Britain’s European Parliament elections are the Brexit Party’s to lose

After the British government failed to arrange Britain’s exit from the European Union on 29 March, the country must now elect members for the European Parliament (MEPs) on 23 May. Few people wanted this to happen, but the state of EU law is such that it can’t be waved away.

These elections have a rather interesting place in the country’s democracy. Alas this has nothing to do with the job that MEPs have to do, though that is an important one. Because the result is inconsequential so far as most people are concerned, it is an ideal vehicle for a protest vote. And with a large array of parties competing for votes, there is no need for voters to choose one of the main ones. Indeed, for a strong message of protest it helps if you don’t. And in 2019 the vote is probably genuinely meaningless, as it is still likely that the country will leave the European Union before the year is out. So the result could be quite revealing about the population’s real political preferences.

The Euro elections, as they are often called, have played an important role in bringing Brexit about. The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), when led by Nigel Farage, understood how to use the opportunity better than any other. It has provided the party with a platform and even political respectability. It came second on 2009 and the first in 2014. This served to raise the issue of Britain’s EU membership up the political agenda, and to scare the Conservative leadership into promising a referendum. The elections have also been quite useful to the Green Party, who have managed to get a small number of MEPs elected. For the Lib Dems, who have under-performed in these elections in spite of having candidates who really want to be MEPs, they have conferred a measure of establishment respectability, as they have managed to get somebody elected in most of the regional constituencies. Until 2014 that is, when they lost all but one of them – and the shock of that disaster was massive to party’s leaders, still in denial as to how low its fortunes had sunk.

Unfortunately the relatively strong performance of these smaller parties (as well as the racist BNP who got two MEPs elected in on election) has fostered the illusion that small parties can do well, and a profusion of them enter the fray. But the Labour minister Jack Straw, who devised the electoral system, and was no fan of proportional representation, made sure that things weren’t that simple. He divided the country into constituencies with a maximum of 10 MEPs and a minimum of three. That meant that a party generally needs to get 10%, or potentially much more, in a particular region, to get somebody elected. and they need more than 20% to really make a real impact. And without preferential voting (except in Northern Ireland) if your party doesn’t make the threshold your vote is wasted. A profusion of small parties can, paradoxically, make life easier for the bigger ones. This was shown last time in the North East of England, when Labour bagged two out of the three available seats with under 40% of the vote.

This will make the election very messy. The two main parties have struggled for years at the Euros, where their usual strategy of bullying electors for fear of the other lot has little traction. The Conservatives are in a desperate position. The politics of Brexit has put the party in a state of civil war, and its leader is a lame duck. Its members and donors don’t believe in the election, and it is hard to understand what message they will campaign under. Their poll ratings are in free fall; they could end up taking less than 20% of the vote and joining the shrapnel of minor parties. Labour are much stronger, but the leadership studiously sits on the fence as concerns Brexit, and that will weaken them. They have no good reason to change that strategy for now, as it seems to be working. If voters are anxious to show their views on Brexit, then it will leak votes in both directions. A lot of its traditional supporters will not vote. Nevertheless the party could do relatively well if it can hold on to enough of the vote to stay out of the shrapnel zone.

On the Brexit side of the other parties there are two main runners. Ukip is still in business with a recognisable brand, and Mr Farage has set up a breakaway: the Brexit Party. The latter is brand new, and has only just completed its registration. Many politicos had assumed that its lack of brand recognition in an apathetic electorate would be a fatal weakness, and it and Ukip would badly split the Brexitvote. But recent polls show that the Brexit Party is doing very well – even leading in some – which goes to show just how powerful the “populist” parties and their social media connections are. Just because voters are apathetic over the various mainstream parties doesn’t mean the are apathetic about Mr Farage’s doings. The new party is likely to be tripped up by the now highly treacherous regulatory regime, given the happy-go-lucky culture such parties live by, but that is not likely to emerge until long after the election is over, provided they manage to get candidates nominated. Ukip, whose affairs have descended into farce, are likely to be buried among the shrapnel. The Brexit Party, on the other hand, could be one of the beneficiaries of the splintered vote.

