So just what are Labour up to?

Britain is entering a period of high political drama. All the political parties are geared up for a few months where they could have a decisive influence on events. Except, apparently, one. Labour’s policy on Brexit, the issue of the day, appears confused. They have added to to the general confusion after one of its most senior leaders, John McDonnell suggested they might not get in the way of a referendum on Scottish independence. Meanwhile the party appears riven by internal issues, not least the longstanding row over antisemitism. Just what is going on?

To outsiders the obvious answer is that the party is suffering from weak leadership that is unable to make hard choices. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has had a life in politics playing the gadfly, and has very little background in the heavy-lifting stuff. But he is surrounded by clever advisers, who live and breathe political strategy. Something more purposeful is surely going on.

The first thing to understand about Labour is that the hard left, people that I have also referred to as Leninists, took control when Mr Corbyn took the leadership in 2015. These are patient people with long-term goals. They have been dreaming for a generation and more of taking control of the party, and after that the country: they are not going to loosen their grip if they can help it. They have consolidated control over the party machinery, and Mr Corbyn is one of their own. But their hold is not totally secure, especially with so many MPs not in their camp. If Mr Corbyn was to step down as leader, they have no strong candidate to replace him. Their best bet is Mr McDonnell, who is clearly smarter and more strategic than Mr Corbyn, but is another older white male, without Mr Corbyn’s particular charisma. Somebody else could do to him what Mr Corbyn did to the front-runners in 2015. The other candidate often spoken of is Rebecca Long-Bailey. But she gets very little media space and most people (me included) don’t really understand who she is. I suspect that she is another of those popular insiders who get talked up by their colleagues but haven’t quite got what it takes for the big stage. So Mr Corbyn has to hang on in there, even though he seems well past his sell-by date. Meanwhile the internal runctions are simply part of the price the leadership pays for consolidating its hold. They think much of it is pumped up by enemies of the party in unsympathetic media channels; they aren’t entirely wrong there, though that is normal everyday politics.

The second thing to understand is what the leadership’s general political strategy appears to have been over Brexit. The inner group, in accordance with Leninist ways, is closed and secretive, so it is actually quite hard to know for sure what their game is. But they seem to be deeply scared of taking sides, and alienating either working class Brexit-supporting voters in their northern heartlands, or the Brexit-hating younger middle-class activists who do most of the work. They are mostly Brexit supporters themselves, fearing that EU regulations might limit their options in government. They hope that Brexit happens, and allow the political debate to move on, with the process being messy and the Conservatives getting the blame. They can then attack the tarnished Tories in an election, where they can move the agenda on to “for the many, not the few” (a horrid phrase designed to say less than it seems, appropriated by former leader Tony Blair to replace the much more specific old Clause 4 of the party constitution in the 1990s).

This strategy suffered a major blow when Brexit did not happen as expected on 29 March this year, prolonging the inevitable strain. When it came to the European Parliament elections that resulted, the party had nothing of value to say and performed very badly. These elections gave credibility to two alternative parties, who beat them: The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. The Greens also did well, surely at Labour’s expense. Labour’s voters are getting used to considering alternatives for their vote. This makes things harder.

But the strategy appears to be undead. Brexit looks likely to happen on 31 October. This will probably be chaotic and this could tarnish the Tories, as planned, while taking the wind from the sails of TBP. The Lib Dems will become irrelevant with their main anti-Brexit message pointless, and Green voters can made to realise that their cause is hopeless in the current electoral system. So keep going.

The most important question the party now has to face is what happens if the government loses a vote of no-confidence in September. This will be too late to stop a no-deal Brexit unless an alternative government can be formed with Labour at its core. What would the party do to facilitate this? The most credible strategy would be to form some short-term multi-party “government of national unity” (a misnomer if ever there was one), by ganging up with the SNP, Lib Dems and Tory rebels. This needs a less partisan and more competent prime minister than Mr Corbyn to have its best chance – some elder statesman, not necessarily even Labour. The Labour leadership appear to have ruled this out. They would have two reasons for doing so. Firstly they would be taking sides and alienating their Brexit supporters; the gambit might even stop Brexit from happening. Second it does not help Labour appear as a credible government in waiting if they accept that their leader isn’t up to leading it.

So the idea appears to be to present Labour as an alternative, minority, government, with Mr Corbyn as prime minister, and dare the other parties and Tory rebels to provide enough votes and abstentions to get it started. If it succeeds it would be an excellent platform from which to launch a general election, with the party’s credibility boosted by the trappings of power. The problem, of course, is that the party would have to take ownership of Brexit. That firstly means getting the EU to delay, which should be feasible. The party says that it wants to revive the previous government’s deal with the EU, tweak it to their liking (for example by making the objective of a customs union explicit) and put it to the people in a referendum. This is very fraught. In practice they would be likely to negotiate a delay and launch a general election. The problem with that is they want the election after Brexit, not before.

In fact what I suspect the leadership really wants to do is somehow to allow Brexit to happen with the Conservatives in charge, and then move for the kill. “Somehow” because they must do this while appearing not to facilitate it.

That all looks very fraught, but it is making the best of a difficult hand. The potential reward for the leadership is massive. They could end up in power after an election, with a lot of their troublesome MPs cleared out, and with the political sting largely drawn from Brexit. The chances of this don’t look that high, but for those Leninists who have been willing it all their political lives, it must look like the best shot they will ever get.

To observers who do not equate national with party interest, and especially those who want to put Brexit to another referendum, this is a dismal prospect. The Labour leadership could act decisively to resolve the crisis through such a referendum. That it won’t isn’t because it is weak, it is because it doesn’t want to.

A very British coup

I have returned from a ten day holiday, mainly in Austria and Hungary to find my country with a very different government in charge. There has been no election. The new government has even not been tested by our democratic representatives in parliament, and will not be for at least another month. Such is the British constitution, an odd mixture of the democratic and monarchic.

I struggle to accept that Boris Johnson is now our prime minister. This man has always been something of an outsider to the British political establishment, and somehow not a serious politician. His main claim to fame was an eight year period as Mayor of London, an office that sounds more impressive than it actually is. Apart from that he spent a year as Foreign Secretary, where he has had at best mixed reviews. He comes into his current job after a further year of making mischief from outside government. But he convinced most of his fellow Conservative MPs that he was the man for the moment, and this was emphatically endorsed by the party’s membership, who barely amount about 160,000. This does not even work by the principle that a majority of a majority is a majority – as Conservatives MPs are not a majority in parliament, and still less so in the country as a whole.

