Theresa May’s desperate attempt to breathe life back into her dead duck of a Brexit deal with investment bungs for MPs in industrial communities should be treated with the contempt it deserves. Following her partial success in corralling the DUP with a £1bn bung in Northern Ireland, it should come as no surprise that she is trying these tactics once more.
But this new ploy does represent a step change from a Prime Minister who until now has used thinly veiled attempts to blackmail the country into backing her botched Brexit negotiations. Lacking support even in her own cabinet and government, let alone in her wider party, and with the House of Commons having demonstrated its opposition to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, her hopes now rest on bribing Labour MPs to support her deal.
But the communities that have suddenly caught the Prime Minister’s attention have long memories and many will rightly be repulsed by her actions. In the last four decades, the life chances of so many people in constituencies like mine have been ruined by a Conservative Party that tried to destroy working-class communities and the trade union movement.
In its zeal to remould Britain in its own ideological image, the Thatcher government not only allowed our industrial base to be ripped apart, but actively championed the destruction. The cities, towns and villages on the front line of this assault have largely been left untouched, through neglect, by any economic advances we have seen since. A few sticking plasters aside, the devotees of Thatcherite economics were deaf to the cries of Britain’s former industrial heartlands.
That is what led us to the point where a UN special rapporteur has visited our country and described a level of poverty that is both shocking and deeply shameful. Professor Philip Alston found that 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty; 1.5 million people are destitute; and various sources predict child poverty rates will be as high as 40% by 2022.
The sheer arrogance of a Tory Prime Minister who presides over this appalling situation now thinking that after decades of neglect she can turn on the funding tap and everything will be fine is quite frankly astonishing. It is reported that she will also offer assurances on workers’ rights in an attempt to garner more support. Just let that sink in for a second. Channelling their hatred for workers, since 2010 the Tories (with the full support of the Liberal Democrats) have introduced the most pernicious anti-trade union legislation in the western world.
The Trade Union Act was not welcomed by businesses and certainly not welcomed by workers. It was nothing more than a naked attempt by the Tories to strangle the funding of their political opponents, while their own coffers overflowed with the wealth of the mega-rich. We should be under no illusions about the Conservative Party’s real agenda: slashing workers’ rights, weakening trade unions, and selling off our public services to their friends in the private sector.
So, as bitter divisions in her own party push us to the brink of a cliff-edge Brexit, Theresa May tries the last move in the well-thumbed Tory playbook: divide and rule. It simply will not work. If the Prime Minister wants to talk about ending austerity and protecting rights as we leave the EU, she should do so with the leader of the Labour Party and his team. Any Labour MP seriously considering discussions with the PM should remember her record and that of her party going back generations. Quite simply, taking such a bribe would be fool’s gold.
Ian Lavery is chair of the Labour Party and MP for Wansbeck.