Brexit:  Will Tories Risk an Election Corbyn Might Win?

March 29, 2019

A third defeat for Theresa May’s Brexit plan sets up April 12 as the drop-dead date for an unlikely agreement in Parliament, a second referendum, a hard Brexit, or a general election where Jeremy Corbyn will present a progressive vision for Brexit and the future - Leo Panitch joins Paul Jay

A third defeat for Theresa May’s Brexit plan sets up April 12 as the drop-dead date for an unlikely agreement in Parliament, a second referendum, a hard Brexit, or a general election where Jeremy Corbyn will present a progressive vision for Brexit and the future - Leo Panitch joins Paul Jay


Brexit: Will Tories Risk an Election Corbyn Might Win?

Story Transcript

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Order. Order.

The ayes to the right, 286. The nos to the left, 344.

The ayes to the right, 286. The nos to the left, 344. So the nos have it. The nos have it.

[TRNN INTRO]

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And that was the vote that took place on Friday, which may be the last gasp of Theresa May’s attempt to pass a resolution in parliament supporting a Brexit move. This one was a motion on withdrawal which didn’t have all kinds of other provisions that would actually lead to Brexit, but she couldn’t even win that. Went down more than people thought. Just before the vote it was expected it might be only a 10 vote loss, and it turns out to be a 58 vote loss. So “Order, order,” which is my favorite part of watching all of this, that guy yelling “Order, order.” Well, it’s anything but order, order. And if you are confused, our North American audience, by what’s going on with Brexit, don’t worry. I believe our audience in the United Kingdom may not be as confused, but everybody’s pretty confused. And if you watch the BBC, the words ‘chaos’ and ‘confused’ were in every other sentence.

So now joining us to try to make some sense of all this is Leo Panitch. Leo is a professor emeritus and senior scholar at York University in Toronto. He’s the co-author with Sam Guindon of the book The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. Thanks a lot for joining us, Leo.

LEO PANITCH: Hi, Paul. It’s fun, isn’t it.

PAUL JAY: It’s crazy. I mean, between the elites–the Anglo-American alliance, the governments of both countries are in complete poo-poo. But it seems to me that the Brits are maybe even more chaotic, because Brexit’s kind of a more fundamental thing than the match going on with Trump.

LEO PANITCH: What you need to know is the Speaker of the House, that remarkable guy, is a former East London taxi driver.

PAUL JAY: He’s got the voice for it.

All right. So, April 12. This is the looming date. Now it’s, like, less than two weeks away. By April 12 there has to be something, or they head towards what people are calling a hard, no-deal Brexit, which is the UK gets out of the EU with no accommodation at all. And what the heck the relationship is going to look like going forward. Something the majority of parliament has already said they don’t want–at any rate, let me just play a couple of other clips before we get into this. So just after the vote loses, which was expected, Theresa May knew it was going down. For those that aren’t following this too closely, the Prime Minister had said that once this passed she would step down as prime minister, trying to persuade the right wing of her party, although, mind you, she’s pretty much in the right wing, but not maybe the far right wing, persuade them that if she threw herself on her sword, that would persuade them to vote for this thing today. Didn’t. In fact, today was, March 29, was supposed to be the day that the UK left the EU. That ain’t happening.

Anyway, here’s Theresa May right after the vote.

THERESA MAY: I think it should be a matter of profound regret to every member of this House that once again we have been unable to support leaving the European Union in an orderly fashion. The European Union has been clear that any further extension would need to have a clear purpose, and will need to be agreed unanimously by the heads of the other 27 member states ahead of the 12th of April. I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House. This House–this House has rejected no deal. It has rejected no Brexit. On Wednesday it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table. And today it has rejected approving the withdrawal agreement alone and continuing a process on the future. This government will continue to press the case for the orderly exit that the result of the referendum demands.

PAUL JAY: OK. So after the Prime Minister spoke, Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party, spoke, and here’s what he said.

JEREMY CORBYN: This is now the third time the Prime Minister’s deal has been rejected. When it was defeated the first time, the Prime Minister said it’s clear this House does not support the deal. Does she now finally accept that the House does not support the deal? Because she seemed to indicate just now that she’s going to return to this issue again. On Monday, this House has the chance–and I say to all members, Mr. Speaker–the responsibility to find a majority for a better deal for all the people of this country. Mr. Speaker, the House has been clear. This deal now has to change. There has to be an alternative found. And if the Prime Minister can’t accept that, then she must go. Not at an indeterminate date in the future, but now, so that we can decide the future of this country through a general election.