Mr Johnson then swiftly completed his coup by replacing government ministers wholesale. There was no attempt here to achieve balance across the parliamentary party. Instead there seemed to be two tests: personal loyalty to Mr Johnson during the leadership contest, and a readiness to accept a no-deal Brexit. More shocking than this is the guiding philosophy of the new government, set not just by ministerial appointments, but those of senior advisers. It has a revolutionary air: one that is eager to crush all opposition to achieve what it has decided is the will of the people. This is quite unlike any government I can remember. There are flashes of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but even these felt they had to make some attempt to get support from across their parties, even though it was clear that they preferred not to.

For now this gives the new government a freshness and energy, as is often the way when the tiresome ways of negotiation and compromise are suspended. The focus is on achieving Brexit by 31 October without the Irish backstop which was agreed by its predecessor with the European Union.

The political objective of this is in plain sight. Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party poses a mortal threat to the Conservatives, as was demonstrated by the European Parliament elections. Behind this lies the frustration of much of the country with the failure to implement Brexit. So far Mr Johnson’s strategy is working. TBP is sagging in the polls. And although the Conservatives lost the Brecon and Radnorshire by election largely because of TBP, the trend is clear.

But this all looks more like a campaign that a credible government programme. Mr Johnson has laid out an uncompromising negotiating position for the EU; his ministers are making daily promises to spend money on this or that problem; there are also promises of tax cuts. There is no attempt to reconcile all this with reality. But the new government has to deal with two very big problems, even before it needs to work out how it is to run the government finances.

First is that it has a technical majority of only one after the Brecon by election, while having many disaffected MPs in their own ranks, who have little to lose by creating trouble. It is hard to see that a majority can be found to support a no-deal Brexit, unless a large number Labour MPs from Brexit supporting areas start to panic.

The second major problem is the reality of negotiating lasting international treaties. The government’s supporters claim that such negotiations are similar to those for buying or selling property, or for supermarkets buying produce from food suppliers. The US president has the same sort of idea. But their objective is not a one-off transaction, but a long-term relationship. This requires trust, which is hard if you keep threatening to tear up any deal that you unilaterally decide you don’t like. It is also hard to compromise when part of your act is to whip up your own political base with uncompromising rhetoric. Donald Trump is finding it impossible to complete pretty much any international negotiation so far, with the exception of relations with Mexico and Canada, where the power imbalance is massively in his favour. The government hopes that the threat of no-deal chaos, especially in Ireland, produces just such a power imbalance in Britain’s favour. But the politics look terrible and time is short. Also many Europeans think that no-deal represents a colossal act of self-harm by Britain, and might be tempted by the response of “Go ahead: make my day”. Some think that a chaotic British exit will be a lesson to other countries tempted to threaten their own exit.

So what on earth is the government’s strategy? There is a twin answer to the first problem. First is that by ducking and weaving the government may be able to achieve a no-deal without having to get the approval of parliament. This is tricky, but they have made it clear that they have no scruples about whether such an approach is democratically legitimate (since they are simply enforcing the will of the people, of course), and their best brains are on the case. The second answer is to fight and win a general election. That looks a tall order, but British politics is volatile and they may get their chance.

And the second problem? They appear not to care, or they may even believe their own propaganda, which is either that the EU (and the Irish government in particular) will give way and create some sort of transitional period towards a hard Brexit, or that a no-deal Brexit will only cause problems in the short-term. It would doubtless be chaotic, but politically the key is not to catch the blame, they seem to think. This looks much to sanguine to me, but I don’t live in their world.

Will they get away with it? Mr Johnson has one thing going for him: the abysmal state of the Labour Party. They may be too weak to stop him, but too strong to stop anybody else from doing so. That party’s predicament deserves a blog post of its own. Their leadership looks incapable of exploiting the chaotic situation to its advantage. If the Tories can crush TBP (perhaps neutralising them with an electoral pact, though that looks very hard to pull off), and then reassure Brexit-supporting Labour supporters with its apparent abandonment of austerity, then it is all to play for.

The Conservative and Labour parties are in trouble

After the general election of 2010, and the Liberal Democrats entering a coalition with the Conservatives, I remember the cognitive dissonance that overwhelmed the party. It was the centre of sustained media attention, for the first time in its history, and with all the trappings of being a significant political force, with MPs and cabinet ministers. But its support amongst the public had died. Many insiders talked themselves into thinking that voters would return in time for the next election, using swathes of statistical evidence from past elections. But the party was as good as finished and was nearly wiped out in the 2015 election. Something of the same dissonance is now being experienced by the Conservative and Labour parties. Opinion polls put each of them at only about 20% of the vote, alongside the new Brexit Party (TBP) and the Liberal Democrats returning from the dead. The duopoly which is so much party of both parties’ raison d’être is facing its most serious challenge ever.

This collapse in support of the two parties that have anchored Britain’s political system for getting on for 100 years follows a global trend, especially here in Europe. It has happened in France and Italy, and is in the process of happening in Germany and Spain, not to mention several other countries. But it is a shock to the British political establishment. The duopoly had its best election in 40 years in 2017, when they Ukip followed the Lib Dems into collapse and they collectively took more than 80% of the vote. They even managed a significant recovery in Scotland, where both had been crushed by the SNP. You could almost hear the sigh of relief, not just from those parties’ luminaries, but amongst the tribe of civil servants, think tankers and journalists who yearned for the old familiar ways of the two-party system. Britain seemed more like the United States or Australia than its “Continental” neighbours.

But in America the political parties are democratic, with processes of open primaries to select candidates, allowing new ideas and people to take hold in alignment with wider popular attitudes. Instead of being replaced, the Republicans and Democrats are being transformed away from the traditional conservative and labour based models to being modern reactionary-nationalist and liberal-green parties – like the parties that are doing well in Europe. The Labour Party flirted with a more democratic and open party structure in 2015, which resulted in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But it has quickly reverted to the closed, cadre-based organisation as the hard left sought to consolidate its hold on the party machinery. The Tories abandoned their brief flirtation with open primaries long before. Party activists, and to a lesser extent paid-up memberships guard their privileges assiduously. That is the European way. The Lib Dems similarly rejected the injection of democracy earlier this year, amid much scoffing by activists.

The immediate problem for both parties is easy enough to see: Brexit. This issue divides parties formed on traditional lines, but unites nationalist and liberal forces on opposite sides, with greens joining the latter. Whether the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU really should divide liberals, greens and nationalists like this is an interesting question. There are some good liberal and green arguments for being outside the EU. But both loathe the reactionary nationalists with their illiberal and anti-environmentalist beliefs, and this doubtless suppresses any reservations; the conversion of the Greens to EU membership is much more recent than many realise.

