It’s Worse Than You Think

Objectively, her situation is difficult, but May's statecraft has been abysmal. 

Why did she come back, again, to the House of Commons with the same deal, expecting it to be defeated? Today's third attempt saw May defeated by a margin of 54 votes. Why do this to yourself? For whose benefit? Asked to explain this by the Tory journalist Nicholas Watts, a Conservative frontbencher said:

"Fuck knows. I'm past caring. It's like the living dead in here ... Theresa May is the sole architect of this mess. It is her inability to engage in the most basic human interactions that has brought us here. Cabinet has totally broken down."

The more you consider it, the worse May’s failure becomes. Her sole defining issue has been Brexit. That was the basis of her general election campaign, and her political style over the last two years. She consistently built up expectations that she could not fulfil, created “red lines” that she would only formally (yet dogmatically!) adhere to, and finally negotiated a deal that, as Varoufakis put it, only a defeated country would sign. One that she progressively made toxic for everyone by virtue of how she comported herself.

That May is not the 'sole architect' of the crisis, however, is indicated by the reference to cabinet breakdown. Half of them don’t want this leader, and half of that half are running their own leadership campaigns. And they want such different things from Brexit that they are incapable of uniting against their leader in such an old- fashioned operation as a “cabinet revolt”. As one tired and emotional backbencher complained to the BBC's Ross Hawkins, "the cabinet are fucked. They're so shit. They couldn't sell a glass of water to a parched man in a desert." This is really a full breakdown in the apparatus of government. And, more broadly, a breakdown in the Conservative Party such that, even within relatively homogenous rightist blocs such as the ERG, there is no consensus on strategy. It’s an irony that Brexit unites the Tory vote, but splits the Tory party in at least three directions.

Political stalemate means that a disproportionate significance attaches to leadership. Much depends on John Bercow and his view of parliamentary protocol. Or, on Theresa May and her inability to say "hello" without a script. Or, on the career ambitions and rivalries of leading ERG members. If this was just about leadership, however, the answer would be simple. Get different leaders. For Brexiteers, the temptation would be to rely on someone more ruthlessly skilled than May, to impose a “hard” exit. For Remainers, the holy grail would be a ‘government of national unity’ as Tom Watson has suggested. I therefore want to simply make a few brief observations about this.

The British state is in a constitutional crisis. Brexit is one manifestation of that crisis, but it began with the Scottish independence referendum, and continued with Corbyn’s leadership. Gramsci spoke of a situation of “organic crisis”, wherein whole classes become detached from their traditional parties. The odd thing about this crisis is that, since August 2015, the trend has been for traditional party loyalties to reassert themselves. But this is a fragile state of affairs, especially for the Tories, who are far more invested in Brexit than Labour.

The immediate crisis, pertaining to Brexit, can be to a large extent blamed on the Prime Minister, who never fails to make things worse for herself. We can of course be grateful that May is not more skilful. I wouldn’t want an adept version of Theresa May. But this aspect of the situation obviously can't be resolved without May's resignation.

Beyond that, there is a deadlock in the House of Commons, where there is no clear majority for anything. That can't be resolved without a general election, resulting in a government with an outright majority. 

More fundamentally, there is a deep-rooted crisis of the British state, its representative structures, and its organisation of its legitimacy. That requires constitutional reform.

Reaction is addressing this, by means of Brexit. The Right in this country knows very well that ‘ordinary people’ aren’t the narrow-minded, selfish, pocketbook pragmatists that they are routinely disparaged as. The Right knows how intensely personally grand political abstractions (like nation) can be felt. The Right knows with what admixture of altruism and lethal spite popular desire can be fused to projects of political reconstruction.

The Left has only recently come by this level of ambition, but it has not yet developed a comprehensive phrasing of the constitutional question, let alone an answer. And if ‘Lexit’ is largely a pipe-dream, or at least an agenda that I have never seen realistically substantiated, that doesn’t mean the Left can afford to simply take a conservative, status quo position, as the Remain camp overwhelmingly does. The next transformation of the British state will likely be decisive for a generation.

So this is what we need. May’s resignation, a general election, and a constitutional reformation from the Left.

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