MARY HONEYBALL: It's the ERG, not Corbyn, following in the footsteps of the Communist Party

PUBLISHED: 12:37 02 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:57 02 September 2019

Conservative MP Mark Francois surrounded by anti-Brexit campaigners. Photograph: Kirsty O'Connor/PA.

Conservative MP Mark Francois surrounded by anti-Brexit campaigners. Photograph: Kirsty O'Connor/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Up until recently Jeremy Corbyn was accused of taking a leaf out of the Communist Party book, but now it is the ERG's views on democracy that put the Tories in that territory.

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Boris Johnson, the man who lied during the 2016 referendum campaign and used dubious methods to become prime minister will, of course, go to any lengths to hang on to his job. The indefensible and undemocratic proroguing of parliament was simply the most extreme example of Johnson in action.

Extreme is the operative word here. Much has been said about the polarisation of British politics into extreme right and extreme left. Britain is now feeling the consequences of this division, a division which has affected the Conservatives as much, if not more, than Labour. While we are used to Labour making impossible demands, until recently the Conservatives were, if not of the political centre, at least not too far removed from it. They put forward policies to encourage social mobility and alleviate poverty and, crucially, engaged with international institutions.

With a few honourable exceptions, compassionate Conservatism reaching beyond little Britain is no more. It disappeared from view when Boris Johnson decided to appease the European Research Group (ERG) and the local Conservative Associations in order to achieve his ambition.

The ERG's politics are essentially impossibilist in that their demands cannot be met in practice. In this they are similar to the Communist Party whose transitional demands appeared, at least until a few days ago, to motivate Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is to all intents and purposes a believer in the Marxist theory that in order to achieve progress demands must be made for things government is unable to carry out. Such demands will then weaken the government. Arthur Scargill adopted this approach during the 1984-85 miners' strike when he demanded that virtually all the mines be kept open (and failed to achieve his aim).

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While the ERG's main policy, that Britain leave the European Union, may not in itself be a transitional demand, their voting against Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement three times was certainly transitional demand behaviour. As soon as Boris Johnson claimed he could revive May's deal without the backstop, arch Brexiter Iain Duncan Smith told Boris Johnson that the Irish border insurance plan was not the only problem. Views such as this put the ERG firmly into the Arthur Scargill category. Tellingly, the French government recently voiced its concern about Dominic Cummings calling him a Maoist, reinforcing the Communist-style hype which surrounds the Johnson government.

Impossibilism can lead to totalitarianism. When a democratically elected government gives into pressure to try and meet transitional demands it is bound to fail. The very nature of the demands, whatever they may be about, means that they cannot be carried out. A no deal Brexit is not sustainable because the opposition to it in Parliament and the country is strong enough to stop it being fully implemented. Boris Johnson has had to resort to shutting down Parliament to stand any chance of getting past the starting line. Any further erosion of the powers and standing of Parliament would be very serious indeed.

While the Conservative Prime Minister succumbs to Marxist theory, the genuinely Marxist Leader of the Labour Party has belatedly woken up to democracy. Jeremy Corbyn should be given credit for working with Jo Swinson, Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru and especially Change UK. Labour is moving away from impossibilsm to a more considered and sustainable way of doing politics.

The effects of this extraordinary about turn will undoubtedly be felt at the next general election. Despite Boris Johnson, democracy is still alive and well in the United Kingdom. It would appear that Johnson himself relishes the idea of going to the country. The country may prove to be not quite so keen on him. Voters attracted to the impossibilist no-deal Brexit demands may well prefer Nigel Farage, the ultimate demander of transitional demands, rather than Boris Johnson. Others will want a return to democracy. Democrats will vote for anyone but Johnson or Farage.

- Mary Honeyball is a former Labour MEP.

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