For the Tories the problem has been that they have quite reasonably sought a version of Brexit that achieves its main objectives with the minimum of disruption. But this has ignited the anger of the rising tide of nationalists in their ranks, who see this as a sell-out, and have thwarted its attempts to get legislation through. TBP then arose from the ashes of Ukip as a much more disciplined and coherent organisation, having learnt much from Donald Trump’s techniques, and a major threat from the nationalist right. This has tapped the zeitgeist of the party’s bedrock support better than its own party leaders. The European elections showed that TBP posed an existential threat to the Tories, and so both candidates for the party’s leadership are trying to take their party into TBP’s ground, especially with support for a no-deal Brexit. That angers their liberal supporters who are deserting the party for the Lib Dems. By dealing with one threat they are opening up another. This is likely to get worse if the party either delivers a no-deal Brexit, or, indeed, if it fails to deliver Brexit at all.

Conservatives clearly hope to win their liberal supporters back by frightening them with the prospect of Labour coming to power. The problem with that is that Labour support also is in free fall and the party no long poses such a credible threat. A key ingredient of the success of the duopoly is stoking up fear of the other party. But as Times columnist David Aaronovich recently wrote of prospective Tory leader Boris Johnson:

If anything “vote Boris to stop Corbyn” has less resonance than, say, “vote Lib Dem to stop both of them”.

David Aaronovich, The Times 3 July 2019

Labour have reached their sorry state because the leadership is understandably worried by the popularity of Brexit amongst their traditional white working class supporters, especially in many northern towns. They do not see Brexit as the defining issue of the times, but rather they say it is “austerity”, or the struggle of the less well-off against a system rigged against them. They hope to paint a messy Brexit as Tory incompetence and rally a backlash drawing in both supporters and opponents of Brexit. For a long time this looked like a clever strategy, but now it looks like a fatal weakness. As Britain approaches an autumn of political crisis, the party is without a coherent political message on the most important issue of the day. If the party had followed through on its democratic revolution of 2015, it would be leading the struggle to fight Brexit, and suffocating the Lib Dems and Greens in a journey towards being a modern liberal-green movement. To follow through on their strategy they needed the government to get its Brexit deal through parliament so that they could try to change the subject – but when it came to it they were too scared of a backlash from their anti-Brexit supporters.

Doubtless activists in both parties, like Lib Dems during the coalition, think that the ship will right itself by the time the next election comes. Labour supporters remember the surge in their party’s support in 2017. Tories think that Boris Johnson will puncture Nigel Farage’s TBP and generate a surge of support with his charismatic personality. A poll back in June suggested that just this might happen, albeit with a low poll share for the party.

But it is hard to see how events can unfold that will make these wishes come true. If the next election happens before this Autumn’s scheduled Brexit date, the Tories will be undermined by their support for a no-deal Brexit, and Labour will be undermined by their ambiguity on reversing Brexit. If the election happens afterwards, either after a no-deal or a failed Brexit, both parties risk being swept aside in the public backlash. And if a Brexit deal of some sort manages to be concluded, the process is likely to fatally fracture both parties – as a large number of Labour MPs will be required to get it over the line. The situation is becoming so unstable, however, that it is not impossible for one of the parties to still triumph – but this would require a quality of leadership that neither Boris Johnson (certain to be the Tory leader) nor Jeremy Corbyn possess. Strange times indeed.

Ed or Jo? The Lib Dem leadership race

While the race to become leader of the Conservative Party dominates the news, another leadership contest is running in parallel: that of the Liberal Democrats. Both parties are polling about 20% currently, but there are good reasons why the Lib Dem contest is not receiving anything like the same level of coverage. The new Tory leader is guaranteed to become Prime Minister, even if only for a few days; for the new Lib Dem leader to be Prime Minister it will take an unprecedented political upset at a general election that may not take place until 2022. But it isn’t just that: the Lib Dem contest is as dull as ditchwater. But it is important.

That is for two reasons. Firstly the government does not have a majority, and a number Conservative MPs are being driven to rebellion. A chaotic phase of parliamentary proceedings is about to start, and the Lib Dems 12 MPs could be decisive. And secondly the Lib Dems are on the up, and could do well in the next general election, which may well produce a hung parliament in which the party plays a decisive role.

The contenders are Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. There is little to choose between them on what they are saying to party members. Both want to make the party the natural home for liberal-minded voters; both want to raise the profile of environmental policy; and both want to rebalance the economy in favour of the left-behind. Jo is supposed to be more sympathetic to working with other parties to achieve liberal aims, but what difference this actually makes in the real hard world of politics is very hard to tell from what they have said. That leaves us with judgements on personal qualities.

Unlike previous Lib Dem leadership contests I have worked directly with both candidates. I know Ed the better. I first saw him in action in the mid-1980s when, alongside Chris Huhne, he led a seminar for the SDP on economic policy. He stood out as one of a small number of people in the party that were economically literate, amid the lawyers, teachers and social workers. He then moved into my constituency, Putney, when I was a party officer (alternating Chair and Treasurer). I remember arranging to meet him for a drink at the party’s Harrogate conference in 1992, but having to cancel because it was Black Wednesday, and he was advising the then leader Paddy Ashdown on economic matters. We both stood as paper candidates in Southfields ward in 1994 (when I was agent); I actually outpolled him in spite of the slight alphabetic disadvantage, as the surname “Green” seemed to confer a slight advantage, perhaps from people supporting the Green party. Not long afterwards I was called on the give a Chair’s reference as part of his approval process for becoming a parliamentary candidate. He was shortly adopted by Kingston and Surbiton, which he won by 56 votes in 1997, in spite of it not being one of the party’s primary targets (though I did deliver a few leaflets for him). Much later, after he lost his seat in 2015 I worked with him on the London Assembly campaign for 2016, where he was lead fundraiser (his wife Emily was second on the party list for assembly seats) and I was London Treasurer.

What stands out from all this is that I have found that his views very closely matched mine. He joined the SDP, but with the merger embraced the new party’s Liberal traditions. Nowadays I consider myself more Liberal than Social Democrat. He is interested in economics, and is a passionate pro-European. He loves politics and politicking, embracing doorstep politics as well as international deal-making. But he is also open and transparent: what you see is what you get. His biggest political achievement was a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Coalition, when he successfully pushed forward the country’s drive into renewable energy. There is plenty of controversy about his record here, and some hard Greens regard him as a disastrous sell-out. In particular he was prepared to embrace nuclear energy at a high cost. This hasn’t attracted any comment that I have seen in the leadership contest, though. To me it shows his pragmatic side, and how he prioritised getting results over taking the moral high ground.

