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.

The two party system takes a blow – but what about a general election?

It is a good moment to be a Liberal Democrat, after the party’s strong showing in last week’s local elections. The party were unequivocal winners, while both the the big parties fell back. After years of being ignored and told that the party was broken forever, it is good to be back.

But it is better than that. What the results show is that the party is rebuilding its grassroots strength, and with it a base in local government. This has been the party’s secret weapon, little understood by the Westminster chatterers – local government was how the party built its strength in the 1990s, before it became a significant parliamentary force in 1997. This is the result of hard work by activists working at local level across the country. It wasn’t just the Lib Dems. What surprised the political commentators even more than the success of the Lib Dems, which was as the upper end of expectations, was the relative success of the Greens and local independents. This too required grassroots activism.

Meanwhile the Conservatives, who had the most to lose this time, did very badly, losing over 1,300 seats, at the top end of expectations. The seats were last fought on a relative high for the party in 2015, so some loss was expected. They did worst in areas with a high Remain vote in 2016. What really surprised commentators was how Labour failed to capitalise on this. The party gained seats in some places, but lost in others, with a small net loss of seats overall. Nobody was expecting a spectacular performance, but if the Tories were doing very badly, they were expected to pick up some of the pieces. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour fared worse in high Leave supporting areas.

The retreat of the main parties comes as a surprise to many politicos. Two party politics had been in decline for since the 1980s, with the rise of first the Lib Dems (and their predecessor parties) and then Ukip. But in the 2017 general election both the Lib Dems and Ukip were crushed. This was a huge relief to both Conservatives and Labour, and to many Westminster journalists too. Two party politics seemed to them the natural way of being, and allowed most politicians to focus on their internal party jockeying, rather than having to talk to voters much. Life became much simpler.

But that collective sigh of relief was a huge mistake, as both major parties turned inwards. The Conservatives tore themselves up over Brexit. To be sure this was an important issue, but they assumed that whenever they went to the country they could rally the voters around an anti-Labour message, and get away with it. First they managed to upset their supporters who voted Remain, only to disappoint the Leavers by failing to agree on how to implement Brexit on the target date of 29 March. The indecision is worse than choosing the wrong strategy: now Remainers who had been persuaded to buckle down in the name of democracy are starting to question that logic, as so many Brexiteers try to move the goalposts towards something much more extreme than they advocated in 2016.

Labour, meanwhile tore itself up over an internal power struggle, as the left saw its chance to take a radical left wing programme to the country by consolidating their power within the party. If the Tories cared too much about Brexit, Labour did not care enough. They assumed that the Tories would make such a mess that they would clean up at the next election. That left them with little to say on the big issue of the day. Labour Brexiteers are annoyed at the party’s role in delaying Brexit; meanwhile the party is unable to pick up disillusioned Remainers from the Conservatives.

That meant a poor performance at these English locals for both big parties, which each picked up a 28% vote share, the lowest combined total for many years. There is likely to be an even worse performance at the forthcoming elections for the European parliament, though they should be able to shrug these off, as they have in the past.

The key question is how much this matters at a general election. The electoral system makes it hard for smaller parties to break through. Both the big parties have some reason to hope that it will be business as usual. That would be complacent.

Firstly neither party looks well placed to roll back the threat from the SNP in Scotland, which will be critical to Labour’s chances in particular, but also important to the Tories. Up to 50 seats may be unavailable. The Lib Dems will doubtless hope that they can get a dozen or more additional seats, with the Conservatives looking the most vulnerable. The Greens look stronger than they were, but can only mount a challenge in a handful of seats.

But the big unknown is how well two brand new parties will perform. The most significant is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. This has made an impressive start. It looks well organised and well funded. It is sure to do well at the European Parliament elections, which play to its strengths. It is mainly an air war election, and Mr Farage has no difficulty in getting the attention of mainstream media, much to the annoyance of other smaller parties, who are routinely ignored by the BBC among others. The party has also managed to distribute some centrally organised literature. It will doubtless try to make mischief on social media, a successful medium for populist parties not interested in proposing any constructive policy programme. But, though the party attracts interest and volunteers, it has no grassroots organisation. This is not one of Mr Farage’s strengths, and it is a vital ingredient to success at general elections. Mr Farage himself might be a successful spoiler candidate (he is rumoured to be mulling a challenge to Boris Johnson, widely thought to be the the most likely next Conservative leader), but the party may turn out to be no more than a nuisance.

