It was yet another momentous week in British politics, writes Alan Davies. As well as an ongoing constitutional crisis, it saw significant progress towards a second referendum and a fresh appearance by a rapidly developing, deeply sinister far right coalition on the streets.
This came after MPs had wrested control of the parliamentary agenda from the government and initiated a series of nine indicative votes designed to test what might win a majority. Although all nine propositions were defeated at this stage, the proposals winning the highest vote were a soft Brexit in the form of a customs union, which lost by only six votes – with 265 to 271 – and a second referendum which lost by just 27 votes with 268 votes to 295. A second round of such voting will take place on Monday seeking to narrow down the options.
This procedure was ridiculed in the media, but it did indicate what might be possible. Although Labour, to its credit, backed a second referendum with a three-line whip, twenty seven Labour MPs voted against it and eighteen abstained. It was defeated by Labour dissenters. It must, however, stand a good chance of getting through on Monday – although that might only be the start of a battle to get it implemented by the government.
May’s response to all this was to call for yet another vote on her twice defeated exit deal on Friday – the day that Britain was supposed to leave the EU. This time she promised Tory MPs that if her deal was agreed and implemented she would resign. A new Tory leader could then lead the full negotiation on a new trade deal with the EU which would go on for the next twenty months. (It is a novel variant on the more usual threat that ‘I will resign if you don’t back me’).
Some Tory dissenters went for this – though not enough. What it did was to open the door to a much more right-wing Tory leader, under current conditions and hard right nature of the Tory Party membership, that could take over the government and shape Brexit the way the hard liners always wanted it. In fact the Tory leadership campaign has already started, which is no doubt why Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab switched their votes and supported May’s deal. This development makes May’s deal even more dangerous than it was before.
Labour did itself a lot of good by supporting and whipping for a second referendum on Monday, but front benchers are still prioritising a soft Brexit, in the form of a customs union, as a priority over it. This is a big mistake. As we have argued many times there is no such thing as a left-wing, worker friendly Brexit under today’s conditions.
The Labour leadership should be careful what it wishes for. A general election could come any time, despite the best efforts of the Tories to avoid it, and Labour would be the most likely winner. It could end up being saddled with a project that was impossible to implement with a lot of people suffering and for which they would bear responsibility. Labour instead should put clearly adopt a remain position and lead the struggle to stay in the EU at this stage.
The real face of Brexit
Meanwhile, on Friday, the real face of Brexit arrived in Parliament Square in the shape of a coalitions of hard right English nationalists, several thousand strong – screaming ‘betrayal means betrayal’ and ‘leave means leave’. It stood in sharp contrast to the million strong remain demonstration a week earlier which was broadly progressive and supported, for example, the retention of free movement.
The first to arrive, singing Land of Hope and Glory was Farage’s ‘March to Leave’ protest which had started in Sunderland two weeks earlier. Farage thundered that if there were a second referendum “will beat them by an even bigger majority.”
The other main component to contribute to the intimidating atmosphere was the English Defence League and Tommy Robinson, who is now an advisor to UKIP. He addressed the demonstration from a separate platform. Many of his supporters wore military fatigues and polo shirts showing their membership of various groups that have come together under the banner of the Football Lads Alliance.
According to the Guardian the following day there was a significant hard right international attendance as well. These included far-right activists including Trump-voting Americans and French supporters of “Frexit”. Rabia Ouchikhe, a French citizen from Réunion Island, had come with others from France’s Eurosceptic UPR movement. She said that 800 people had travelled from France to the protest.
British Lexiteers should take carful note of all this. The most chilling moment came later in the afternoon when a number of loyalist marching bands arrived in the square, their drums emblazoned with the slogan “true blue defenders” with the racist Confederate flag in their emblem. That tells you all you need to know about the real impetus behind Brexit.