I know Jo much less well. Though we have met a number of times, I don’t get any more than a “I know that face from somewhere” look from her. I first met her shortly after she was first elected in 2005 as Britain’s youngest MP, and she (along with another newly-elected Scottish MP Danny Alexander) was a guest speaker at a Burns Night dinner, and I sat opposite her. She was part of the policy working group in 2011-2012 on wellbeing, on which I served. I also applied for a job as her parliamentary researcher not long afterwards, and was interviewed by her. I didn’t get the job, but I don’t hold that against her: my memory is that I did a lacklustre job of selling myself. I find her more reserved than Ed, and more likely to lapse into formulaic answers to questions (something which shows in some of her interviews). But she has a strong record in grassroots campaigning (like Ed, but unlike too many Lib Dem leaders), and is a believer in wellbeing economics, as I am (Ed is less clear on this). She was a junior minister in the Coalition, when her main achievement was in developing parental leave. While she is unsurprisingly keen on developing women’s rights, she has the imagination to see this from the male perspective, and has been careful to promote male rights too (in parental leave, in particular). Ed, incidentally, was an early “New Man” and has been a model in promoting and encouraging diversity in his local party.

Jo has three things going for her. First she is female. For all the party’s embrace of feminism, its record in taking women through to senior positions is weak. It would also be good to leave Labour as the only major political party (or even minor one, come to that) not to have had a female leader, not counting the brand-new The Brexit Party. Second is her relative youth: she is 39 to Ed’s 53. She symbolises a fresh start for the party, and its embrace of younger voters. Thirdly she is Scottish, representing a Scottish seat. English politicians are in perpetual danger of underestimating the Scottish dimension to British politics, and its importance is growing. Also in the last two elections Labour and Conservatives have targeted the Lib Dem leader’s seat, causing resources to be diverted and other seats to be lost. This tactic will be much harder if the party leader has a Scottish seat.

For all that I will be voting for Ed. I feel he is kindred spirit somehow, and I like his grasp of detail, where Jo tends to drop into generalities. But there really isn’t much in it.

Is Britain heading for a no-deal exit?

The biggest complaint about politics from people who run businesses is not Brexit itself, where opinions are divided depending on the depth of relationship with other EU countries, but on the uncertainty. We don’t know exactly what shape Brexit will take and when. One businessman explained to me, last February, that it was impossible to prepare for the impending departure date of 29 March because he didn’t know what he was preparing for. That date has come and gone and the uncertainty has just got worse.

The new crunch date is 31 October, and attention has moved on to the contest for the Conservative leadership, as this will almost certainly determine who will be our next Prime Minister. Both contenders, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, maintain that achieving Brexit on this date is their main aim. What is less clear is how much of a rupture either man would be prepared to risk to achieve this goal.

Mr Johnson is the strong favourite but his campaign is not going smoothly. Mr Johnson has never presented himself as being a slick operator, so this is not particularly damaging of it itself. But his strategy to date has been to say as little as possible, to allow a wide spectrum of Conservatives to project their wishes into the vacant space. To hard Brexiteers he has promised to take Britain out on 31 October come what may. Those who would rather delay than suffer a full rupture detect some flexibility. Attacks on Mr Johnson both on his private life and his Brexit stance have forced him increase the level of press exposure in order to help recover the initiative. That has forced him to reveal more of his thinking, but this has not helped us very much.

What he has shown is a breathtaking optimism. He says both that a new deal is perfectly feasible in the time, and that a no-deal does not mean all that much rupture in fact. This sheer candy floss, sweet-tasting but disappearing on contact with anything solid. For his main audience, the Tory membership, this is fine. They are fed up with the consistent pessimism they hear from critics of Brexit, and appreciate the ray of sunshine that Mr Johnson provides. But what does it actually mean?

Commentary on the various Brexit strategies coming form the Conservative leadership candidates is relentlessly negative. I largely share this scepticism, but I don’t feel there is much point in repeating it. Critics of Brexit tend to programme out more optimistic scenarios. But if we are to understand more clearly what might happen we should not dismiss the optimistic gloss so easily.

The first possibility is that a Withdrawal Agreement will be agreed by 31 October, and that it will get through parliament. The first problem is that both leadership contenders say that it needs to be changed from its current form, but that the EU side has said that it is unchangeable. The second problem is that there is very little time to agree and implement something different. But the EU fears the full rupture too, so something might be done that saves face on all sides. This might pass parliament because Brexit supporters realise that trying for the no-deal alternative leads to further delay, which plays into the hands of the Remainers. The deal cannot be much different from what came before, but there may be more Conservative solidarity, and Labour discipline might start to crack. This seems to be Mr Hunt’s game-plan. It could work. But the odds are against it. It has been tried before, by Theresa May, and the EU called the British bluff successfully. They will be tempted to do so again giving the British prime minister very little to play with.

The second possibility is what might be called a no-deal no-rupture Brexit on 31 October. This seems to be Mr Johnson’s big idea. At first sight it is nonsense. Any kind of no-rupture, with a transition period where little practical changes, requires a deal of some sort. But what of a small-deal small-rupture Brexit? This would involve the transition period as specified in the original Withdrawal Agreement, the target of a Canada-style free trade agreement, with WTO arrangements as a fall back. The other details. such as Ireland and the money, will be worked out later. What’s in it for the EU? There would be no rupture, or at any rate a delayed one, which would remove a big headache, especially in Ireland. The UK would no longer pollute EU institutions such as the European Council and the European Parliament. They would get at least some of the money envisaged in the original Withdrawal Agreement.

Would the EU buy it? Of course it is a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement by other means, with the Irish backstop removed from it. And there is not much time to negotiate it. That’s a big problem. The more of the original agreement is grandfathered into the new arrangement to save time, the more of a humiliating climbdown it would look for both the EU and the Irish government. There needs to be a large dollop of something from the British government to compensate. At the moment I really can’t see what this would be. Mr Hunt’s plan looks a much better bet.

But the question remains how far Mrs May’s successor is prepared to risk a full no-deal rupture. This still seems to scare a lot of people. The threat of large agricultural tariffs on exports to the EU, including over the border in Ireland, is a big deal for people that Tories care about. And there remains the chance that parliament could sabotage it by bringing the government down.

That leaves a wide spectrum of possibilities, from remaining in the EU after all, with or without a further referendum, all the way towards a full no-deal rupture. And each of these possibilities has a significant probability. Meanwhile the opinion polls show four political parties each with about 20% of the vote, something that would make the outcome of any election highly unpredictable. There is no relief in sight for Britain’s businesses.

A divided nation is bad news for the Tories

The two televised debates between the contenders for the Conservative leadership served at least one useful purpose to those of us who have no role in the process. They showed how divided the country is and how different sections of the public live in different and irreconcilable worlds.