The second new party is the former Independent Group, Change UK. This party appears weak organisationally, and it is unclear what it actually stands for. It is trying its hand at the Euro elections, but even if it does well there (which I am not expecting), it is hard to see where that will lead. Building a grassroots organisation is very hard work, and it is far from clear whether they are up for it. Cannibalising Lib Dem support, a strategy which many in the party clearly wanted to attempt, now looks a lot harder. There are plenty of places where the Lib Dems are weak, though. Will they try to do something there?

So things don’t look so bad for the big parties when it comes to parliamentary elections. But they do have a problem: Brexit. The country could continue to muddle on trying and failing to leave; it could leave with a deal, which will not be unlike the one the government has already negotiated; there could be a crash out with no deal; or there might be a further referendum which halts Brexit altogether, or else leads to exit with or without a deal. Each of these outcomes will cause major problems for both the Conservatives and Labour. Dramatic upsets can happen (for example the rise of the SNP in Scotland in 2015, or the election of Emmanuel Macron in France). It would be foolish to rule such an earthquake out.

What should the progressive smaller parties do? Some kind of an arrangement to stay out of each others’ way looks sensible for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK, whether or not an electoral pact is feasible or desirable. Meanwhile, each of these three needs to think of ways that it can capture the imagination of a public that is fed up with politics as usual. If these parties could agree on a broad programme of political reform, radical action on the environment, and revitalising left-behind parts of the country, perhaps that would do the trick.

Jeremy Corbyn and Hobson’s Imperialism: why it scares me

The latest antisemitism row to engulf Labour concerns Jeremy Corbyn’s foreword to to a modern edition of the writer J A Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study, written in 1901. This is dividing Mr Corbyn’s critics and supporters in a familiar way. But its wider significance is what it reveals about the way Mr Corbyn, and many of his allies, view history and politics.

Before launching into this I need to clear the deck. First, this new edition was published in 2011, long before anybody, including himself, could have viewed Mr Corbyn as a potential Labour leader, whose words would be subject to widespread scrutiny. That makes it more revealing, but it doesn’t say how his understanding of antisemitism might have moved on since. Second: I have read neither Hobson’s book, nor Mr Corbyn’s foreword, which doesn’t seem to be available online (and I don’t have a Kindle). I am having to base my views on two sources: the original article from The Times‘s Daniel Finkelstein that kicked the current episode off. Second a short article by academic Mike Taylor on Hobson’s book in the Guardian, which doesn’t add anything to Mr Finkelstein’s article, but helps give me more assurance about its factual accuracy.

Hobson sought to show that 19th Century Imperialism was driven by financial interests, who succeeded in manipulating the politics of the time to support imperialist policies from which they made financial gain. He further went on to say, unusually for time, that imperialism was exploitative and did not represent an advance to human civilisation. The antisemitism arises because he thought that what I have termed “financial interests” was a predominantly Jewish elite with no fixed national reference point. He doesn’t quite say that it is the Jews in this book, but a couple of references, one to a “single and peculiar race” and another to the Rothschilds, are unmistakable, and other Hobson writings are explicit, not just about high-flying financiers, but also the Jewish working classes of London’s East End. This was a widespread view at the time.

It isn’t too hard to mount a defence of Mr Corbyn. It does appear that Hobson’s antisemitism is worn quite lightly in this particular work: the same two quotes are used again and again. The important bit is not this, but there were (and are) powerful commercial and financial interests controlled by international (and national) elites capable of influencing policy. They don’t have to be Jewish, and probably Mr Corbyn doesn’t think that aspect is very important. The rest of the analysis stands, and it is very striking. The interests of big business and finance was doubtless a factor in the development of imperialism, as they found home markets constricted and European or North American markets hostile to foreign competition. In those days big business was dominated by food, textiles, mining, steel, capital goods (ships and railways especially) and armaments. It is not hard to see how that could lead to imperialism. Furthermore Hobson was clearly ahead of his time in understanding just how destructive imperialism was.

So far, so good. But three criticisms are still valid, and show just how bad a choice Labour members made when selecting Mr Corbyn to be their leader. First is that antisemitism. It runs right through this work, and at the time it was written that would have been understood clearly. It is one aspect of left-wing antisemitism which went on to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and then throughout Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Hobson’s work was known to be highly influential to Lenin and it formed part of the narrative that drove this particularly ugly side to the political left. It it clearly hasn’t disappeared; it is rampant and barely challenged outside the developed world, and clearly remains an issue in parts of the modern Labour Party. Mr Corbyn’s foreword to this book was an opportunity to say something about this but instead he said nothing. Through ignorance or bad judgement it clearly wasn’t important to him.

