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“A Fight for the Soul of Britain”: Theresa May’s Brexit Deal Goes Down in Historic Defeat

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was crushed Tuesday in the biggest defeat for a sitting British government in modern history. After months of build-up, May’s plan for withdrawing Britain from the European Union was voted down 432 to 202, fomenting political uncertainty about the future of Britain, as well as May’s leadership. On Wednesday, Parliament will vote on a no-confidence motion in May’s government. We speak with Paul Mason, New Statesman contributing writer, author and filmmaker. His latest piece for the New Statesman is titled “To avoid a disastrous failure, Labour must now have the courage to fight for Remain.”

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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was crushed Tuesday in the biggest defeat for a sitting British government in modern history. After months of build-up, May’s plan for withdrawing Britain from the European Union was voted down 432 to 202, fomenting political uncertainty about the future of Britain, as well as May’s leadership. John Bercow, the speaker of the U.K. House of Commons, called the roll.

MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: The ayes to the right, 202. The noes to the left, 432.

SPEAKER JOHN BERCOW: The ayes to the right, 202. The noes—order! The ayes to the right, 202. The noes to the left, 432. So the noes have it. The noes have it. Unlock! On a point of—indeed, point of order, the prime minister.

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, the House has spoken, and the government will listen. It is clear that the House does not support this deal. But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support, nothing about how—nothing about how or even if it intends to honor the decision the British people took in a referendum Parliament decided to hold. And people, particularly EU citizens who have made their home here and U.K. citizens living in the EU, deserve clarity on these questions as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union in 10 weeks, but the rejection of the Brexit deal leaves ambiguity about what will happen next. Shortly after Tuesday’s vote, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed Parliament, calling for a vote of no confidence today in Theresa May’s government.

JEREMY CORBYN: The result of tonight’s vote is the greatest defeat for a government since the 1920s in this House. This is a catastrophic defeat for this government. After two years of failed negotiations, the House of Commons has delivered its verdict on her Brexit deal. And that verdict is absolutely decisive. … I, therefore, Mr. Speaker, inform you I have now tabled a motion of no confidence in this government. And I’m pleased—I am pleased that motion will be debated tomorrow, so this House can give its verdict on the sheer incompetence of this government and pass that motion of no confidence in the government.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tuesday. Today, Labour Leader Corbyn said he misspoke when he called the vote the largest defeat since the 1920s, saying, in fact, it’s the largest defeat in the U.K.’s democratic history.

Parliament is currently debating Corbyn’s no-confidence motion and will vote at 2 p.m. Eastern time today. The future of Britain’s relationship with the European Union hangs in the balance. If May’s government survives a no-confidence vote, it will have the option of introducing a milder Brexit deal or proposing a new Brexit referendum altogether. If the no-confidence vote passes, it could trigger a general election. Seventy-one Labour members of Parliament have signed a public statement calling for a new Brexit referendum, arguing a Brexit renegotiation, which Jeremy Corbyn has been pushing for, is unrealistic. Their statement said, quote, “No deal would be a catastrophe which we must resolutely oppose.” Meanwhile, The Guardian reports Theresa May has not invited Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to cross-party Brexit talks despite her epic defeat on Tuesday.

Well, for more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Paul Mason, New Statesman contributing writer, author and filmmaker. His latest piece for the New Statesman is headlined “To avoid a disastrous failure, Labour must now have the courage to fight for Remain.” Mason’s most recent book is titled Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.

Paul Mason, welcome back to Democracy Now! Please explain what happened.

PAUL MASON: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could explain, Paul, just exactly what happened yesterday, how historic this vote was?

PAUL MASON: Amy, I’ve lost you, I’m afraid. I cannot hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: I think you’re having trouble hearing me. We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back with Paul Mason in London talking about this historic Brexit defeat. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” The Clash, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re joined now by Paul Mason, New Statesman contributing writer, author and filmmaker. His latest piece for the New Statesman, “To avoid a disastrous failure, Labour must now have the courage to fight for Remain.”

So, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was crushed in the biggest defeat for a sitting British government in history. Why do you think the deal was rejected, Paul? And the significance of what is now taking place, the debate over no confidence?

PAUL MASON: Well, Amy, just let me just put this into context for American viewers. Imagine Trump said, “Let’s leave NAFTA.” OK, the right of American politics would applaud. But if you said, “Well, we’re leaving NAFTA, but we’re following NAFTA’s rules, so Canada and Mexico will get to determine America’s trade policy,” there would be uproar on both sides of your House of Representatives.

And that’s effectively what happened last night in British politics. The far right of the Tory Party and all the other progressive parties combined together to defeat May. So, 230 out of a 650 Parliament, that was the margin. And it leaves her not only facing the worst defeat a government has ever faced, but this is the only piece of legislation her government was elected to do. It is a one-trick pony, and the trick just failed.

So that’s why she’s facing now the vote of no confidence. I don’t think, unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn is going to be able to defeat her tonight, because those selfsame right-wingers who voted against the deal have no interest in putting Corbyn into power. So, we’ve got a government that needs to fall but cannot fall.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who don’t exactly understand what Brexit is, please explain.

PAUL MASON: The way it goes now is that if Corbyn were able to win a vote of no confidence against Theresa May, there would have to be a general election. Now, that’s something that’s not only, you know, politically unpalatable to the right and, of course, the corporate elite here in Britain, but this crisis we’re living through here in Britain, with Brexit, is the endpoint of a 40-year period of neoliberal economics. It’s become very focused, as it has in your country, on xenophobia, white nationalism, free trade. All these themes are there. And basically, the corporate elite cannot afford to see this Tory government fall, when the only alternative is the most radical and most left-wing Labour Party we’ve ever had. And so, that’s why you’ve got this complete stasis and paralysis in British politics.

And, of course, we’re not the only players here. We’re dealing with a continent with 500 million citizens—Europe—which is waiting for an answer. And the press here in Europe—you know, we’ve been awake for four or five hours now on this side of the Atlantic—is appalled by what has happened. We’ve got one of the most powerful governments in the world, a key NATO ally, just in chaos.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting you mention NATO, because new discussion is taking place in the United States about revelations that President Trump has repeatedly wanted to pull the United States out of NATO.

PAUL MASON: Yeah. And look, here in Europe, the far right are being heavily, heavily funded and promoted by Vladimir Putin. At the same time, you know—I think America is, by many people now, looked at as an unreliable ally because of these revelations about Trump. My opposition to Brexit is not—and there are many of us on the left of the Labour Party who, yes, of course, we want to go the extra mile to try and honor that referendum, but if it cannot be honored—if it just cannot be done without destroying the country, we’re not going to do it, but not just for economic reasons, because we need—in a very unstable world, we need to create alliances here on the continent of Europe that ensure stability and the rule of law and democracy. In Poland, only two days ago, the mayor of a major city was murdered. You know, we have political violence now in our continent. And we want to calm things down.

And we want to be able to do it, of course, in a way that speaks to those poor communities that are being dragged towards the right, dragged towards this right-wing populist, xenophobic politics. We cannot—we cannot really do it by abandoning our values. And you know what? We’ve been very—you mentioned in your headlines Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We, on this side, are very inspired by AOC, as she’s called, because here we see a left politician fighting from the heart, with values. And we want to be doing some of that. And I personally, you know, want to get this Brexit thing concluded—I want to get rid of this Theresa May government—but Brexit concluded, because we need to try and win back some of those dislocated communities, the ex-industrial communities. We need to do it from the heart, not with technocratic language and parliamentary maneuvering.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the murder of the Gdansk mayor. His dear friend, the European Council President Donald Tusk, seemed to urge Britain to cancel Brexit, in a tweet Tuesday that read, “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” Paul Mason?