Brexit is the problem.The contenders hunted for a reasonable centre-ground on other issues. They deplored the failings of public services after years of cutbacks; they thought tackling climate change should be a top priority; they celebrated multiculturalism. None of these are a given amongst pro-Brexit hardliners. The Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage happily focuses on tax rather than services, says climate change is a hoax and deplores multiculturalism, drawing inspiration from Donald Trump. There is polling evidence that such a combination of views is commonplace amongst Conservative Brexiteers.

But this moderation amongst the leadership contenders counts for very little. They are overwhelmed by Brexit and the candidates take one thing as a given: Brexit must be achieved by 31 October (or perhaps a shade later) at virtually any cost. Arguments about whether or not this is a good idea are redundant, because, they agree, public confidence in politics and democracy would collapse otherwise. Implementing the letter of a three-year old referendum decision is a decisive test for democracy in this view, otherwise the liberal elite will have succeeded in thwarting the will of the people. The only argument is over attitudes to a no-deal Brexit, and even there only Rory Stewart (now eliminated) suggested this should be ruled out, as much because parliament is against it as that it is a bad idea in itself. All other candidates agreed that a no-deal Brexit was a bad thing, but said that the prospect of delaying Brexit was even worse. They tried to reconcile this awkward stance by saying that it was crucial for the country’s negotiating position to present a credible threat of no-deal, as if negotiating a complex and long-term political relationship was like Tesco trying beat down its suppliers on the price of cheese.

To people like me, who may now be in the majority of the country as a whole, this is utter lunacy. We should do Brexit because it is good for the country not solely because of a three-year old referendum. And just what is so undemocratic about going back to the country in a further referendum if parliament cannot agree on a deal? And yet that last option is so beyond the pale amongst the leadership candidates that it wasn’t even discussed. And as for keeping no-deal “on the table”, it looks like an effort in pointless self-harm that will weaken the county’s negotiating position in the long-term yet further.

And yet the leadership candidates are not stuck in a Westminster bubble. It is the reverse: they know full-well that this is how the party’s core supporters feel – and that is why they deserted en masse to The Brexit Party (TBP). If the new Conservative leader does not take this tough line on Brexit, the party could very well melt down. The leadership contest must be fought in the world-view of the hard Brexiteers, with the rest of us acting as helpless spectators.

But that is climbing out of the fire and into the frying pan. The main reason that the Conservatives did so badly in the European elections was defections to TBP. But there was another reason: many others defected to the Liberal Democrats. I know quite a few of them. These people do not inhabit the world of the hard-Brexiteer. To win the next general election, the Conservatives will somehow need to get these people back. The contenders left some clue as how they hoped achieve this. The first was they want to avoid a general election for as long as possible. They all agreed on that, notwithstanding the government’s lack of a majority, and their protestations about democracy. Second they hope that by achieving Brexit they can move on, and change the subject to stopping Jeremy Corbyn.

That could work, but it depends on passing something that looks very like Theresa May’s deal, allowing departure on 31 October, or even before. This will soften the Brexit transition, and, crucially, make the argument over a further referendum redundant. Brexit will still be an issue, as the future trading relationship has to be negotiated, but on a level that makes it much easier to push down the political agenda, though there is a danger that the end of the transition period gets tangled up with the next general election.

But it is much harder to see this working with a no-deal. Such an event would rank alongside Black Monday in 1992, when Britain dropped out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, destroying John Major’s newly reelected government’s credibility – a position from the Conservatives were unable to recover for nearly two decades. Furthermore it would create a series of future crises that would mean that the government would be unable to control the agenda. The sunny post-Brexit uplands, that leadership contender Michael Gove hopes for, will be very hard to usher in in time.

Can a new Prime Minister succeed where Mrs May failed three times? There is hope. Labour MPs, especially those in heavily Leave-voting areas, are getting twitchy and discipline may be starting to break down, to judge by Labour’s failed attempt to move against a no-deal last week. The EU may be able to offer a token something to cover the retreat. Some of the contenders correctly understand that the key will be the Irish Republic’s government, as a no-deal would create huge problems there. English Tory understanding of Irish politics is woeful, but something may be achieved.

Meanwhile the non-Brexit supporting half of the country will have to endure some further weeks of public debate amongst Conservatives conducted in a world that looks completely unreal to them. In due course there will surely be an anti-Brexit backlash, for which Conservatives will be utterly unready.

The astonishing rebirth of Boris Johnson

The rebirth of Boris Johnson’s political career is astonishing. He has secured the backing of enough Conservative MPs to ensure that his name will be one of the two that go forward to party members to choose as party leader. And the party leader will, according to now well-established precedent, become the next prime minister. He is expected to win. I am only beginning to digest this.

Mr Johnson’s main personal political achievement to date (as opposed to his role in the 2016 referendum, which may have been decisive) has been securing two terms as London’s Mayor. This was hardly the triumph that his boosters claim. His principal opponent (Labour’s former Mayor Ken Livingstone, well past his sell-by date) was weak, and scrutiny from the media and elsewhere proved easy enough to evade. He had little or nothing to do with the achievements touted on his behalf (such as the 2012 Olympics, the public bike scheme, and an improvement in London’s state schools), and there were a series of ill-conceived vanity schemes (new double-decker buses, the “Garden Bridge”, water-cannon for the police). His one role in senior politics was a disastrous stint as Foreign Secretary. The spectacular implosion of his previous bid to become Conservative leader in 2016 would have finished most political careers. Most of his fellow MPs don’t like him. He is, however, one of the few modern British politicians with personal charisma, and he is as different in personality from the current leader, Theresa May, as it is possible to conceive. Given Mrs May’s failure, the demand for the next leader to be different is understandable. Mr Johnson, who has managed to accrue a significant personal income, has bought in professional advice, and it is working wonders. There are parallels here with that other reborn political power, Nigel Farage. Political advisers (or “strategists” as these tacticians like to be called) had a bad name after the failure of Mrs May’s 2017 general election campaign, but they’re back with a vengeance. In addition to good quality tactical advice, he has also had the benefit of an excellent parliamentary whipping operation – one observer detects the influence of former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, who proved a gaffe-prone Defence Secretary and was sacked by Mrs May, but who was very effective in his former role.

Is his rise to Prime Minister inevitable? There are two obstacles. The first is the members’ ballot. Such polling evidence as there is suggests that he has a commanding lead. But as it starts his opponent is likely to have some momentum. Two of the potential candidates might give him trouble. Jeremy Hunt, his successor as Foreign Secretary, oozes a smooth competence, and could harvest a move for a safety vote if the wheels start to fall off the Johnson campaign. That is not impossible; many have noticed that his advisers are trying to keep him out of public scrutiny. This is how things went so badly wrong for Mrs May in 2017: he will have allow for a bit of rough-and-tumble.