The three main Remain parties, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the new Change UK (formerly known as The Independent Group or TIG) on the other hand are courting disaster exactly because they are splintering the vote. Combined they could take as much as 25% of the vote – enough to do very decently. Split three ways they could end up with just one or two seats apiece. Under the country’s increasingly bureaucratic electoral regulations running a joint list in the time available to organise it was always going to be impossible, and it would have left the joint parties hobbled by expense limits. The Greens and Change UK claim that the proportional system makes a joint ticket unnecessary, and the Lib Dems claim that their attempts to organise a joint campaign were rebuffed. All three are surely being disingenuous. In any case, if they elect MEPs they will stand for different things – which might count if they succeed in stopping Brexit and serving their full terms. The election isn’t actually about Brexit after all – it’s about playing a role in the EU’s governance.

Meanwhile the three parties will be locked in a fierce battle with each other, and for attention within an apathetic electorate. The Greens have a strong brand, and may draw some votes from disillusioned Labour supporters from the left. The high profile climate change protests in London could help it too – though they are annoying a lot of people, these aren’t the ones who were ever likely to vote for them. But the strong brand is also a limiting factor which puts people off as well as attracting them – it is hard to see the party making it into the big time. It is hard to know what to make of Change UK. They have managed to get their new party registered in time, but their proposed logo was rejected. Their appeal is vague – but they may have some generous donors behind them, and they have a strong profile in mainstream media. They might be able to do something with this and it would be very foolish to write them off.

And the Lib Dems? Their (I should say our) brand is battered. But it has far more administrative strength and depth than the other two, and it could do well in local elections in early May, where its rivals have very little presence. It hopes to become the standard bearer for angry Remain voters. But it needs to push well beyond its usually polling range of 6-10% not to get caught in the shrapnel zone. This will be a big test for the party and its strategy of pitching itself as the hard Remain party.

For now it looks as if the election is the Brexit Party’s to lose, with maybe some consolation prizes for Labour. Whether this tells anything useful about the UK body politic is another matter, but it will provide a lot of entertainment for politicos.

We don’t know who is winning the Brexit trench warfare

Britain’s struggle over Brexit resembles the popular image of trench warfare on the Western Front in the First World War. Huge amounts of effort are expended, after which nothing much seems to have changed. Last night’s further postponement of the leaving date left me with that feeling. None of the possible endings seems any closer: Brexit with a deal, Brexit without a deal, or revocation with or without a further referendum. It doesn’t even look as if Theresa May, the Prime Minister, will resign to give somebody else a chance.

As with trench warfare, however, the important changes are less visible, and have to do with the stamina of the combatants. Optimists urge their side to keep going as the enemy is about to crack; pessimists see the strains on their own side, and assume that the other side is in a better state. But nobody really knows who will crack first.

And the strains are clearly showing on all sides. Within the Remain camp there were some Liberal Democrats, reportedly including the MP Norman Lamb, who were angry that a number of Lib Dem MPs voted (decisively) to oppose the customs union proposal in parliament’s recent indicative votes. Now, they say, is the time to reach out for a compromise and end the stalemate that is stopping progress on so many other parts of public life, as well as blighting businesses. Reportedly Norman said that the Lib Dems were no better that the Tory Brexit extremists of the European Research Group.

On the Brexit side there is the public recantation of influential journalist Peter Oborne. He now says that Brexit is much harder than he thought and really not such a good idea after all. Just before last night’s summit Mrs May talked of moving on to Britain’s brighter future outside the EU. There was no more conviction to this that her mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Her actions speak otherwise, unless she also thinks that staying in is better than no deal. Only a tiny band of die-hards can actually think that life would be better outside the EU. Most Brexiteers either feel strongly that the 2016 referendum result, with its high turnout from previously apathetic voters, should be respected, or else they simply want to move on. And, of course, accepting Brexit with a deal (which would have to be close to the one Mrs May has already agreed) is by far the easiest way to move on.