PAUL JAY: So Corbyn calls for Theresa May to go now, not later, a general election. And just to give a little more context before we start talking, Leo, on the weekend there was a big rally, march, about a million people calling for a people’s vote, which is–it’s not entirely clear. Because there’s people–some people think a people’s vote is another referendum, and some people think a people’s vote might be a call for a general election. At any rate, it’s a million people, and it certainly reflects a big part of people that are fed up with the process and think there should be another vote of some kind. Maybe this all feeds into a general election.

So, Leo, might Jeremy Corbyn get what he’s calling for, a general election? And does he–might he get what he wishes for, and does he want what he’s wishing for?

LEO PANITCH: I think he wants a general election. I think that’s been the Labour Party’s position all through this. And I don’t think he’s going to get one, because the Tories will unite in order not to allow an election under conditions that he might win. The latest poll, the polling company that got it right last time on Jeremy Corbyn’s 40% of the vote, was far, far more than any other polling company predicted. That polling company has just come out with a poll that shows he’s back where he was at the time of the last general election, at 40%. And with that, he could very well win the election this time.

I think, of course, it was forced now, he would win it, given May’s unpopularity. But who knows? If, in fact, they pick a new leader, it’s a fresh face. It’s hard to believe that Boris Johnson wouldn’t divide the conservative party. But if they pick someone else, Dominic Raab, a new face, people might very well be motivated to vote for this fresh face. It’s dangerous.

Nevertheless, that said, once Corbyn is able to put forward the essence of the Labour Party program, which is anti-austerity, dealing with inequality, finally returning people to basic services, nationalizing those utilities that people so badly want nationalized–rail, water, et cetera–it’s conceivable that that will override this now substantless–really, there’s no substance to it–Brexit debate. And it’s also possible that it will be clear that what Corbyn’s position has been, which is to continue with a customs union, and to have a modified single services union, modified so that there’s some control over the movement of capital and labor, that that might get through, too.

I think what’s becoming clearer all the time is that Corbyn’s position on this, which is that we’re critical of the EU, we’d like to keep a relationship with it that is as close as possible [no audio] position all along. In some ways it was the Europeans that made this impossible, because May was even in the end heading in that direction. But they played such hardball, and they actually forced this withdrawal date on the British from the beginning by insisting that the withdrawal agreement, the legalistic withdrawal agreement, be put in place with a March 29 date on it before there were any plans involved for arranging how to leave.

PAUL JAY: I think it was one of the–it may have been Tusk–one of the leading Europeans said there’s a special place in hell for people that promoted Brexit without any plan for it. Now, here’s what Tusk said just a few days ago. Go ahead. Roll that clip.

DONALD TUSK: You cannot betray the six million people who signed a petition to revoke Article 50, the one million people who marched for a people’s vote, or the increasing majority of people who want to remain in the European Union. They may feel that they are not sufficiently represented by the UK parliament, but they must feel that they are represented by EU in this chamber, because they are European.

PAUL JAY: So I don’t know how that’s going to play with the UK public. What do you make of the whole European position, attitude towards this?

LEO PANITCH: It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Europeans have played a very hard and disciplined game here, in a funny way, as they did with Greece. And it’s worked to the extent that all those other anti-EU forces, most of them on the far right in Europe, who are calling for a break with the European Union, the National Front in France, Saldini, and Eastern Europeans, et cetera, looking at the mess that this has created for Britain, no longer are calling for breaking with the EU. Obviously they’re strongly against any further centralization in the EU. But they are no longer calling for leaving.

And I think what we’re seeing here is not only the mess, obviously, that the Tories and the Leavers have made of the whole thing, and was happy to see that, given the xenophobic position that drove the Leave campaign. But it’s not only their fault. The Europeans have been, I think, quite cynical in how they’ve dealt with this. And if one goes back and remembers what they did to Greece as well, one can’t be too enamored of either these guys or the legalistic processes they use.

PAUL JAY: Now, for our American audience, our North American audience, if this does come to a general election, in some ways this will be the real confrontation, a left socialist vision from Corbyn versus–assuming there’s a new leader, but it’s going to be someone of the right–likely a pro-Brexit in some form or another, a new face. It’s going to be a real left-right confrontation. Talk a bit more about what Corbyn’s program is, and what this election might look like.

LEO PANITCH: Well, I wish I could say it would be a clear left-right confrontation. The Corbyn program is social democratic. It’s good. It’s left social democracy. It’s anti-neoliberal. But he is riding a party, especially the parliamentary party, which in its majority is not social democratic; which in its majority was was part of the New Labour neoliberal regime under Blair and Brown.

And moreover, it will be hard to keep the Brexit issue out of this. And a good chunk of the Labour MPs desperately wants to stay in the European Union on the neoliberal basis that it’s run. And one of the reasons they want that is that their prime orientation to the world is actually not domestic policy. It’s loyalty to the post-war American order. A lot of them are still, in their own way, fighting the Cold War. As, indeed, you see the right wing or center right Democrats doing who try to deal with Trump by making a bogeyman of Putin. And they failed, now, with the Mueller report.

