Within hours of Theresa May sending her letter triggering Article 50 negotiations, it was clear that: the UK will have to pay a substantial bill in a ‘divorce settlement’; that this would have to be settled before trade negotiations can even begin; that there will be (perhaps prolonged) transition arrangements where all of the EU ‘four freedoms’ will continue to apply along with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; that any final deal will not provide access to the Single Market on anything like the same terms as apply to its members; that Scotland may fairly easily remain a member if it achieves independence; and that Northern Ireland could simply remain by linking up with the Irish Republic. All of this flatly contradicts the delusions that government ministers have been peddling since the referendum result.
As a result, we have been treated to a Ruritanian farce, where the British media and Tory ministers have avoiding discussing the real problems in Brexit by fulminating against Spain over Gibraltar threatening the British Navy, committing £500 million to issue new ‘blue passports’, and campaigning about retaining the word ‘Easter’ in Easter eggs. All of this nonsense is designed to divert attention from the government’s mess.
However, the Tories have been partially saved from reaping the results of this incipient disaster by distractions created by the destructive activities of the Labour right. At the political level, the Labour right-wing can be relied on to create an internal crisis for Labour whenever the Tories are in difficulty. Just as they launched Owen Smith’s stalking donkey leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn almost immediately after David Cameron resigned, we now have an embrace of Trump’s war mongering against Syria, backed up by an exaggerated furore over Ken Livingstone, creating a new round of attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and media concentration of Labour ‘divisions’ rather than focusing on the problems besetting the Tories.
At the same time, while big business overwhelmingly wants to remain in the Single Market and is increasingly sceptical of government reassurances, its lobbying is almost exclusively behind the scenes and very little of its sharp criticism of current strategy surfaces publicly, particularly as the media connives at aiding the Tories. There are frequent hints at large-scale relocations and job losses if the UK does not secure free trade terms with the EU; the latest is the Ford chief executive, who said there are ‘no guarantees’ Ford manufacturing would remain in the long-term unless there is ‘free trade between the UK and the continent.’ But as big business only has one reliable instrument of government – the Tories – its critique is muted to prevent aid to Labour, which it will not embrace as an alternative to the Tories as long as Corbyn is the leader, not least because of his opposition to austerity.
Thus, despite its policy for the Brexit negotiations tipping into crisis, the May government is so far evading paying a political price for what threatens to be a debacle because it is being propped up by a series of forces that do not agree with its direction, but oppose that of a left, anti-austerity government even more.
To try to compensate for the turmoil their policies have created, the Tories are increasingly openly promising business a new model of economic development emerging from Brexit: cutting wages, taxes and workers’ rights to boost profits while overall the economy contracts. But these cuts would have to be ferocious to compensate for the loss of profits arising from leaving the Single Market, and would meet therefore meet strong labour movement resistance.
The crisis caused by the Tories and the pursuit of Brexit will be a prolonged one.