The people that look most defeated by this latest episode are the no-deal Brexiteers. They have a lot of poll support, but only about 100 MPs. Most people who look into the idea quickly drop it. Clearly the scare stories are not all the usual hype. The plan of the no-dealers was to get their way by default – but neither the government nor the EU are playing along with this. All intensely dislike the prospect of a no-deal. But the no-dealers aren’t defeated. Their best chance lies in changing the Conservative Party leadership to a hard Brexiteer like Boris Johnson, and hoping that he or she doesn’t wobble. Their other big hope is that the EU will throw Britain out, as is now in their power. This is close to the French president Emmanuel Macron’s public position, doubtless following French public opinion. Britain’s ambiguous status will do progressively more damage to EU institutions as it persists – and some EU leaders are starting to realise that a badly divided United Kingdom would not be an asset to the Union. So the no-dealers won’t give up yet.

The Remainers, who are ultimately looking for a revocation of Brexit, continue to hope too. They have suffered reverse after reverse, but they sense that the public mood is relentlessly creeping their way. Their biggest problem is that the Conservatives have firmly shut them out, and the Labour leadership is opposed too. Of the two, Labour’s resistance is clearly the weaker, since most Labour members and voters are Remainers. And yet the longish delay could force both parties to concede a referendum to break the deadlock, and that is all the opening Remainers are asking for.

Meanwhile those advocating the current deal on offer, or at least the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement part of it, are tantalisingly close to victory, like the Germans in April 1918 in World War One. All it now requires is for the talks between the Labour and Tory leaders to reach a compromise wording around the idea of a customs union and then to recommend that to their respective MPs. That should be enough. Or something similar might be achieved by a move led by backbench MPs. But the political rewards for such public spiritedness look meagre in Britain’s toxic politics.

What will happen? I find it impossible to predict and I don’t even know what I want. Each of the three possible outcomes looks pretty bad. Staunch Remainer as I am – and I would vote to revoke if given an opportunity – I do not relish the prospect of living in a country haunted by a stab-in-the-back myth, which can be trotted out to explain anything bad. Even if Revoke wins in a new referendum, it is hardly likely to amass the 17.4 million votes that Leave did in 2016, as turnout is likely to be low. I am tempted by the idea that we need to take one step back before taking two or even three steps forward.

Meanwhile it is hard not to be depressed.

The Brexit chaos offers Labour an opportunity

Most people who follow British politics are in despair, as neither government nor parliament are able to plot a way forward with sufficient backing to succeed. But perhaps the small band of advisers to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, who famously think that Brexit is a subsidiary issue, are sensing opportunity.

When Mr Corbyn was elected as Labour leader in 2015, Conservatives were gleeful, foreseeing a generation of permanent Tory rule. But Brexit and a blinkered leader have undone them. In 2017 they threw away a massive poll lead and lost their parliamentary majority. In recent months they have retained a consistent poll lead over Labour. This is not enough to break the deadlock, but enough to keep Labour out. But that could change.

Consider the possible outcomes of the current impasse over Brexit. A strong possibility is that the country will crash out of the EU on 11 April without a deal. Neither government nor parliament wants this, but neither can they agree on a deal, nor do they have the courage to revoke the Article 50 withdrawal process altogether. So what are the likely consequences?

It is hard to know just how bad things will be in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as most commentators are either pumping up the dangers or dismissing them. But some of the more thoughtful Brexiteers, like Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, are clearly rattled. Agricultural tariffs seem to be what is spooking him. Agriculture is not a major part of the economy by monetary value, but politicians the world over know that it packs a big political punch. There will be other problems, not all entirely attributable to Brexit, that will add to the misery. The British car industry is flat on its back. This is partly to do with Brexit, and the effect of planning blight on an industry that has to investment for years ahead. But also it is almost entirely foreign-owned and the underlying economics has changed to make repatriation of manufacturing to home countries more advantageous. A no-deal will accelerate its decline and the massive loss of prestige that will go with it. And there will be a hundred other smaller humiliations, that will be felt keenly by the better-educated and more worldly third of the population who never wanted it in the first place.