The other candidate that could be trouble is rank outsider Rory Stewart. He is the only other candidate with a personal charisma that matches Mr Johnson’s, and he has fought a quirky but effective campaign. He is not a safety candidate, like Mr Hunt, but he might be able build the same sort of unlikely momentum that Jeremy Corbyn did when he was elected as Labour leader.

But Mr Stewart is unlikely to be given that chance by MPs. And Mr Johnson probably has the skills to keep Mr Hunt at bay. Which leaves the second obstacle to the premiership: parliament. Labour, quite rightly, plan to launch an immediate vote of no confidence when the new Conservative leader takes up the PM’s role. The government’s majority (with the DUP) is thin; a handful of Tory MPs could fail to back him, and that would be that. This would be messy, but a general election is the most likely result, which Mr Johnson might lose.

But the odds are that Mr Johnson will survive any challenges posed by party members or parliament. What then? Most predict a chaotic and short-lived premiership, but we really don’t know. His leadership campaign shows a certain steel and political competence. The parallel his backers would like to offer, no doubt, is Donald Trump. He is at least as lazy and vague on detail as Mr Johnson, but he is lasting the course and might well be re-elected.

That parallel is rather an alarming one, as Mr Johnson is clearly taking Mr Trump as a role model (as is Nigel Farage). Mr Trump has achieved much of his success by a process of steadily undermining his country’s governing institutions and conventions. And Britain’s institutions are long on convention and weak on legal enforceability. One example is now much talked about: the idea that parliament might be suspended to prevent it from blocking a no-deal Brexit. Mr Johnson has not ruled this out.

But there is an important difference between Trump and Johnson. Mr Trump was reasonably clear about what he wanted to do, and by and large he has followed the agenda set out before he was elected, love it or loathe it. Mr Johnson has said as little as possible about what he wants to do and how, allowing his supporters to project their wishes into the blank space. He wants to achieve Brexit by 31st October, but to some audiences he suggests this will be negotiated with the EU, to for others he suggests complete breakdown.

But as PM he will have to take the hard decisions that nobody else wants to take, and Brexit, whichever way it goes, will provide a steady stream of such decisions. And then there is government finances: he can’t keep everybody happy without creating a bust-up about finances. He is bound to lose people, which matters given his shaky parliamentary position.

My guess is that he will be tempted to risk an early general election, hoping that his charisma will thwart Mr Farage and crush a by now rather tired Mr Corbyn. British politics is volatile and it might well work.

It is just as likely to bring the house tumbling down on him and his party. British politics is about to get much more exciting.

The Lib Dems earn their zeitgeist moment

The results of the European Parliament elections in mainland Britain are nearly all in. Excited politicos are over-interpreting them like mad, with the politicians predictably interpreting them to suit their own political preconceptions, in which they will doubtless be followed by most of the public.

For my party, the Lib Dems, the result is a high that is almost unbelievable. The party came second overall, beating both Labour and the Conservatives. It took over 20% of the vote and is predicted to take 16 seats (15 in the bag, with one more predicted for Scotland). The electoral system is a strange hybrid of proportional representation and first past the post. In the previous election in 2014 the party suffered the loss of all but one seat, and took even fewer than its dismal poll share deserved. This time the party had lucky breaks (like its third MEP in London) as well as narrow misses, to end up with something like the right share overall. Of all the parties the Lib Dems most believe in the function of the European Parliament, and its candidates really want to be MEPs, which gives this result a note of extra joy. Whether their terms will end in October or 2024 remains unclear, but this is a happy moment.

Of course it is easy to over-interpret the results. In national terms 20% support isn’t that great, and most of the voters it gained were consciously “lending” the party their vote on a strictly short-term basis. The early wisdom, repeated by supposedly impartial commentators as well as more interested parties, is that most of these temporary switchers were from Labour voters. There were clearly a lot of these, but a lot came from the Conservatives too. Many of the Labour switchers may actually have gone to the Greens, who also had a good election. We should await more data on this.

What can we say? Firstly the good result for the Lib Dems was not an inevitability. The party has repeatedly talked a good game and then disappointed. The party mobilised as soon as it became clear that these elections were likely, and more quickly than any other party save Nigel Farage’s personal vehicle, The Brexit Party (TBP), which out-polled the other parties, allowing lazy journalists to say that they “won”. The Lib Dems mobilised around a simple, clear message, that of stopping Brexit from happening. I saw a lot of this at first hand, with my (voluntary) role in the party’s organisation structure. The mobilisation and teamwork was impressive to watch; from top to bottom the party’s activists understood that this was a moment that the party had to take risks. As regional treasurer in London, where the party topped the poll, I played my small part in this. (Many others worked harder, though my work is not yet done).

The main threat to the party, as insiders saw it, came from the new party, Change UK. This party seemed to be well-funded. It actually outspent all the other parties other than Labour in Facebook advertising, according to the Economist. But the European elections, which it had seen as an opportunity, because it does not demand much local organisation, came too early for it. TBP, also a new party, was able to respond because of its near fascistic command and control organisation. Change UK is a vehicle for a group of independent-minded MPs; coherence and organisation were never going to be its strong-points. Big party disdain for the Lib Dems, inherited from many of its MPs (most publicly Labour’s Clive Lewis) surely led them to underestimate the challenge posed by Lib Dems too. There was no time to organise a joint pro-Remain ticket, which would have been hobbled by Britain’s electoral laws, so the parties were doomed to compete.

The Lib Dems plan was to use local election results in early May to establish the party’s claim to be the standard bearer for opposition to Brexit. I have seen many such clever and plausible plans come to nought over the years; this time it worked. That reflects organisational strength and discipline. But the decisive factor is what I call “zeitgeist” – being in tune with popular feeling, or a substantial strand of it. The party’s last zeitgeist moment was in the 2010 general election, when its leader, Nick Clegg, did unexpectedly well in the television leader’s debate. Since then the party has been out of it. During its coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 to 2015 there was a positive anti-Lib Dem zeitgeist; no self-respecting public figure could afford to have their names linked to the party. I felt particularly bitter about the comedian Sandi Toksvig, who had supported the party, but quickly turned to making cheap and nasty jokes at the party’s expense (if the humour had been good, like the late Jeremy Hardie’s, then I might have been more forgiving). She then co-founded the new Women’s Equality party and said how much she felt that British politics had become to personal and nasty; she was an exemplar of the problem but saw no reason to apologise. The anti-Lib Dem phase in the zeitgeist passed, and collapsed into indifference. Many assumed the party was dead.

But the signs the party was not dead were there for all to see. There was an upward trend in membership and a continuing presence in local government. And now it has proved the point with an organisationally strong response to the European elections which at last hit the zeitgeist again.