So you see here a type of Clinton-Blair alliance still going on and still operating inside the Labour Party as it does inside the Democratic Party. Corbyn, of course, and the left have the upper hand in the Labour Party, as they do not yet do in the Democratic Party. But that is part of the scenario that makes this so complicated and difficult.

PAUL JAY: But it will be, in theory, a real showdown. I mean, Corbyn is going to campaign on, if nothing else, quite a left democratic socialist program, not a Blairite program. And if he’s successful then he will be in a very commanding position. If he’s not successful, well, excuse the language, then it’s a shitfest, which means the right wing of the Conservatives win, the Labour Party tries to overthrow Corbyn, and it’ll be a big mess. So there’s a lot on the line.

LEO PANITCH: How many of them will be shooting him in the back while he’s engaged in this war? You know, there there is an old problem here. People need progressive governments in immediately to stop the bleeding, to get the basic reforms they need, et cetera. And those of us who are socialists are looking forward to them laying the basis for more radical steps. On the other hand, if you haven’t prepared the political organization, if you haven’t prepared the ground inside the party and outside the party to be able to do any of this in a confident, dynamic, unified way, then should you be looking for short-term success, then doing the long-term work? This is a major political dilemma on the left everywhere.

PAUL JAY: Now, the Conservatives have their own big dilemma. If this isn’t sorted out by April 12, then either there’s an election, because the EU has said they will give an extension of the deadline if there’s an election process in place. So that will be practically an automatic extension. Otherwise–and this is where maybe the Conservatives unite, because if they think Corbyn might win, well, then maybe they do just go for the no-deal Brexit. And that’s another, excuse the language, shitfest, because most of the British elites don’t want a no-deal Brexit. In fact, much of the population doesn’t. And so that’s another big mess.

LEO PANITCH: Well, but you know, the world will not end with a no-deal Brexit, just as it wouldn’t end even if May’s deal went through. Look, what May’s deal does is it essentially agrees to pay the Europeans a hell of a lot of money for no longer being involved in any of the services.

PAUL JAY: Something like $39 billion, I think. I don’t know how they came up with that number.

LEO PANITCH: Exactly. It gives EU nationals, citizens, rights inside Britain, and it grandfathers the British people’s rights who are living in Europe. It provides a backstop, for the moment, for what to do about the Irish border with Northern Ireland. Apart from that, everything was kicked down the can anyway.

So the world will not end with or without a deal on Brexit. We are going to be seeing negotiation [no audio] could dominate the agenda for a progressive Corbyn government, as well as it will for any right-wing Tory government. People have to face this. Nor should they think, as many of my friends did, that if they were in the air on March 29, today, they wouldn’t be able to land in Heathrow because the legal arrangements for air traffic control are bound up with Europe. This is a ridiculously legalistic way of looking at how the world actually works. Of course arrangements will be made. [No audio] isn’t going to be the end of the world. You might have to pay a little bit more for some things. Maybe even a lot more for some things. But I mean, the hysteria that this has been greeted with, I think, uncalled for.

That said, of course, if you can pull this off in a more humane, rational way, you should do so. But I do think that the cliffhanging nature of the discussion sounds somewhat like–what was it called when 2000 came in, and everybody thought that because of the–2K, or something. You remember it?

PAUL JAY: But this is more–this is more concrete than that. I mean, there’s a ton of intertwining commercial relationships that get thrown up in the air. They’ll work it out over time, but-

LEO PANITCH: They get thrown up in the air, but they come down. But you’re right. No, no, it’s serious. But the world will not come to a stop. Arrangements will be made.

PAUL JAY: Well, the world may not come to a stop, but a lot of people might lose their jobs, they might lose their homes. And there’s a short-term effect that the workers are going to feel.

LEO PANITCH: I mean, of course. If there were a massive recession or depression caused by this, it’s hard to believe it would be caused in Britain alone. There’s lots of things going on right now in terms of the international financial markets, and currency markets in particular.

PAUL JAY: That’s actually an important question. If there was a hard Brexit, given how fragile a lot of things are right now, might that be a trigger?

LEO PANITCH: It could. It could also concentrate [minds], especially because the City of London is at the center of so much of the exchange rate derivative trading around the world. It might concentrate money. You can be sure that the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, and Bank of International Settlements, and the Bank of Canada, are on the phone together as we are, watching this very closely and seeing what fires they’re going to need to put out.

