Nearly two months since Brexit was supposed to happen, Brits will elect candidates to represent them in the European Parliament.
Why? Because Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to get her Brexit deal approved by the UK Parliament has forced the country to remain an EU member state and take part in European elections. And as livid leavers across the country point out, this doesn’t look a whole lot like independence.
European elections seldom capture the British public’s imagination. But in 2019, they’ve become the battlefield on which the fight for the nation’s future takes place.
The row between Brexiteers and those who want to stop Brexit hasn’t calmed since 2016. Remainers are bolstered by the fact that two Brexit deadlines have been missed — so why not a third or fourth?
Two new parties formed to stand in the EU elections highlight the UK’s problem nicely.
Arch-leaver Nigel Farage launched his Brexit Party last month. Its message is simple: the political class has failed to deliver on the result of the largest democratic exercise in British political history. Let’s remind it who’s boss.
The party is expected to finish in first place in the EU elections. Farage’s success comes as no surprise to the high-profile Conservative Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. “He’s saying things people want to hear and that they’re entitled to hear. We’re saying we know better than the people and we shouldn’t let them make these risky decisions.”
Even said in a moderate voice, the Brexit Party’s message gives the political establishment a kicking. “The Brexit Party shouldn’t really exist,” says James Glancy, a conservationist and former Royal Marine who is standing as a candidate. “People across the political spectrum are really angry that politicians haven’t respected (the referendum) result.”
It’s likely that the governing Conservatives will suffer the heaviest losses to the Brexit Party. Rees-Mogg feels this acutely. “We’ve lost three-quarters of our vote in opinion polls to a Brexit Party. We now need a leader who will deliver Brexit clearly and cleanly … We have to be the Brexit party.”
What about the “stop Brexit” gang? The 2016 referendum returned a narrow result of 51.9% to 48.1% in favor of Leave. Remainers have been keen to remind people of this.
And fortunately for them, the UK has another new party, Change UK, which favors a second referendum and remaining in the EU.
The issue of a second referendum is a bitter fight in its own right. The opposition Labour Party has fudged its support for a second vote. “If Labour wanted to kill Change UK dead, it could be unequivocal about the need for a second referendum. But as we know, parts of the Labour have simply sat on the fence and continued repainting it,” explains Rachel Johnson, a Change UK candidate.
Unfortunately for Remainers, Change UK is not doing as well as the Brexit Party. It is predicted to pick up just 5% of the vote next week. However, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, whose campaign slogan is “Bollocks to Brexit,” might finish ahead of Labour, in second place to the Brexit Party.
Labour’s support of a second referendum would probably not only kill Change UK, but win back votes from the Liberal Democrats. So why won’t they do it?
The problem for Labour is that its vote is badly split between Leave and Remain. That’s why it has fudged the issue — leaving both sides unimpressed.
Becoming an explicitly stop Brexit party could cost them heavily. As one Labour source put it, a strategy that would see Labour “win EU Parliamentary elections but go on to lose the general doesn’t make much sense.” For its part, Labour is trying to force through its own version of Brexit, which is slightly softer than May’s deal.
All of this sets the scene for an almighty row in the coming weeks. Both Conservative and Labour frontbenches are desperate to deliver some form of Brexit, taking the issue off the table. The race to get a deal approved — and taking credit for it — could lead to further political success.
But it’s easier said than done. Despite the UK taking a bit of a Brexit breather, the fact remains that the House of Commons, which must approve any Brexit deal, has no majority for anything. We’ve had indicative votes for Brexit alternatives that came to nothing and to date, no one, it seems, has been able to put the national interest ahead of short-term politics. “For two years, Brexit has been used as a bullet in a weapon for both sides,” is the view of Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit chief.
Ironically, this deadlock in Parliament presents an opportunity to both Brexiteers and remainers. “I think Mrs. May’s deal is effectively off the table, and even if it came back it wouldn’t get through Parliament,” says a confident Rees-Mogg.
The reality of a “completely useless dysfunctional Parliament” and government that “can’t get any business through”, as Rees-Mogg puts it, would traditionally lead to a general election. But that is risky for both main parties.
Step forward the European elections. Short of a general election or second referendum, these elections will give politicians and campaigners the ammunition of actual public opinion on the single issue of Brexit, rather than endless polls and conjecture.
How politicians then intend to interpret this message from the public is another matter. Conservative are already planning for what comes after May, on the assumption that her Brexit deal will fail in the Commons a fourth and final time and she will go.
Perhaps more alarmingly, they are also talking about this new PM calling an election and forging a pact with Farage’s Brexit party. “Unless the Conservatives deliver Brexit we have no chance of winning a general election on our own,” says Conservative Brexiteer Crispin Blunt. “An electoral pact with the Brexit party and a subsequent coalition government looks like the only option.”
The stop-Brexit the argument will go something like this: if you combine the votes of pro-remain parties (selectively including Labour votes) and the combined votes of leave parties, it’s still neck and neck. That means that a second public vote on Brexit is the only option. “Democracy did not die on the 23 June 2016. You cannot kill democracy with more democracy,” says the Change Party’s Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris.
Any second referendum would likely not be a straight leave or remain vote — it would probably need to have several options on the ballot paper, given what we now know about the Brexit options.
And, as Rees-Mogg points out, a multiple-choice ballot could be even more politically toxic. “If you’ve got two things on the ballot at least you know what’s happened. We’ll have had a straight referendum to have a crooked referendum — those are the terms that will be used as soon as you soon as you move away from the straightforward choice.”
Whatever happens next, the political climate in the UK is unlikely to get less ferocious any time soon. Both Change UK and the Brexit Party talk about changing politics for good. As we enter the fourth year since the Brexit vote was delivered, the frustration of both politicians and the public leads to exactly that.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see any future for the UK in which this new type of politics is less divided or nasty. If anything, the longer Brexit remains unresolved, it will probably just get worse.