The resignation of Theresa May and the coming election of a new Tory leader make a general election in the near future more not less likely.
Whoever the new Tory Prime Minister is faces the same parliamentary impasse. A government with no stable majority reliant on the DUP; the Tory MPs split three ways on Brexit, between hard nosed “no-dealers”, supporters of a version of May’s deal and a small group of remainers.
The ERG group of Tory MPs has a coherent position. It wants to negotiate a Canada style trade deal with the EU from outside a customs union and single market, making minimum concessions on mirroring EU regulations, workers and environmental rights. They want a buccaneering low regulation, low tax, free market Britain closely aligned to the USA. They are willing to countenance crashing out of the EU with no deal, on WTO terms, to achieve this – whatever the immediate economic cost.
The centre ground of the Tory MPs, probably the majority, see this as economically dangerous. They want a Brexit deal that aligns Britain economically with the EU, but outside the customs union and single market - one that removes Britain from all the political elements of the EU. Many in this group think threatening to pursue a no-deal will lead the EU to buckle on its red-lines, like the Northern Irish back stop. In this they are probably mistaken.
There is talk that somehow a “new inspiring leader” will somehow be able to bridge this gap and reach a common position that will lead these groups and the DUP to vote together – do what May failed to do over three years. This is clearly pie in the sky.
Cometh the hour, cometh the clown
Boris Johnson has suddenly become the favourite to be this new inspiring leader. This is not a man who is being chosen for his carefully honed negotiating skills or thoughtful strategies. He is the favourite for one reason only; the Tories believe he is an electoral vote winner, the only person who could save them from an electoral disaster against Jeremy Corbyn when they have to go to the electorate. And they will have to face the electorate because the parliamentary arithmetic of a majority against no-deal means either continued impasse or, in extremis, a vote of no confidence in the government to prevent it.
Johnson is the consummate political opportunist. He has no fixed views on Brexit only those that have advanced his political career. He could well throw his lot in with either camp in the Tory party or try to straddle the two sides for as long as possible. He could ask for a six-month extension from October 31st from the EU for re-negotiations while at the same time stepping up preparations for a no-deal exit. If he is going to come down on the side of the ERG, as Dominic Raab would do if elected, he will need to start a purge of the “soft-Brexiter” MPs before an election, getting Tory Associations to select solid hard Brexit candidates. This strategy will be seen as essential both to ward off the Brexit Party and to give a solid majority for a hard Brexit strategy.
We could see a general election called for early December this year or early spring 2020 to try and resolve the impasse. We should be ready.
Can Labour win?
Labour can only lose the next election if it allows differences over Europe and the referendum to divide it. We should remember that best estimates suggest that 60% of current Labour seats voted leave in the referendum and that Labour committed at the time to abide by the results. Current LP policy is to pursue Brexit with the least damage to the economy (via a customs union/access to single market), ensuring workers and environmental rights and guaranteeing European citizens the same rights as they have now in the UK. If we offered in our manifesto that any Brexit deal negotiated by Labour would be confirmed by a public vote, with an option to remain if it was rejected, we would unite the party and the vast majority of voters around such a position.
But a Labour election campaign cannot be solely or even primarily about Brexit. Our significant gains in the last election were due to our radical social programme. We must promise to tackle austerity, child poverty, job insecurity, poor housing in the most radical manner. We should tackle student debt, the privatisation of education and the NHS. We must put forward a socialist programme to tackle the climate emergency – taking real measures to change our entire economy in the next 20 years; this should be the crucial part of any industrial strategy. And we should pay for this by taxing the rich, not just their incomes but also their property through a progressive wealth tax.
A radical socialist programme combined with a clear position on Brexit and the offer of a public vote on it could give us a resounding victory and a Corbyn government.