Theresa May’s deal has been rejected again and the Brexit deadlock continues. Meanwhile, the entire ruling class is running down the clock on an even more important issue.
May’s deal is dead. After another crushing defeat, it looks like her zombie premiership will soon be over too. Two months ago, she suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat of a British PM since women have had equal voting rights with men. Following that, in an effort to salvage the deal, she said that she was seeking legal changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.
Late on Monday night (11 March), she came back from Strasbourg with three documents: a joint EU-UK instrument relating to the withdrawal agreement, a unilateral declaration by the UK, and a joint EU-UK supplement to the political declaration. The first of these only ‘reduces the risk the UK could be deliberately held in the Northern Ireland backstop’; the second of these has uncertain legal status (the UK would have to prove in a European court that it had been held in the backstop in bad faith); and the third is concerned with future intentions, rather than legal guarantees.
In other words, she came back with the same deal. With similar results. Today (Wednesday 13 March), Parliament is due for another vote, on whether the UK should leave with No Deal. If as seems likely, Parliament votes to reject a No Deal, then it is due for a further vote tomorrow (Thursday 14 March) on whether to extend the deadline.
It is unclear what will happen over the next few days: how much more time MPs or the government will try to buy themselves; how much time the EU will let them have (one deadline we already know is the European elections on 23 May); how long before the government collapses and a new general election is called.
Testing the waters
Here’s what we do know: a Brexit managed by the Tories – hard, soft or deferred – will be shambolic, regressive and racist.
Its contingency planning for a No Deal Brexit has involved handing out a £14m contract to open a new UK-EU ferry service for emergency medical supplies to a company without any ferries. Following a legal challenge, it has now reached an out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel that will cost it £33m, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
The risk is not just from incompetence. Hardline Tory Brexiters see an opportunity to use the chaos in order to push through radical neoliberal measures, in ‘shock doctrine’ fashion. One briefing paper released last year on the prospect of a UK-US free trade deal commented that ‘health services are an area where both sides would benefit from openness to foreign competition, although we recognize any changes to existing regulations will be extremely controversial’, and so proposed to ‘test the waters and see what is possible’.
Meanwhile Labour is very critical of the Tories’ management of Brexit negotiations and post-Brexit planning, but has failed to defend freedom of movement for EU citizens. Even as it criticised the Tories’ scapegoating of migrants, the last Labour manifesto stated as fact that ‘freedom of movement will end’.
There is another even more important deadline looming.
Last autumn, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argued that there are 12 years remaining to take the necessary steps to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. A scientific paper published on Monday (11 March) by the journal Nature argues that this is an overly optimistic scenario, based on the assumption that unproven carbon removal technologies can play a major role.
To give a sense of the scale of the disconnect: if countries keep to pledges made at the 2015 Paris climate agreement, we are currently on track for growing emissions until 2030, and a prospect of warming of 3.0C to 3.5C.
So Corbyn is quite right to argue that poverty and climate change are more important than Brexit. The UN has described the levels of child poverty in the UK under a decade of Tory austerity as ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster’.
But Labour seems to struggle to put its talk about climate change into practice. Since Monday (11 March), the High Court has been hearing a legal challenge to the government’s decision to allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow, despite the emissions targets they committed themselves to in Paris in 2015. When Parliament voted on the expansion back in June 2018, though, Labour gave its MPs a free vote. Len McCluskey actively campaigned to persuade MPs to vote for expansion.
There is now a growing campaign for local authorities to declare a climate emergency. Campaigners are asking councils to use the words ‘climate emergency’ in motions or executive decisions, set a target date, and working groups to report within a short timescale on the practical measures taken to act on the IPCC report of 2018.
In Carlisle, one such motion was passed last Tuesday (5 March), committing to make the council’s activities net-carbon neutral by 2030, convene a citizens assembly in 2019 to oversee and shape related action plans and to ensure that consideration in climate change is embedded in all of the council’s work.
Labour should be taking this up at the national level. It should be developing concrete and ambitious proposals towards a just transition. It must also recognise that as the climate changes, more and more people will need to migrate, and that they have every right to do so. Freedom of movement, not just for EU citizens, but for all human beings, is a crucial part of a transition to a safer, fairer world.
During the debate in Carlisle, 6-year-old Emily gave a powerful speech:
Many young people feel that they have been utterly failed by inaction on climate change. On Friday 15 March, school students and youth across the world will be walking out of their schools and colleges to demand action. There are some deadlines that we can’t afford to let our rulers miss.