PAUL MASON: Well, look, the problem we have here on the left of politics—you know, we are in some ways similar to the Democrats in America, but in one way we are not. Hillary Clinton used to be accused of being the Wall Street candidate. We have no support amongst our own corporate elite. What we achieve in the British Labour movement will be achieved with working-class and lower-middle-class votes only. And so, our electoral alliance will never be with our Wall Street, the city of London. It will always be—let me put it this way—an alliance between Brooklyn, Chicago and West Virginia, those kinds of demographics. And so we have to keep West Virginia, our equivalent of it, in our alliance. Now, that’s quite hard when they voted to leave Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Mason, I’m going to interrupt because Jeremy—

PAUL MASON: But what they’re now learning is that there’s no form of Brexit that’s going to help them. And I think that’s where we are. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Corbyn is speaking right now, and we want to go to the floor of—

PAUL MASON: OK, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the Parliament to hear what he’s saying.

JEREMY CORBYN: Our NHS is in crisis. Waiting time targets at accident and emergency—I’m talking about waiting times at accident and emergency departments and for cancer patients that have not been met since 2015. And they’ve never been met under the government of this prime minister. Not yet. The NHS has endured the longest funding squeeze in its history, leaving it short-staffed to the tune of 100,000 in NHS trusts and providers and over 1 billion in deficit. The human consequences are clear: Life expectancy is now going backwards in the poorest parts of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in his arguments for a no-confidence vote, for a vote of no confidence for Theresa May. Clearly, this goes beyond Brexit, as he’s talking about the National Health Service and just the state of Britain today, Paul Mason.

PAUL MASON: Well, what Corbyn was talking about there, of course, is our free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system. And it’s being destroyed by austerity, by government spending cuts. Now, we know, because we are out there on the doorstep of working-class communities, that one of the things that drove some of them to support Brexit was the idea that in a world of limited resources, then we don’t want to share those resources with migrant people who come from Europe. This is the xenophobic argument.

And so, what Corbyn is doing there, he’s turning the argument back to where the real blame is. The blame is that we bailed the banks out with the money of the taxpayer, and the taxpayer therefore had to make a choice: bail the banks or fund the healthcare system? That is the argument that we in the labor movement and the trade union movement are having every day of the week to try and bring back, because we’re determined not to abandon these blue-collar, you know, Rust Belt-type communities to far-right politics. We’re going to win them back. So that’s what Corbyn is trying to do there, and link the severe social dislocation and poverty in Britain to the non-answer of Brexit.

AMY GOODMAN: Could we see a British Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn, Paul?

PAUL MASON: Yes, and you could see it within two weeks if he wins one of these votes. He’s going to move this no-confidence motion, unlike—well, look, you can move one any day of the week, so if he loses tonight, he can wait and do it again. In the interim, we’re going to see the middle of Parliament, the center in both parties, try to cobble together some solution. They may do it. But the problem is, then that has to go back to a negotiation with Brussels, and Brussels will only negotiate with the government. It can’t negotiate with Parliament.

So, ultimately, everything, every solution leads to a new election. And in that election, it’ll be very hard fought, because we’ve already got Steve Bannon’s money pouring into British politics. The dark, opaque money of Russia and the money of people like Bannon is out there. And they’re going to try and fund the same thing they funded in your country. But we have one thing: We have a mass, active party of progressive and left-wing people, and we’re going to fight for the soul of Britain, if that election comes.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, the money of Bannon?

PAUL MASON: Well, look, Bannon in Europe has been trying to set up a cross-national, a multinational movement of European right-wing parties, that wants to change European politics in the coming European parliamentary election. Now, there probably won’t be a European parliamentary election in the United Kingdom, but we are hearing all kinds of things about Bannon, Farage—he was the leader of this far-right party UKIP—and now some people like Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson is a right-wing member of the Conservative Party, but, interestingly, in Parliament this week he, for the first time, used the words “deep state.” So, he’s saying the deep state is stopping Brexit.