Where next for the Lib Dems? The party’s future is far from assured, but it has opportunities. Both Labour and the Conservatives have organisational resilience that will allow them to bounce back from this electoral setback. But both face a strong and unfamiliar challenge that they will have to meet or they will wither.

In by far the worse mess are the Conservatives. Their game plan is to put Brexit behind them and change the conversation to tax and spend, stoking up fear as to what a Labour Party might do if it is elected. But the question now is how to get through that first bit. The obvious solution to many Tories is to countenance a no-deal Brexit, and to manoeuvre it through, notwithstanding parliament, hoping that the EU side will wobble and soften the blow. If it doesn’t do this, the well-organised TBP presents an existential threat. But if it does, many of its supporters will desert it, as they did in the European elections.

Life should be easier for Labour. If they swing behind the anti-Brexit position, they will have little difficulty in fending off the challenge posed by the Lib Dems and the Greens, though less so the SNP. But they will leak voters to TBP, and winning a parliamentary majority looks a tough call. If they continue to try and play both sides, however, they cannot rely on their anti-austerity clarion call to work.

And what should the Lib Dems do? The main electoral opportunity comes from feeding on the carcass that is the Tory party, and providing a strong challenge to it in its heartlands. But it needs to make its peace with Change UK. I would go further and say that it should do the same with the Greens. The party shares much with the Greens, but it is also very different. Political reform and environmental action should be enough of a basis for common ground, though. If the party can find arrangements with these two other parties, it can, with them, claim to be part of a “new politics”, rather than being clearly linked to the old, as it is now.

The next business for the party is to select a new leader. This is a good moment to do it, now that some optimism has broken out. The party has earned its moment of joy.

The Brexit Party shows that Nigel Farage has learned from his mistakes

I dislike the journalistic fashion of reporting and commenting on news before it has happened, which affects even such high-minded journals as The Economist. They have an annoying habit of reporting and analysing both elections and economic statistics before the actual results or figures are known. So I won’t comment on how most of the political parties are doing in this Thursday’s elections to the European Parliament. But enough of The Brexit Party (TBP) is known to give observers of the British political scene pause.

In the TV film Brexit: the Uncivil War, Nigel Farage and his principal backer, Arron Banks, are painted as buffoons. This is compared to the sharp and focused official Leave campaign managed by the maverick Dominic Cummings, established by, among others, Ukip’s ex-Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Mssrs Farage and Banks and their Leave.eu campaign were nevertheless useful to the Leave campaign, by making less respectable arguments about immigration and culture, while the official leavers concentrated on the more politically correct arguments about sovereignty and money. The film is a caricature, of course. The official Leavers were happy to talk about Turkey joining the EU, while Leave.eu did some pretty sharp stuff with data and social media too.

But one hope for Remainers angling for a further referendum was that the Leave side would not be so sharply organised the second time around. TBP should disabuse them of that notion. This party has risen from nowhere to consistently leading the polling for the European elections, and polling nearly 20% for Westminster elections too. This is in stark contrast to the other new party that had hoped to use these elections as a launchpad: The Independent Group, now calling themselves Change UK, who have crashed.

What is clear is that Mr Farage is no buffoon, and that he has learned from the failure of his previous vehicle, Ukip, and the success of Mr Cummings’s Leave campaign. Ukip became a rambling and chaotic political party of assorted eccentrics, which became unmanageable because it followed the conventional wisdom that political parties had to be “democratic” in order to maintain the participation of their memberships. By “democratic” I mean using democratic forms to give important rights to members. Control by a self-selected minority is in no sense democratic, and I hate the word being used in this context – though Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have all picked up this irritating habit. We are about to see just how democratic this idea really is when 100,000 Tory members will be make the final choice as to who will replace Theresa May as Prime Minister.

TBP makes no pretence at this sort of “democracy”. So far as I can see there is no membership. The public can sign up as registered “supporters”, but they do not acquire any rights by doing so. Meanwhile the party’s organisation is tightly controlled by an efficient cadre. In European elections all political parties are entitled to one piece of freely distributed literature, which politicos call “freepost” (the production and printing still has to be paid for by the parties). TBP’s freepost was individually addressed and arrived before anybody else’s. It was also one of the clearest and best produced. This bespeaks organisation and funding that were in place before we actually knew these elections were going to take place. The next best organised, incidentally, were the Lib Dems, also individually addressed (though only sent to minority of voters) which arrived not long after TBP’s, and which also had clear messaging. Change UK’s, by contrast, was late, unaddressed, and devoid of content (Labour’s was almost as bad – and the Tories have not produced a freepost at all).

But TBP’s sharpness goes well beyond organising this literature. It has organised street stalls and well-attended public meetings, and mobilised celebrity (sort-of) endorsements. Its message has crushed rivals on the hard-Leave side, and in particular Ukip, which many voters didn’t know Mr Farage had left. It destroyed the Conservatives before they could even mobilise. They have been getting quite decent media coverage (including from the BBC, stretching their mandate for fair coverage, which usually biases towards established parties) – but this is a sign of a well-organised social media campaign. Ironically social media seems to work even better politically amongst technically less agile oldsters than it does with younger voters. The former are still using Facebook and Twitter.

Pretty much everything about TBP looks sharp. It has a nicely designed logo (don’t ask Change UK about theirs…), and very clear messaging. They have now set most Leave supporters on the route to saying that only a no-deal Brexit (a “WTO Brexit of “managed no-deal” as they call it) can honour the result of the 2016 referendum. The message underlying this is that politicians can’t be trusted and the party wants to “Change Britain for Good” (a slogan that I think the Lib Dems have tried before, much less successfully). In the last few days doubts have been raised about the way it obtains online donations – but I would be surprised if this didn’t check out. All parties do this, though TBP sails much closer to the edge than we do at the Lib Dems – the risk is around how the party ensures that a series of smaller donations don’t add up to something that should be reported.

So if there is a new referendum, Remainers should know that they will be up against formidable opposition – when their own organisation is all too beset by inter-party rivalries between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK.

What TBP’s weaknesses? There are two. First is that it risks being too old, white and angry. Cummings’s Leave campaign made real efforts to cultivate a middle ground of more reasonable supporters, who did not want to reject a different sort of association with the EU, and who were a lot less angry about “the elite” because they were on the fringes of it themselves. They also wanted to distance themselves from the unspoken misogyny and racism that lurks behind the more extreme forms Brexit support (Mr Farage both plays on this for all he is worth, and is sensitive to its dangers). So TBP could race up to 25% support (and higher in the Euro elections) and smash into a roadblock. This level of support makes life very hard for established political parties but may well be insufficient to make headway in Westminster elections. The Lib Dems suffered from this in the 2000s.

