April 5, 2019

April 5, 2019

Britain’s Unlikely Grand Coalition (Don’t Mention the War). What on Earth are we to make of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest Hail Mary pass—her attempt to work with her arch-enemy, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, to save the British economy from crashing out of the EU, and possibly save her own neck.

The Brits, unlike the Germans and other continentals, tend to avoid grand coalitions. The U.K., has had only one such successful  coalition, Winston Churchill’s wartime government, which included Labour leader Clement Attlee as deputy prime minister, and several other Labour figures in key positions. This was done only because of the wartime emergency.

The one Labour prime minister who agreed to govern with the Conservatives, Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s and 1930s, is widely remembered as a traitor and a failure. Reliant on Tory votes, he pushed austerity cuts in the face of depression, and presided over a collapse of Labour support.

May, of course, is not proposing a literal coalition government with Corbyn. She is only working to see if Corbyn and the Labour leadership will join her to save Britain from a rapidly escalating catastrophe. But the analogy is all too real, since this is Britain’s most dire emergency since World War II.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that British manufacturers have been engaged in panic stockpiling of materials (“hoarding like it’s wartime”) for fear of massive disruption of supply chains if Britain were to crash out of the EU. 

May, who never really liked the Brexit hard liners but joined their cause out of sheer opportunism, blinked first. It’s bad enough that she will be remembered as the second successive Tory prime minister who crashed her career on the fantasies of Brexit. It would be that much the worse to be remembered as the leader who destroyed the British economy.

As May’s negotiations with Corbyn conclude their third day, the most plausible deal would be for Britain to stay in the customs union with the EU, and follow most EU rules, but not allow free movement of migrant workers, as the EU treaty requires. But even if May were to agree to that deal, it’s not at all clear that EU leaders would go along.

Both Labour and the Tories are really two parties each when it comes to Brexit. The commercial, global wing of the Tories want to stay in; the nationalist, anti-immigrant conservatives want to get out. And on the labor side, cosmopolitan London feels part of Europe, while battered industrial Britain can’t see what the EU has ever done for them except to loose a plague of low-wage workers from Eastern Europe. 

Hard-liners in both parties are wary of a May-Corbyn deal. This shift also represents a role reversal and a risk for for Corbyn, who has been anti-EU through his career. Yet if he can save the day, that achievement would pave his way to Downing Street.

It does look as if Britain has pulled back from the brink. The end game of all this could well be a second referendum, and then a new general election. 

And that could also follow a precedent of Churchill’s wartime grand coalition. Churchill saved Britain from Hitler, but in July 1945 the grateful Brits tossed the old bulldog out, in favor of a Labour government that won the greatest landslide ever.