What a spectacle! There is a meme on social media of a panning shot of yesterday’s cabinet meeting. Theme music from the vicious corporate drama, Succession, provides the soundtrack. Ministers sit grim-faced like people in pain waiting for the dentist. Gove is fingering his lips as though he was already savouring the meeting he was to hold with Johnson to tell him to step down before Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions. These people were hand-picked for their loyalty to Johnson and his reactionary Brexit project. Faces of people who know they might not have the ministerial salary, perks and car under some new management.
For once Starmer hit the right buttons with his ‘z list of nodding dogs’ description of the Cabinet and his call for Johnson to go. The people now rushing to put out joint resignation letters are the same who have swallowed all the lies and dishonesty – the PPE scandal, the wallpaper, Patterson, partygate and now having to lie about the leader’s actions regarding groper Pincher, his deputy chief whip. The latest lies were like the rest – aimed solely at protecting his position or sustaining his party base or electoral coalition.
The big question now is how the leadership contest is going to maintain or change the political direction of the tory party. Will a new leader try to maintain the reactionary Brexit coalition that enabled Johnson to win support in both the red wall and blue wall seats? Does any candidate want to win and maintain racist attacks on migrants and supposedly woke culture? Will the levelling up agenda be kept if it means tax cuts are more difficult to deliver?
The Tory party has been one of the most successful ruling class parties in history. It has managed to adapt to changing circumstances over nearly two centuries. It has governed much more than Labour since the Second World War. Generally, it has been able to implement those policies required by the dominant sectors of the British capitalist class. For example, Thatcherism broke with One Nation Toryism to smash the resistance of the trade unions and savagely cut the cost of the ‘social wage’ represented by the welfare state. After the 2008 crash, the Tories managed to persuade the electorate that Labour was as responsible as the bankers and then carry out an austerity programme without any major resistance.
However, Brexit was another matter. Big capital is pro-European and finds the whole Brexit project contrary to its interests. Johnson’s ‘fuck business’ expressed that contradiction quite clearly. Of course, defeating Corbyn was also in capital’s interests but having it done through the victory of someone like Johnson with its negative impact on the economy and corrosive effect on mass confidence in the probity of politics was a heavy price to pay.
Consent of the oppressed to their own exploitation is partly achieved through maintaining people’s confidence in political processes and institutions. Trump or Johnson won power by directly confronting the usual way of doing politics. Johnson remade the Tory party and integrated a whole swathe of UKIP/Brexit party supporters in order to win the 2019 election. Previously he had used big lie tactics to win the EU referendum. Specifically, he lied about the money that would be available to the NHS and about the ‘threat’ of Turkish migrants. Big business – as we saw in the 30s with the rise of fascism – is willing to abandon democratic parliamentary politics and use fascism or hard right populism in times of deep crisis. But it prefers in ‘normal’ times to promote democracy since this can convince the masses that you can vote governments out or that you can work for an alternative.
If people begin to think all politicians are liars there is a risk that uncontrollable political forces could develop. People are more likely to take to the streets if they believe politics in Westminster is a cynical farce.
‘Big Dog’ is now being put down. Tories are merely currently discussing the means of execution. The men in grey suits are meeting Johnson with the threat of another MP’s vote if he does not fall on his sword.
Our attention must shift to the likely runner and riders for the leadership of the Tory party. A year ago, the two clear front runners were Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Their stars have dimmed, although Sunak’s resignation did open the final denouement and he may regain some support for that. Truss is being outflanked on the hardline war-mongering front by Defence Minister Ben Wallace who has been given a front-line role with the Ukraine invasion. Penny Mordaunt has played the long game and is trying to win support from both the Brexit wing and the softer, one-nation Tories.
People like Truss or even Nadhim Zahawi presumably believe that loyally staying in the bunker to the end will help them pick up support from a Tory membership that is more pro-Johnson than the MPs. Although the latest turn in the farce sees Zahawi joining the men in grey suits waiting for Johnson at No.10 less than 24 hours after he was appointed by him and declared his utter support! Jeremy Hunt lost to Johnson last time around and could make another run for party leader. His victory would demand more of a shift from the reactionary Brexit project than is perhaps possible. Somebody like him or Mordant may be a more dangerous opponent for Starmer than a more virulent Brexiteer.
A Labour victory under Starmer – unless the Durham police do for him – is now even more likely. Tories will believe that a new look leader might convince the electorate that there is a new Tory party in town. It means the election will not be early since a new leader will want time to rebuild support.
What is remarkable about Starmer is the timidity of his policy response to the government crisis. It is in inverse proportion to his recent attacks on Johnson’s ethics in parliament. There is no call for a general cost of living increase covering inflation for workers facing wage cuts. No support is given to rail workers on strike or for anyone else taking strike action. No call is made to implement a Labour policy on taking the utilities into public ownership. At the very moment when there are serious cracks in the Tory Brexit coalition, he has abandoned practically all opposition to Brexit. Not even a soft Brexit with entry to the single market or customs union and above all does not support the free movement of workers in Europe. Even so, he can duly lead the party to some sort of victory on a moderate programme. Polls show that while Johnson is in free fall there is no surge in support for Starmer or Labour. The Liberal Democrats are gaining as much as Labour at the moment.
For workers striking to defend their living standards or to struggle for a fairer society, this Tory crisis is positive. It may make it easier to win their struggles if the government is weaker. If your enemy is in disarray it can give you confidence. On the other hand, working people will find little support from Starmer’s Labour Party leadership. It is likely we will be faced with a Labour government that will adopt a similar sort of policy as Blair implemented after 1997 – and respect for spending limits imposed by the previous Tory government and the bosses.
Socialists, inside and outside the Labour party, need to organise to support all workers in struggle. We have to patiently construct a radical programme of policies for a Labour government. Implementing such a programme depends on a very strong movement organised in the communities and the workplaces. Even if Labour conferences pass good, progressive policies there can be no confidence that the Labour leadership will carry them out if big business resists them.
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We should not forget that Starmer is also thoroughly unionist. Having declared his refusal to work with the Scottish National Party (while completely ignoring the de facto alliance between the Welsh Labour Party and Plaid Cymru) he began his attack on Johnson at PMQs yesterday by proclaiming that everyone in the House (of Commons) would wish the Lionesses (i.e. the England women’s football team) every success in the Women’s European championships.
I doubt many SNP MPs will be cheering the Lionesses and very few Plaid Cymru MPs. Even, I suspect, some Scottish or Welsh MPs may not be enthusiastic supporters of the England team.
But Starmer’s view of the UK through English spectacles can be seen in his ignoring the Northern Ireland women’s team who are also playing in the Euros – in fact in the same group as the Lionesses.
Does Starmer really think that those MPs from constituencies in the 6 counties – even the most fanatically unionist – are going to support England rather than Northern Ireland?
Of course that may happen if Northern Ireland are eliminated and England remain but Starmer’s assumption that everyone in the UK will automatically support England is one of the reasons why Labour has collapsed in Scotland and in Wales is calling for a federal union rather than the current domination by England.
* Scottish or Welsh Labour MPs