Boris Johnson’s war cabinet prepares for hard Brexit

By KD Tait

Boris Johnson has won the leadership of the Tory party by outflanking his rivals on Brexit, pandering to the reactionary prejudices of the party membership, whose overriding concern is to leave the EU “do or die”.

On Thursday night, Britain’s new prime minister wielded the knife and unveiled his new war cabinet – elevating the extreme fringe of the Tory parliamentary party to the heart of government.

Gone are the technocratic representatives of the British ruling class like Philip Hammond and David Gauke. Gone too are pro-Brexit ministers who backed Jeremy Hunt.

Britain’s establishment has effectively lost control of its political party, as both Tories and the Brexit party vie for the affections of a reactionary petty bourgeois electorate whose support for Brexit puts it fundamentally at odds with the interests of the dominant sections of British capital.  

But while Johnson’s reshuffle has effectively installed a brand new government over the heads of the people, he remains faced with exactly the same obstacles as his predecessor.

The European Union will not abandon the backstop. Parliament will not sanction a no deal Brexit. May had a majority of three to force her deal through against the opposition of most of the hard-Brexit ERG group. Johnson will soon likely have a majority of one – but now his cabinet is caught between the ERG on one hand and a powerful caucus of hostile soft-Brexit backbenchers.  

In response he has dangerously escalated the rhetoric. In reasserting his commitment to Brexit by any means necessary on the steps of Downing Street, he made it absolutely clear who he would hold responsible for a hard Brexit – the European Union.

However, Johnson and his new cabinet have not waited this long for power only to gamble it all on a no-deal Brexit which would split the Tories, accelerate the disintegration of the United Kingdom, and certainly see them bundled bag and baggage out of cabinet before the year is out.

Prior to launching his election campaign, Johnson made it clear that he views the prospect of a general election without having left the EU as suicide for the Tories. The showing of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party which has hived off swathes of the Tory base will only have reinforced that sentiment.

The prime minister has also been clear that he is committed to securing a deal with the EU. Admittedly, his ‘red line’ on the backstop precludes the conclusion of any deal, but this must be seen in the context of Tory electioneering by someone whose ideological compass points to the true north of pragmatic self-interest. 

Johnson will certainly want to seek a fresh mandate for his cabinet’s hard-right policy agenda. But to do that he needs either to have delivered Brexit – or provoke a casus belli in the form of parliament rejecting his government’s sole policy. Thus all roads point to the prime minister presenting parliament with a tweaked version of May’s deal in the Autumn, counting on the newfound cabinet responsibility sobering up the ERG, and Labour rebels helping it limp through the lobby.

In this scenario the point of Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet is to persuade the Tory/Farage base that, unlike May’s gang of vacillating crypto-Remainers committed to ‘Brexit in name only’, his Brexit vanguard can be trusted to conclude a quick free trade deal, thus rendering the backstop irrelevant.

For Tory MPs this has the further merit of setting up a straight fight between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, and obliterating Farage’s raison d’etre, consigning him to a political retirement of radio talk-shows and Brussels wine bars.

Nevertheless, whilst, paradoxically, Johnson’s championing of no deal means he is best placed to betray hard Brexit, the stubborn arithmetic of parliament stacks the odds against success. 

With his government stymied, and Labour paralysed, his only choice is to seize the initiative by blaming the EU for refusing to compromise on the backstop, arranging an alliance with Farage, and going to the country on a no deal manifesto.  This summer will see Britain sweltering under the circus tent while Boris lays the ground for an election on his terms, lapped up by the media, assured that Labour’s self-flagellation over its supposed antisemitism and refusal to come clean on Brexit, will condemn to watching impotently from the sidelines.  

Therefore, whether by accident or design, hard Brexit is the order of the day. 

We must be clear – any Brexit would represent a major attack on the working class of Britain and Europe. The economic dislocation would precipitate a renewal of austerity across the continent as the ruling class seeks to make workers and the youth pay.

It would be a political boost for the pro-Trump, pro-Putin far right and populist axis, and trigger a round of inter-imperialist competition between the EU and the US, and within the EU as the ruling classes compete to offset the costs and accrue the benefits at the expense of their rivals.  

This government is united behind Brexit. To kick out Boris and defeat the far right Brexit project means securing maximum working class unity in the fight against Brexit.

We must fight for a general election on our terms. That means putting a swift and ruthless end to the damaging ambiguity in Labour’s position on Brexit.

We must point out that the political forces behind Brexit are using it to secure short term advantages for a parasitic wing of the British capitalist class – by subordinating the UK to the United States, by comprehensively deregulating the economy, and using an oppressed and exploited British working class to compete with their European rivals.

The remains of the welfare state, the precarious and woefully inadequate environmental protections, the social gains of women, and oppressed people, will all be sacrificed on the altar of a US trade deal that will seal Britain’s 70 year long transition from junior partner to pensioner of US imperialism.

If anyone is in any doubt about the stakes raised by Brexit, the Gulf crisis and the UK government’s craven role in hijacking an Iranian tanker, demonstrates the extent to which British imperialism will act as a loyal adjunct of the White House as it prepares its war with Iran.

The danger of the coming situation means supporters of a ‘People’s Brexit’ must be rooted out of their positions of influence in the Labour Party and trade unions. Their sabotage of an effective resistance to the central policy of the Johnson government, and the new populist right is diluting the political coherence and internationalism of our movement. It is objectively prostrating the working class before the coming offensive.

We need to arm ourselves to meet this offensive head on.

In the Labour Party, socialists should fight to assert the members’ right to a democratic debate and decision on Brexit. No more equivocation – no to Boris means no to Brexit.

In the trade unions, socialists should campaign for a day of action against Brexit before Labour Party conference, consisting of walk outs and mass demonstrations in all the major industrial and working class centres of the UK. Companies using Brexit as an excuse to sack workers and plunge whole communities into poverty must be nationalized without compensation.

No to racism – Brexit has fueled a surge in violent racist attacks and seen the poison of chauvinism seep into our movement. We need a mass anti racist campaign based on equal citizenship rights for all, open borders for working people, and community and labour movement self defence and fascist violence. 

The young people who have consistently led the resistance to nine years of Tory government should mobilise all out for the climate strike on 20 September. Brexit will promote a frenzied cycle of inter-imperialist competition, whose chief victims will be the living conditions of the working class and the natural environment.

Against the dead end of tailing the hard-right Brexit, we advocate a Europe wide coordinated struggle against the imperialist governments: a European Social Forum, which brings together the labour movements and progressive struggles into democratic assemblies which can overcome the national-centredness and bureaucratic policy of compromise with capital which holds our movement back.

A united front of the Labour Party, trade unions, youth climate campaigns, women’s organisations and anti-racism campaigns should form committees of action to coordinate a hot autumn of mass demonstrations, walk outs and strikes to force this government from power.

Labour must enter the next general election with a manifesto that commits to real socialist change; the expropriation of the big banks, industries, energy and transport companies, and the reorganization of the economy based on a democratic plan of production to meet the overlapping crises of austerity, the climate, population movement and war.

Statement of the National Committee 25 July 2019


Red Flag is a socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement, militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and internationalist.

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