Anger And Betrayal: The New Politics
Unless Theresa May can get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament before 23 May, the UK will take part in the elections to the European Parliament. Talks between Conservative and Labour representatives have been held almost continuously since early April, but there is still no sign of a compromise agreement. Labour insists that its support for the Withdrawal Agreement is dependent on the inclusion of a customs union and a close alignment with the EU’s single market. This would mean legal guarantees that workers’ rights and environmental standards will not be reneged upon by a future Conservative leader, once May steps down. May’s red lines do not provide for such compromise and she can offer no legally binding guarantees. It should be noted that the Tory/DUP coalition can stay in power until June 2021. If they get over Brexit, they would then unite over the same bad policies they’ve followed since Thatcher.
The political declaration attached to May’s deal is non-binding so a future Tory leader could scrap it if it included a customs union. EU workers’ rights and environmental standards could be adopted into UK law but protections could be unpicked by a future government. Full alignment of workers’ rights and of environmental standards with legal guarantees, as called for by Labour, is needed for assured protection.
The decision by Labour’s National Executive Committee to support a second referendum, albeit on condition that Labour fails to get changes to the Withdrawal Agreement or its call for a general election is unsuccessful, is the wrong move for the party. Not only would a second referendum be a betrayal of its 2017 manifesto promise to respect the result of the 2016 referendum, it would also further damage public trust in the UK’s parliamentary democracy and the reputation of MPs, both already at a low ebb. It would damage Labour if Labour-leave voters switch to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. And it may also encourage the use of future referenda on what are seen as issues of national importance, such as capital punishment, where emotions will run high as they did in 2016.
Furthermore, a strong performance by Labour in the European elections will not guarantee that a second referendum will be held. The UK Parliament, not the UK’s MEPs, will decide on that, and it is unlikely to vote in favour, having already rejected it. The aim of a second referendum is to reverse the 2016 referendum result, however much it is dressed up as an exercise in democracy. But whatever the result of a second referendum, assuming one is held, it will simply exacerbate the existing political divisions caused by Brexit. Brexit is well and truly out of its box and it will take a political miracle to put it back.
ChangeUK: The Independent Group, created out of the eight Labour and three Tory MPs who left their party, claims to be an alternative voice for moderate voters. But its immediate aim is to reverse the result of the 2016 referendum. At the launch of its EU election campaign its interim leader Heidi Allen referred to it as the “remain alliance”. A Liberal Democrat offer to contest the elections on a united slate was rejected, a sign that ChangeUK, as a stand-alone party, has ambitions beyond 23 May. It intends to contest 70 (of 73) seats in the European Parliament elections and has attracted support from former Labour and Liberal Democrat members, the most prominent of which are the former Liberal Democrat Rachel Johnson, the sister of Tory MP Boris Johnson and Stephen Dorrell, a senior Tory government Minister under John Major. Opinion polls suggest ChangeUK will perform badly.
The Tory party is forecast to lose a large number of seats; although they hope to avoid contesting the elections by getting the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament before 23 May. A compromise agreement, which includes Labour’s red lines on a customs union and close alignment with the single market, will not attract the support of hard Brexiteers in the ERG group and Northern Ireland’s DUP.
Theresa May is under siege not only from her cabinet ministers and backbenchers, but also from the Tory grassroots who regard her failure to get the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament as a betrayal of democracy. A bizarre state of affairs when one would expect Tory members to respect the sovereignty of parliament, with MPs exercising their judgement on the means by which the UK leaves the European Union, not on the principle of leaving which has been established. The absolute final deadline for leaving the EU is 31 October, 2019, with or without a deal.
Brexit has created a chasm between Tory MPs and the party’s grassroots. It is reported that as many as 60% of Tory members intend to vote for the newly born Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage. A switch of this magnitude will seriously damage the Tory party’s prospects at the next general election. Farage, who has drawn a salary and enjoyed the perks as a member of the European Parliament for 20 years is the most established of career politicians. Yet he is applauded when he rages against the establishment and MPs who have made a career out of being a politician.
In the short term the Brexit Party is determined to see the UK leave the EU. But it has long term ambitions to be the home for angry voters, and there are a lot of them, disillusioned with the established parties. Farage and his party will milk the anger and betrayal myth for all its worth. Once out of the EU however the anger and disillusion may dissipate a little. To retain the support of their voters the Brexit Party will need to offer something radically different to the other parties on bread and butter issues, including Labour which could be competing for votes with Farage’s forces.
The Brexit Party’s lead in the opinion polls suggest it will win the largest number of seats in the European Parliament, should the elections go ahead on 23 May. The EU elections use the d’Hondt system of proportional representation within a regional closed list. Under this system it is difficult to predict accurately the exact number of seats a party will win in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, a system of proportional representation operates, using the Single Transferable Vote. The UK can remain a member of the EU until the final deadline agreed date of 31 October. Should this come to pass, the successful Brexit party candidates will be forced to resign, much to their relief.