It gets worse. Britain will still have to deal with the EU and work out new agreements to allow a thousand things that we take for granted to keep going. This will not be easy as Brexiteers promise, and further humiliating climb-downs are in store. The only place where the hard Brexiteers may be proved right is Ireland. The Irish Republic is only now facing up to the consequences of its hard line on the Withdrawal Agreement and finds itself in a very sticky spot, just as the DUP and the Tory supporters predicted.

In the chaos Labour should be able to force a General Election, even if the government tries to struggle on. The Conservatives don’t have a majority, and have been struggling with a stream of defections. The DUP may well decide that the fun of propping it up is over and withdraw its support. The Tory position will be desperate. If Labour are able to launch their strike quickly, they may not even be able to change leader. In that event they stand no chance of presenting a coherent and convincing case to electors. More likely they will manage to find somebody new, but though he (or much less likely, she) might experience a honeymoon, there will not be enough time for them to get a strong grip on the organisation. Meanwhile Labour, and everybody else, will throw back at the Brexiteers that will then be in charge of the party, all their false prospectuses about Brexit and the no-deal.

What happens if Britain manages to avoid a no-deal? One scenario only gives the Tories a chance: if they are able to get Theresa May’s deal through parliament at the fourth attempt, and then leave in a relatively orderly fashion on 23 May. But to do that they will need a substantial block of Labour MPs, and if the Labour leadership resists, that surely will not happen. Ruling that out, what could happen is some sort of long stay of execution to renegotiate the deal and organise a General Election.

What does Labour do then? It needs to promise a new exit deal to be confirmed by a further referendum. To win, Labour must rally the Remain voters who will no longer be able to support the Tories: that means promising a referendum. But they also need to rally at least some Leave supporters. The importance of these to Labour has been exaggerated, but the party will still need all the votes it can get. But the leadership can still say that it is in favour of Brexit, and will campaign in favour of its new deal when that referendum comes. If that looks a little weak, the Tories will be struggling to come up with a coherent alternative. With decent execution (never a given in British politics after Tony Blair) this could be a winner for Labour.

But are still problems for them. The first is Scotland. Labour has always struggled to win without a substantial bank of Scottish seats. But they have been outflanked on Brexit there by the SNP, who remain organisationally strong. It is hard to see what killer arguments they can use against them.

A second problem for Labour is that it still lacks traction in rural and suburban England. Mr Blair conquered these areas by promising neoliberalism. Labour can’t do that this time. Also they are broadly pro Brexit, so any referendum promise will get in the way. Some form of “progressive” alliance with the Lib Dems, the Greens and even with TIG might help to unlock these seats. But Labour’s strategy for dealing with these parties is to crush them, not lend them a hand.

Which is related to the third problem: the Tories will try to change the subject, as Labour so successfully did in the last election. They will not talk about Brexit any more than they really have to. Instead they will paint Labour as loopy lefties, who can’t be trusted to run the nation’s finances, the forces of law and order, or to control the borders. Labour might think that the country is fed up with “austerity”, but the voters they need to win over think that being careful with public spending is a good thing.

That makes it hard for Labour, but not impossible. Their shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, understands the need for a disciplined message on economic management, and the party’s campaign managers surely realise that abstract ideas like austerity cut little ice compared to concrete messages on impacts of cuts to education and police funding, for example.

The Labour leadership is reaching its moment of truth. Their strategy of sticking to a narrow, leftist agenda (unlike Mr Blair’s broad centrist one) is inherently risky. But the Tories may be gifting them their chance. Will they be up to the task?