitalist administration. That does not mean, however, that Johnson and his inner circle act in the interests of the majority of the capitalist class, still less fully under its control.

The cull of senior civil servants, including permanent secretaries that have been dismissed or pushed out this year, is one indication that Johnson does not accept the normal checks and balances which act to constrain governments within a framework in the interests of British capitalism. On the contrary, he is a ‘Poundland Trump’ relying on populist posturing on a right-wing nationalist basis.

Johnson’s approach is being writ large in his Brexit negotiation tactics. No Tory-negotiated Brexit would defend the interests of the working class.

However, by declaring that a trade deal must be agreed by 15 October, while simultaneously threatening to rip up parts of the withdrawal agreement dealing with Northern Ireland, Johnson is signalling that his government is willing to walk away without agreeing on any deal with the EU.

For the EU, the room to make concessions to Johnson is more limited than ever. The world economic crisis has massively ramped up the pressures on the bosses’ club, threatening to fracture it altogether, and making it very dangerous to bend too far to the demands of the only country to have already left.

While it is possible that Johnson intends to retreat from his hardline posturing – hoping in vain that it would be unnoticed under cover of his chest-beating – the stance he is taking is therefore alarming for British capitalism.

The overwhelming majority of Britain’s capitalists would have preferred to remain in the EU. The, at root, mass expression of working-class anger that led to the defeat of remain in the referendum made that impossible. They have therefore been manoeuvring for the closest possible alignment as the best means of defending their profits.

In any circumstances, significant economic and political disruption would result from Johnson taking Britain out of the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, with the resulting introduction of hard borders and new tariffs, and the consequences for Ireland in particular.

Against the background of multiple problems – the likely new Covid surge, the deepest economic contraction since at least the 1930s, the rise in support for Scottish independence, and the highest-ever non-wartime state debt – Johnson’s approach is highly reckless for British capitalism. The slump in sterling that has taken place over recent days could be dwarfed in the event of a WTO-terms Brexit.

If Johnson maintains his current stance, the more traditional wing of the Tory Party, including ex-prime minister Theresa May and others, could act to try and remove him, backed by wide sections of the capitalist class. Despite the change in the character of the parliamentary Tory Party, there are still more than 130 MPs who voted remain in the referendum.

On the other side, of course, if Johnson retreats from his current hardline posturing, he will be accused of betrayal by the most pro-Brexit Tory MPs and a large swathe of the Tory members. In either scenario, a schism in the Tory Party so deep that it can no longer govern as a majority government is possible.

Nor are the Brexit negotiations the only issue which could fuel warfare in the Tory Party in the coming weeks. The Covid crisis has already battered Johnson’s authority in the parliamentary Tory Party. A new peak, and a few more U-turns, could destroy it altogether.

At the same time, divisions are already developing on what to do about the state debt. In the short term, British capitalism may, like other major economies, be able to live with large public debts.

However, against the background of a Brexit crisis, this is not guaranteed. Hence Chancellor Sunak pleading with the new intake from the last general election, the so-called ‘red wall’ Tory MPs, that if the Tories abandoned their “position as the party of sound finance…what is the difference between us and Labour?”

Tax rises

In response, they are reported to have made clear their opposition to any tax rises which affect ‘working families’. This does not reflect any genuine sympathy with their constituents, but a visceral fear that they could lose their seats.

At bottom, the multiple developing splits in the Tory Party – once the most successful capitalist party on the planet – reflect the crisis of British capitalism, which offers no way forward for working-class people, whether in or out of the EU.

As the 2019 parliamentary crisis resurges, there is one comfort for the capitalist class – they have succeeded in removing Jeremy Corbyn and replacing him with a Labour leader who they consider reliable.

There is nothing they can do, however, about the underlying causes of Corbyn’s rise including the deeply felt anger of the majority at the consequences of a decade of Tory capitalist austerity. This has been enormously fuelled, first by the Covid crisis, and now by the deepening economic disaster facing millions.

In the coming period, struggles to defend jobs and living conditions can finish off this Tory government. They can also create possibilities for building a mass party that fights for the socialist transformation of society in Britain, and also on a European and international basis.



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September 2020