2019 06 Editorial – May as Victim of Brexit


Theresa May will stand down as Tory party leader on 7 June starting the process for electing a new leader and Prime Minister. Predictably, in her tearful exit date speech on the steps of Downing Street, she blamed MPs on all sides of the Commons for her failure to get her Brexit deal accepted. She played the victim of a long simmering plot to replace her with a right-wing hard Brexiteer who would ensure that the UK reached a better deal with the EU. But just how a new Tory leader and Prime Minister would achieve this given the political composition of the House of Commons is anyone’s guess. Leaving the EU on 31 October with no deal looks more likely than ever.

May had entered talks with Labour less than two months before her exit announcement, much too late in the eyes of many, and had failed to reach agreement. Labour said it would vote against her ‘new’ deal, as would many Tories, including cabinet members, opposed to her sleeping with the enemy. Her days were numbered, and she knew it. Her speech was peppered with a list of Tory government achievements, with the promise of  a bright future for a united country under a new leader. It was a desperate attempt at a party political broadcast by a Prime Minister who was already dead.

The belief that a new Tory leader and Prime Minister would heal the divisions in the country, long dormant but brought to the surface by Brexit, is akin to a belief in fairies. In the general election, whenever it comes, the Tories could pay heavily for what many voters may see as harsh treatment of a courageous woman who did her best to deliver the outcome of the 2016 referendum.

Even if the disastrous EU election results for the Tories are only partially reflected at the general election, they will be kicked out of office. A caveat here: this will depend on what happens to the votes of those Tory and Labour voters who switched to the single issue Brexit party on 23 May. If many of them stick with Farage and his party, both the Tories and Labour will be badly hit.

The Brexit party topped the poll in every English region outside of London, where it was pushed into third place by the Liberal Democrats and Labour. But it triumphed in Wales, where there was a strong leave vote in 2016, and ran second to the SNP in a firmly remain Scotland.

On the surface these results suggest a very bright future for the Brexit party. However, the EU elections were dominated by the single issue of Brexit and the Brexit party, unlike the Tories and Labour, had a clear unambiguous message, and in Nigel Farage a charismatic leader to communicate it to the voters.

It was undoubtedly a remarkable performance by Farage and his supporters. Farage without UKIP was much stronger than UKIP without Farage. But not astonishing, given that Brexit is now the main issue.

In 2014, UKIP won nearly 27% of the votes and 24 seats. This time, the Brexit party with a shrunken UKIP won just under 35% and 29 seats. Hundreds of thousands who had voted UKIP in 2014 switched to the Brexit party. But at both elections it was not going to give them authentic government power.

Brexit voters need to know what kind of party they support. It is not a political party in the traditional sense. Farage has learned from the right-wing populist parties in Europe, particularly the Five Star Movement in Italy. In ‘Where Farage learned his digital tricks’, an article in The Guardian of 21 May, two days before the EU elections, Farage is quoted saying “I’ve watched the growth of the Five Star Movement with absolute fascination. Look at what we’re already doing in four weeks-we’re doing the same kind of thing”

In the same article Arron Banks, a close associate of Farage and co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign put it into context: “The Brexit party is the virtual carbon copy of the Five Star Movement. What the Five Star did, and what the Brexit party is doing, is having a tightly controlled central structure, almost a dictatorship at the centre. If you have a tightly controlled centre, then the crazies can’t take over” Labour should use that quote at the next election and point out that most ‘populists’ despise the people they lead, thinking themselves superior and do not plan to give ordinary people real power.

The election campaign was between those who want to leave the EU and those who support a second referendum in the hope that the UK remains a member. The result showed that the parties who had a clear message, the Brexit party, Liberal Democrats and Greens, polled well. (ChangeUK, which attracted the support of a number of Labour remain voters, amassed less than 600,000 votes across England and Wales, with a vote share of 3.4%. Its future surely lies in a merger with the Liberal Democrats).

The compromise parties, the Tories and Labour, who want to leave with a deal that doesn’t harm the economy, polled badly. In the current febrile state of politics compromise has become a no-go word. Some Westminster politicians continue to insist that there must be compromise if a deal is to win the support of a majority of MPs. Compromise is the bedrock of parliamentary democracy. But Nigel Farage, basking in the glory of victory, believes that the party’s newly elected MEPs should participate in any further talks with EU leaders to break the deadlock over Brexit.

Europe has been the bugbear of the Tories for more than forty years. It has never reconciled itself to being a part of a greater Europe. It was the downfall of Thatcher, Major, Cameron, and now May. So given the divided state of the current Tory party and the internal battles over the future leadership of the party a mauling in the EU elections was inevitable. Even with Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, commonly known as just plain Boris, as leader-he is the political pin up of the grassroots Tories- the party may not be saved from a further mauling.

Labour’s lack of a clear message on Europe led to its poor performance overall, but particularly in Wales, its traditional stronghold. (Its share of the vote in England, Scotland and Wales fell from 25.4% in 2014 to 14.1% in 2019, and halved its number of MEPs to 10). With the leadership and the party in parliament divided, mixed signals were conveyed to voters. Labour’s policy, which appeared to suggest that the party could have its cake and eat it- voters couldn’t decide whether Labour wanted to leave or remain in the EU- caused a desertion of Labour remain voters to the Liberal Democrats and the Green party and an exodus of Labour leave voters to the Brexit party. Unless Labour clarifies its position and exercises strong leadership, not only on the EU but also on bread and butter issues that have a direct effect on people’s lives, many of those voters may not return to Labour.

Labour is in a terrible position which invites losses whichever way it turns. However, the Tories are in an even worse one. A new Tory leader won’t get a new deal without a general election to alter the balance of opinion in the House of Commons. But such an election would be disastrous for them. We can be fairly confident that the EU will not grant the new Tory leader a new, improved deal. Will the Tories then go for no deal? That is unlikely to get through the Commons, but that may not matter if it is the default option. The Tories would be forever associated with a no deal Brexit forced through without a general election. Labour could at least claim that they had tried to stop it.

It cannot be stressed enough how disastrous Brexit is for the Labour Party’s hope of reviving class politics in Britain. There is now a real danger that the poisonous atmosphere created by the Brexit debate will sink Labour’s agenda for good.  But at least a no deal Brexit would allow Labour to focus on what it hopes to do for the country.