Now, where does that rhetoric come from? It’s the rhetoric of Bannon. It is the rhetoric of the “alt-right” in America. And, you know, on our social media—not so much in our civil society, face to face, but on our social media, my goodness, we are inundated with the fake news and the rhetoric of the Breitbarts and those InfoWars. It’s all over the British social media. And that’s what’s going to be unleashed if there’s a new Brexit referendum.

AMY GOODMAN: What is happening now with Ireland? How is this being viewed in Ireland and Northern Ireland?

PAUL MASON: OK, hopefully, some of your viewers know that the United Kingdom is the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland is a six-county enclave which was separated off from the rest of Ireland after a civil war. And it, itself, has a big religious divide. Now, the Catholic community in Northern Ireland does not send its MPs, by and large, to Parliament. Sinn Féin, which largely represents the anti-unionist community, the Catholics, does not come to Parliament. It boycotts Parliament. The unionist part of that society is represented by a religious-right party called the DUP. Now, they hold the balance of power. Theresa May doesn’t have a majority in the British Parliament. She only has a majority with this right, evangelical Christian-type party, the DUP. Now, they’re backing her. They are backing her, even though they didn’t support last night’s deal. And that’s the paradox. They, too, cannot afford a progressive government, because they have this very, very sweetheart kind of deal with the Conservatives—an extra billion pounds whenever they want it—just to keep Theresa May in power.

But Ireland, as a state, one of the 27 states of the European Union—of course, the Republic of Ireland is a very successful, modernized, liberal, small capitalist country. And they’re just looking across the Irish Sea at us and are, I think, just in despair, because we are destroying—not just destroying our reputation, we’re actually destroying our own democracy. We have allowed the dark money into our democracy. And, you know, outside here, behind me, you can see Parliament. The biggest problem right now is politicians trying to cross the street with people in, you know, the Trump “make America great” hats—literally, those red hats—chasing them and shouting all kind of fascist rhetoric at them. And, you know, this is a new phenomenon in British politics, the sudden eruption of kind of weird harassment tactics against politicians. And the Irish are looking at that and saying, “You know, how did that happen? Because you’re supposed to be one of the richest and most successful and powerful countries in the world.”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there needs to be a new referendum, Paul?

PAUL MASON: I would, because if I could—if we could—you know, the alternatives are a softer former Brexit is going to you get through Parliament, behind me. And I’m not so much in favor of that. And I think that we can’t stop Brexit without a referendum, because the legitimacy of that first referendum has to be canceled out by another one. But Jeremy Corbyn is playing very clever here, because he has to be seen to go to the hilt, to the final mile, of trying to make the old referendum, i.e. Brexit, work, to soften it, to make it more palatable, to make it less damaging for working people and their families. That’s what he’s trying to do now. That’s the phase we’re in. And I agree with that.

The argument comes, inside the labor movement, you know, we—we’re going to have to take with us a lot of progressive people, young people, people of color, and most of them want a second referendum. And we also have to take the working-class communities of small industrial towns, and a lot of them wanted Brexit. And as I said before, we don’t have a Wall Street-supporting kind of faction in our left; we just have the working class. So we have to, as it were, keep both halves of it together. And so, if we end up with a second referendum, that’s got to be fought as a class struggle and not as some kind of a huge kind of fanfare for how great Europe is. Europe is a neoliberal construct. It is a right-wing construct. We happen to be in it. Leaving it is worse, but being in it is also not great.

So you can imagine the communication challenge that creates for Corbyn. But he’s the only person who could have done it. All the other people, the predecessors, the centrists, the kind of weak, kind of bland, classic, middle-of-the-road, center-left politician would be at sea by now. And yet, as you saw there in the Commons, Corbyn is commanding the situation. And that’s why people like me have supported him and continue to support him to the hilt.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Mason, I want to thank you for being with us, New Statesman contributing writer, author, filmmaker. His latest piece for the New Statesman, “To avoid a disastrous failure, Labour must now have the courage to fight for Remain.” Mason’s most recent book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. This is Democracy Now! Of course, we’ll continue to cover this and the no-confidence vote in Theresa May.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the William Barr attorney general confirmation hearings. Stay with us.

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