PAUL JAY: The Obama administration clearly didn’t like Brexit. They wanted the UK to stay in Europe. Where’s the Trump administration on this? They seem fairly aligned with a lot of the right-wing parties of Europe, who have generally been anti-EU. What role, if any, is the Trump administration playing in this?

LEO PANITCH: Yeah, the Steve Bannons around Trump, Trump himself, the Boltons of this world, of course, would side with the Brexiteers. Side with Boris Johnson. Because there’s a xenophobic element element to this. Not necessarily because they want the EU to split up or see it as a great threat, although they play that game a little bit, too. So they–you know, at the beginning were certainly mixing in a little. It didn’t do the Remain side any good, actually, when Obama came along and told–during the campaign–and told the British people that they would be at the end of the list in terms of negotiating a trade agreement with the United States. That was seen as American imperial interference. It didn’t do any good at all. I don’t think it’ll do much good, either, I know it won’t, if Trump were to lay in on this stuff. And he has been incredibly quiet about it. Although he tweets every so often, of course, his usual mendacious stuff.

PAUL JAY: OK. Just finally, the preponderance of the British elites–I know not all–were in the Remain campaign during the first referendum, but that seemed very split. Certainly in terms of the political class the Tory Party is extremely split on this. But why don’t the preponderance of British capital have more power in the Conservative Party? Because whenever you hear them interviewed–I listen to Bloomberg Radio in the mornings and they keep interviewing the head of the British Council of this, and this, and you know, these various trade associations. And they seem to hate this Brexit idea. But they seem to have so little power in this process.

LEO PANITCH: Yeah, I think what this goes to show is that those of us on the left who think that capital has a united and clear political strategy worked is wrong and has always been wrong. Capital is a disorganized, competitive, profit-driven, accumulating beast. It is not a coherent political actor.

The British ruling class includes all kinds of landed elements, blue [inaudible], lady Tories, yahoos from the working class, plus the old Colonel Blimp imperial mentality. And I assure you that some of these businessmen you’ve seen interviewed are going to their country clubs and are very friendly with those people who represent these attitudes, even as they articulate yes, this isn’t necessarily good for business.

So you know, to understand the ruling class, of course you need to understand how it’s rooted in capital accumulation, in these capitalist societies. But at the same time–as is true, of course, of the working classes around the world–they’re made up of all kinds of contradictory aspects of national identity and historical traditions, et cetera, et cetera. And that’s what is coming out here, in a relatively ugly way, not only in Britain but around the world.

PAUL JAY: And does the way the Republican Party has more or less succumbed to and accepted Trump as being Trump’s party, in spite of all the scandal and corruption and everything else, does that encourage those similar forces in the UK?

LEO PANITCH: I’m not sure. I really can’t tell the extent to which the derision of Trump, which I think is pretty worldwide, gets in the way of any substantial coherent message. One has to hope it does.

PAUL JAY: I’m not talking about the derision, I’m talking about how the sections of the elites that are around the Republican Party, many of whom hated Trump, like the Koch brothers did not support Trump in the election, but they’ve sure come to terms with him as being president. And now he’s–the Koch brothers have all their people, Pompeo and others, all around Trump. I’m actually not talking about the derision, I’m talking about how Trump is sort of surviving and even succeeding in spite of the derision, and how strong he is in the Republican Party.

LEO PANITCH: And that’s very significant, and it will get stronger insofar as the Democrats put forward a socialist candidate, Bernie or somebody like him. They know which side of the bread their butter is. The Koch brothers link with Trump was established through Pence becoming the vice president. And of course it’s also taken place through the senators who are in their pockets. And so long as they got their tax cuts and deregulation out of Trump, and so long, as you say, they have appointments in place in the kinds of departments and agencies that matter to them, not least the Energy Department, et cetera, they’ll leave with Trump. And we need, in that sense, to be very clear that although they still stand around with bated breath to see what Trump might say tomorrow morning, although they aren’t at all happy with the way in which he is throwing sand in the wheels of the value chains of global capitalism, they will live with this. Especially insofar as the class divisions that neoliberalism, capitalism, has created throws up socialist alternatives.

This is what German bourgeoisie did with a much uglier, more coherent alternative that got thrown up in the beginning of the Great Depression. They lived with it. In the end they ended up funding it.

PAUL JAY: You’re talking about Hitler.

LEO PANITCH: I’m talking about Hitler, or Mussolini, et cetera. This is also true of Bolsonaro in Brazil. You know, big capital didn’t want him. He appointed one of theirs as his economics minister, who is still the main liaison with them. But you know, when they saw what the alternative was, they voted for him.

And you know, we need to get ready for a world in which capital is prepared to support these kinds of people, with all of the implications that means. And it means we better get our S-H-I-T together.

PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks for joining us, Leo.

LEO PANITCH: Great to talk to you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.