This article was first published on the Independent 01 June 2017.
The Prime Minister called this general election to seek a mandate for her Government’s approach to Brexit. Voters must “make me stronger” she said, for when she goes to Brussels to negotiate with other European leaders. It was a message she repeated again in her speech on Brexit yesterday, intended as a relaunch of her flailing and chaotic election campaign. But a bigger Tory mandate would empower their instinct to carry out an extreme Brexit that would leave working people worse off.
A look at the past statements of pro-Leave Tories – especially those in the current cabinet – who are driving May’s agenda lifts the lid off a Pandora’s Box of unpleasant right-wing policies that would represent nothing less than a raid on the least fortunate, both in Britain and abroad.
May peddles bromides about “building on” workers’ rights after we leave the EU, and standing up for those who are “just about managing”. But her record suggests otherwise, with her long history of voting against life-changing legislation such as the national minimum wage, the 2010 Equality Act, and the repeal of Section 28. With her Government intent on taking Britain out of the structure of employment regulations guaranteed by the single market and European Court of Justice (ECJ), workers’ rights are up for grabs, including directives on working hours, equal treatment for agency workers, and ECJ judgments on holiday pay. Priti Patel has spoken of “halving” the “burden” of this regulation. Liam Fox called workplace rights “intellectually unsustainable”, while Boris Johnson demanded they “scrap the social chapter”.
Combined with this Government’s history of reducing taxes for the rich and big corporations, while cutting the benefits that working people rely on, it is clear that a Tory Government with an increased majority will be heavily tempted to slash rights at work. This is the basis of the “alternative economic model” Philip Hammond has spoken of if we leave the European Union with no deal at all.
The extreme Tory Brexiteers likewise pose a threat to our National Health Service. Leave campaigners now in the Cabinet promised that Brexit would be the saving of our NHS, plastering their £350m-a-week promise down the side of that infamous red bus. But earlier this year, each and every one of these Tories lined up to vote against my amendment to the Article 50 Bill which would have delivered this money. After seven years of callous Tory Government, it is clear we cannot trust them on the NHS – especially when Johnson, Fox and David Davis have a history of calling for charges, cuts and privatisations in our health service. The Government’s own forecasters predict a £58bn black hole in the budget as a direct consequence of Brexit. This will mean less money, not more, for an NHS already starved of funds.
It is not just British people who will suffer as a result of a hard Tory Brexit, but the very poorest around the world. Having an International Development Secretary who previously called for the abolition of that very department might seem like a rejected plotline from The Thick Of It, but in the case of Patel it is all too true. Fox and Davis have both called for the scrapping of the target to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid – a target that has directed billions into vital programmes to reduce extreme poverty and educate women and girls. When that £58bn black hole begins to grow, Tory backbenchers will undoubtedly demand that this symbol of Britain’s commitment to the poorest of the world be junked.
Climate change, which has a greater impact on the developing world than anywhere else, is another target on the hard right’s hit list. Lord Lawson, one of the intellectual godfathers of the pro-Brexit movement, chairs the Global Warming Policy Foundation which denies the scientific consensus on climate change. Johnson and Davis have aired doubts about man-made climate change, while our current Environment Secretary admitted upon being appointed that she had to ask “is climate change real?”. When we lose the protection of EU emissions targets and environmental protections, there will be no guarantee that such protections will be continued.
This is not an impossible scenario. The extreme right of the Conservative Party is in the intellectual driving seat of their Government. For them, Brexit is about much more than our future relationship with the European Union; it is a means to an end – a harsh, libertarian society that works for the wealthy and pulls the rug out from underneath the most vulnerable. They destroyed David Cameron, and May’s entire political strategy is based on giving them red meat so they do not do the same to her. Furthermore, in our desperation for trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump’s America, it is quite possible that environmental and worker protections will be given up at the behest of foreign corporations. At this election, it is vital that the Tories are not only prevented from pursuing an extreme hard Brexit, but stopped from changing Britain into a nasty, uncaring country.