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Tomorrow Will Be a Brexit Turning Point

Tomorrow’s historic Brexit vote in Parliament could go either way and Britain’s future hangs in the balance. With an election looming, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour prepares to present its vision of Britain’s future to voters.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson speaks to the media at the end of the first day of a two-day summit of European Union leaders on October 17, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium. Sean Gallup / Getty

Throughout the United Kingdom, print and electronic billboards are barking out the command: Get Ready for Brexit. Many tick over with the number of days remaining until the October 31 deadline, a date weighing heavily on the minds of Boris Johnson and negotiators from both the United Kingdom and European Union. After repeatedly decrying Theresa May’s previous deal, Johnson was left to prove he could reach a superior settlement. Instead, he dragged his heels, lost multiple votes in Parliament, yet continued to insist he would “Get Brexit Done” all the while. Tensions boiled over after repeated aggressive off-the-record briefings by the government against Angela Merkel and other European leaders, and with time dwindling and anger at Johnson growing, he was dragged to the negotiating table and forced to put together his own exit deal at the last minute.

On Thursday morning, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, finally tweeted announcing that a deal had been struck. The week before the announcement, negotiations entered a “tunnel”: Brussels jargon necessitating the absence of leaks and minimal media scrutiny, giving the press little to do but speculate about timeframes. When light finally appeared at the end of it, some of the Conservative reaction was near hysterical, as though Johnson had achieved something entirely impossible, before any detail was laid out and analysis could ensue. The Daily Mail breathlessly ran a headline claiming “the Eurocrats who damned him [were] queuing up to touch him like a prophet.” Expectations with Johnson run so low that like a small child finally mastering his first attempt at using a potty, he was lavished with praise, as the right hoped to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

That triumphalism lasted all of a few minutes. Government sources had briefed that the Democratic Unionist Party, on whose votes the Tories had relied upon to form a government after the 2017 general election, were on board and all issues on borders and trade were solved. The DUP immediately announced that they were not, furious at the attempt to bounce them into a deal, and announced again and again that they would not back the agreement, that it had “sold unionists down the river” and they would be actively voting against it when parliament sits for the first Saturday of voting since the Falklands War in 1982.

On the BBC on Friday morning, the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson MP reiterated his fury and sense of betrayal but also claimed many Conservative MPs had approached the DUP asking if they should follow the DUP’s lead and vote down the deal. For the DUP and the Eurosceptic Leave-voting European Research Group gaggle of MPs the problem with the deal is that the Northern Irish Backstop — the insurance mechanism that aimed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland in the absence of a fully agreed exit timetable — was no longer an insurance mechanism, but the status quo. After voting down May’s deal repeatedly and castigating her for daring to consider even the glimpse of a possibility that for trade and movement purposes the border might possibly be lie between Britain and Ireland, rather than cleaving the island, Johnson had formally placed the trade and customs border in the sea.

While the DUP and Brexiters were concerned the deal wouldn’t give them the required political and trade distance from the EU, Labour’s issues were with the distance. By moving the commitment to a “level playing field” in trade with the EU from the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement to the less binding Political Statement, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell pointed out this left a lack of concrete assurances on workers’ rights, environmental protections, state aid and social standards, and the possibility of abuse by the Conservatives and Boris Johnson. McDonnell stated the party would be whipping against the deal and the vote is likely to be incredibly close: in order to win, Johnson will need to win as many Labour MPs as possible. Many senior figures in the Labour Party have called for any MPs breaking the whip to be forcibly expelled and prevented from ever standing as candidates again. By midday on Friday, just over a day before the vote, no Labour MPs admitted to having been approached by Conservative whips with enticements to back Johnson.

The entire spectacle is too close to call: journalists are near equally split on whether they expect it to pass or fall. Labour MPs will be the crucial deciding factor: a handful of Conservatives may rebel and vote against the government, angry at Johnson intensifying everything he claimed to have despised in May’s original bill. But many more will realize that if the government loses, a general election will be inevitable, and they fear the possibility of a Corbyn government more than a Brexit they view as weaker than ideal. The Labour MPs still wavering and considering rebelling claim to be wracked with guilt and anxiety, torn over the fact that many of them represent seats with a high percentage of Leave voters, fearing their constituents will vote them out if they don’t back Johnson. Those MPs should realize that their constituents deserve protection from the ravages of a Conservative government desperate to stick a rocket launcher under the discredited vestiges of Thatcherism still lingering in the diseased Tory mindset and to trample over trade union and human rights as soon as the law allows.

A more despicable cohort are those contemptuous of Corbyn and those on the left of the party who refuse to accept their attempt to drag the party back towards Blairism. Any MP who would rather a Conservative government than a Corbyn government does not care about their constituents — the lives, jobs, and rights at stake — and has no business in the party. The call by Jon Lansman, among others, to prevent any such candidate standing again is correct, but by the time of the vote it will be too late — the damage will be done and Johnson will be victorious. Any socialist voting tomorrow should be happy to deliver another defeat to Johnson, aware that voting against the government is the only way to deliver that.

If the vote fails tomorrow — and the slim likelihood is that it will, by a minuscule majority, possibly only in single figures — there will be no option for Johnson but to call a general election. The Conservatives are convinced now that if he is defeated, Johnson can continue with his far-right dog-whistle “betrayal” narrative, claiming he was desperate to deliver Brexit but was blocked by Labour. But victory isn’t assured for Johnson: Labour have far more volunteers in Momentum and community organizing, while the Conservatives have thrown their lot in too hard with the hard Brexiters, and now Nigel Farage is bitterly complaining Johnson’s deal isn’t hard enough. Farage’s Brexit Party is unlikely to win many, if any, seats but will split the Conservative vote in any seat they stand in, potentially letting in a new tranche of Labour MPs by happy accident.

For Labour, for the Conservatives, for the entire country, the political future could turn any way before Saturday’s vote. But defeat isn’t inevitable, victory is possible for socialists, and any Labour MP considering backing the government risks a disastrous no-deal Brexit and another five years of a Conservative government.