David Cameron on the campaign trail in Wells. Photo: Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty Images
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Owen Jones: if the Tories get more seats than Labour, get ready for a Very British Coup

Don't let the right tell you that if Labour come second on seats, their government would be "illegitimate".

“No firing squads, no torture or retribution, no bloodshed. A very British coup, wouldn’t you say?” Amid an election campaign that has become ever more ominous in tone, I find myself remembering these words, uttered by Sir Percy Browne, the head of MI5 in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s epic 1980s political drama A Very British Coup. Harry Perkins, a leftist ex-steelworker from Sheffield, has swept to power on a radical programme, only to face co-ordinated establishment sabotage. In a climactic scene, Sir Percy blackmails Perkins into resigning on grounds of ill-health.

Ed Miliband is no Harry Perkins. A commitment to raise the top rate of income tax to the same level as Japan’s, to levy a tax on the top 0.5 per cent of homeowners and to cut public expenditure every year is not exactly parliamentary socialism in our time. But long ago, most of the media and other powerful forces in British society decided that the prospect of Miliband as prime minister was simply unacceptable. His leadership represents a modest departure from three decades of consensus established by Thatcher’s governments, but any departure is deemed intolerable. The highly personalised “Get Ed” campaign has taken a sinister turn. The Tories and their media allies are now declaring that a government led by Miliband would be illegitimate. A very British coup of our own. Although openDemocracy has been warning about this possibility for weeks, discussion has been all but banished from the mainstream media.

Our parliamentary system is quite straightforward. A government needs to be able to muster the support of the majority of sitting MPs in order to be legitimate. If it can survive a vote of no confidence, and most MPs back its Queen’s Speech – the government’s legislative programme – then its democratic legitimacy is unimpeachable. The magic number in order to govern – given Sinn Fein’s boycott of the Westminster parliament – is 323. But the Tories and their allies are arguing otherwise. They have told newspapers that they will “declare victory” if the party wins “most seats and votes”, and that Labour will have no “legitimacy” if it is the second party in terms of seats and needs to rely on the SNP. When Theresa May and the Mail on Sunday suggested that an SNP-backed Labour government would represent “the worst crisis since the abdication” – eclipsing the minor blip of the Nazi conquest of Europe – it was rightly mocked on Twitter. But this may well prove a mild foretaste of what is to come.

We are sleepwalking into a dangerous moment. If there is a left-of-centre, anti-Tory majority in parliament then the Tories must fall, however many seats they have won. Left-wing parties will have won the election and a left-of-centre government led by Labour must take office. And yet it would be deemed “illegitimate” by the Tories and most of the media. That really would be a situation with few precedents in an advanced democracy: where the opposition and media refuse to accept the democratic legitimacy of the national government.

The “unionist” Tories have been fanning English nationalism over the past few weeks for two obvious reasons: to boost the SNP in Scotland, in order to increase the likelihood that the Tories will emerge the biggest single party; and to damage Labour in key English marginals. They may well succeed, ensuring a Tory triumph in the general election and leaving this whole scenario redundant. But it never was just a strategy aimed at winning on Thursday. It is a scorched-earth policy, all aimed at what happens after 7 May. The plotters will attempt to administer a fatal blow to the Union, whether they see it as such or not: they will tell the Scottish people that the MPs they have elected are political pariahs who have no rightful say over the governing of the country. And then they will wage the mother of all campaigns against the legitimacy of a Labour-led government.

Our very British coup will surely unfold this way. The Tories declare victory if they have the most seats, regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic. Key supportive newspapers endorse this line and pressure is put on the broadcasters to follow suit. The Tories begin publicly reassembling their coalition with the Lib Dems within hours of the polls closing, despite knowing they have no majority in parliament, in order to cement the image that they remain the legitimate government.

In the run-up to the Queen’s Speech on 27 May – with David Cameron remaining as Prime Minister – the media campaign against the SNP will make the current onslaught look timid. Amid political uncertainty, a falling stock market and the value of  the pound are used to build an atmosphere of national emergency. A handful of right-wing Labour MPs – the likes of Rochdale’s Simon Danczuk, perhaps – are wheeled out on TV to echo the line of illegitimacy, helping to construct a narrative of growing Labour turmoil. Moves to depose Miliband are encouraged. The aim will be straightforward: to make it politically impossible for Labour to form a government even though left-of-centre parties have a parliamentary majority, and to pave the way for new elections against a backdrop of right-wing hysteria.

As I say, the Tory campaign of fear or smear over Scotland could prove a success, allowing Cameron to return to No 10. If not, a very British coup will begin to unfold as soon as the polling stations close. It will have few opponents in the mainstream media. The left and the Labour movement will have to mobilise in great numbers. The health of our democracy and the future of our country will be at stake

Owen Jones joins the New Statesman this week as a contributing writer

 

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.