The second weakness is organisation. The flipside to the slick, highly centralised organisation it now has, is that it is weak on the more distributed and devolved organisation needed to succeed locally. It probably doesn’t care about council elections, but it surely does about Westminster ones. Most successful constituency campaigning is of this localised sort – unless you can get popularity into the 30s and 40s nationally (as the SNP succeeded in doing in Scotland).

Both of these weaknesses should matter less in a referendum. Other organisations (such as the Conservatives and Labour Brexiteers) can pick up the middle ground, and local organisation doesn’t count for that much. So what should Remainers do? A topic for a future post.

The centre ground is collapsing

British politics is in deadlock, with two extremes increasingly dominant. These extremes are a militant, conservative nationalism and an increasingly aggressive assertion of liberal values. The main battleground is Brexit, but it is by no means the only one. The centre ground, which seeks a compromise that the country as a whole can live with is imploding.

Thus we have a paradox. Most MPs want Britain to implement the 2016 referendum result and take Britain out of the European Union. And yet they have been unable to do it, and the possibility that Britain will never leave is now growing. That is because the militant nationalists insist on a radical interpretation of Brexit, and are prepared to block compromise. This is having two effects. First it has deadlocked the House of Commons and prevented the government from passing an exit deal. The second is that it is provoking Remainers into increasing militancy themselves, since to them such a radical interpretation is a clear violation of the referendum result, which after all was a narrow one.

The leaderships of both main parties are holding crumbling middle ground, which seeks an orderly exit from the EU, and a reasonably smooth economic relationship with it, and, in particular, an open but functional land border between the EU and the UK in Ireland.

How did we get here? In June 2016 the referendum gave a narrow but clear majority for Britain to leave. About a third of the country were delighted, another third wished the result could somehow be made to go away, and the remaining third accepted that the country needed to leave, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The mandate to the government and parliament was clear. All but a handful of Conservative MPs accepted the referendum result, and most Labour ones did too. As Theresa May took over the helm as Prime Minister she interpreted this as proceeding with as close a relationship with the EU as practical subject to three red lines: control over migration, no financial contributions and no jurisdiction of the European Court. This was a pretty fair interpretation of the referendum result, where migration and the financial contributions were key issues, as was sovereignty. A fourth red line soon crept in however: no customs union with the EU. The mandate for this was not a clear one, but many Tories considered that the ability of the country to negotiate tariffs with other countries to be critical. That is where things started to go wrong.

But even with these clear red lines, it was apparent that any deal with the EU would be messy and involve compromise: Britain’s bargaining position was a weak one. Notwithstanding this Mrs May gave the EU the two year notice required under Article 50 of the EU constitution in March 2017. She has been much criticised for this, but it did make sense. A later date meant that we would have been tangled in elections to the European Parliament, and after that the handover to a new Commission. Then Mrs May had a brainwave. If she called a General Election, she could establish a clear majority in parliament and that would give her the leverage to push the whole messy business through. Again, this was not an error. She badly needed a big majority, and also to stamp her authority on the party. The polls were very favourable.

Then disaster struck. Instead of leaving nothing to chance in the election, in the way of Tony Blair, and focusing her pitch exactly on Brexit, she let her close adviser, Nick Timothy, put together a hubristic manifesto that pushed into all sorts of other areas, notably funding social care for the elderly. She also listened too closely to the advisers who told her to keep her distance from the debate, and especially not to allow herself be exposed to a televised leaders’ debate. This was an understandable mistake because her public performances were dire. But it reinforced public doubts about her. It all unravelled and she ended up in a minority depending on Ulster’s DUP. She should probably have bowed out then and there. But she carried tuck on doggedly, and her party let her.

The big problem turned out to be the intra-Irish border with Northern Ireland. The Irish government insisted that the border remain an open one: but that implied that Northern Ireland at least would be part of a customs union with the EU, if not the Single Market. Mrs May (and others in her government) underestimated this. She was desperate to close the Withdrawal Agreement quickly, and so she allowed wording in this that implied either the UK as a whole or Northern Ireland would stay tethered to the EU Single Market in some shape or form, until somehow some other arrangement could be made that kept the border open. And this would be baked into an international treaty that a future parliament would find it hard to get out of. This issue than split her own party and alienated the DUP. The other parties were not going to help her out. Meanwhile the Irish government has stuck to a very hard line, notwithstanding the risk of a no-deal.

And so the impasse. We are still in the EU long after the 29 March departure date, and facing those European Parliament elections. The best hope of exit is through a deal between the Conservative and Labour parties to agree on some form of compromise. Talks are under way, but both leaders are being urged to abandon them. This is partly because of entrenched views on Brexit, on the one side insisting that there can be no customs union, and on the other that there must be a further referendum. It is also because there is polarisation beyond Brexit along more traditional left and right lines. This is where both parties want to fight the next general election, and they are keen to paint the other side as muddled extremists.

With the main parties deadlocked, the initiative is moving elsewhere. Most spectacular is the new Brexit Party, led by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. This is running to a highly nationalist script, stirring up anger over the alleged betrayal by the metropolitan elite. It is copying much of its playbook from Donald Trump. Mr Farage has a ready audience, and is playing to packed out and enthusiastic public meetings. This is a message of pure anger; there is no suggestion of any constructive path out of the mess the country finds itself in. But many formerly resigned and politically inactive people tasted political success in the referendum, and they are not ready to give it up. Probably as much as a quarter of the electorate are supporters, with many more willing to vote for it as a protest in European elections.

Other parties are becoming more militant too. Most successful of these is the Liberal Democrats. This party has often flirted with the centre ground, and often practices centrist government locally – but on the national stage they have become militant Remainers. The Greens too are doing well, combining their environmental militancy with a European one (not so long a go I remember them having a very large Eurosceptic faction – which shows how times are changing). Change UK, the new party made of defectors from both Labour and Conservative, is muddled about whether it is centrist or extremist, and is losing momentum as a result. In Scotland and Wales local nationalists are seizing the opportunity in their own particular way, with a combination of their own nationalism and Remainer militancy.

Meanwhile Conservatives and Labour are losing control. Both have succeeded through being coalitions of different interests, and so have had a natural tendency to be centrist – long seen as essential to winning power. But increasingly their activists are losing sight of that and wanting to join the polarising tide.

Where will this end? The two most likely outcomes are a no-deal Brexit (probably in October this year), or a further referendum which ends up stopping Brexit altogether. Each would be a victory for one of the extremes. Both would leave a legacy of bitterness that will take a generation or more to heal. Perhaps that is something our country has to go through before it reconciles itself to its new fate, whatever that is.