Second, for all its farsightedness, Hobson’s analysis is clearly deeply flawed. Imperialism suited many other people beyond big business leaders. Not least of these were the workers of the imperialist powers, for whom big business generated jobs and income. This was a time (i.e. especially after the 1850s) when living standards for workers advanced steadily and when what people would later call the social democratic consensus started to develop, notably through the work of German socialist politician Eduard Bernstein. This followed the insight that capitalists and workers had a common interest in the health of the industrial economy. How far can workers of the time be allowed to take responsibility for their own political decisions, (i.e. in this case backing imperialism), or are they always being manipulated? This is one of the great divides in the history of socialism, with Lenin and Hobson taking the latter view. If Mr Corbyn is in this camp, which I have suggested before, it means that his commitment to democracy only goes as far as it suits him.

As an aside I can’t help but repeat a couple of quotes from Hobson’s book:

Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great state loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?

And in reference to great European finance houses:

There is not a war, a revolution, an anarchist assassination, or any other public shock, which is not gainful to these men; they are harpies who suck their gains from every new forced expenditure and every sudden disturbance of public credit

Anybody who knows anything of the detail of the causes of the Great War in 1914 will understand just how silly this is. The causes were complex, but the forces of international finance were not part of it: instead an overmighty military in the three great empires of Germany, Russia and Austria played a large role, without the restraint of strong political leadership. If anything the forces of finance were part of the cautious inertia of the establishment which came so close to preventing the war from occurring. With reason. The thirty years of destruction unleashed by that war destroyed most of the accumulated wealth in the developed world, along with many millions of lives. It wasn’t rootless internationalism that caused war, but an excess of its opposite.

The third criticism to make about Mr Corbyn’s foreword is what else he says, beyond praising its insight and prescience. According to Mr Finkelstein:

Since the Second World War, the Labour leader argues, “the big imperial force has been the United States on behalf of global capitalism and the biggest, mostly US-based corporations”. This has been supported by propaganda about “freedom”. This propaganda effort was designed to “accompany the military re-occupation [of Europe] under the guise of Nato. Thus the Cold War was followed by American media and cultural values, in an attempt to create an empire of the mind.”

He contrasts this attempt to subjugate people through the “malign influence of the CIA” and pliant governments with the influence of the Soviet Union. “The Soviet influence was always different and its allies often acted quite independently,” writes Mr Corbyn.

Daniel Finkelstein, 30 April 2019, The Times

This is exceptionally revealing. Of course the history of the Cold War is a lot murkier than the version our politicians fed us, and industrial interests played their role – though I would argue that these were at least as powerful and important in the Soviet bloc. But to argue that NATO amounts to a military occupation of Western Europe by US interests is plain silly. What popular uprisings did US-led fores put down? And how independent really were Soviet allies after their interventions in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? And should we really see European people as helpless victims of the imposition of US culture, dictated by big US corporations (after their subjugation of their own people?). And did the Soviet authorities not try just as hard to manipulate people’s minds? Again we have the idea that ordinary people cannot be trusted because they are so easily manipulated by the rich.

It is no surprise that this leads to support for the Castro regime in Cuba and the Chavez/Maduro one in Venezuela. It is one thing to take a hard-headed view about the influence of US policy in the world, and to recognise its considerable dark side. It is another to indulge in fantasy. Socialists can be divided into roughly two sorts: the romantics who have faith in a bottom up movement of the masses (think Rosa Luxembourg) and the hard-headed sort who ruthlessly focus on control of power by a select elite (think Lenin or Xi Jinping). The former end up in failure, the latter in oppression. Mr Corbyn is trying to romanticise the ruthless strand of socialism, which is the worst of both worlds. It suggests that while he is not a ruthless operator himself, he is liable to be manipulated by those that are.

All of which leads to the question of what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became British Prime Minister. It suggests that a government under his leadership would lack the competence to govern effectively, while turning on any British institutions when things go wrong. I think those British institutions are strong enough to survive, and that the Labour Party will eventually reject the hard-left narrative that Mr Corbyn represents. But what this country does not need after years of stasis arising from Brexit (whichever way it eventually goes), is another few years in a muddled and incompetent experiment with socialism.

Beyond Brexit: Vince Cable’s valedictory

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As we left the Liberal Democrats conference in York we were handed a small book: Beyond Brexit: Liberal politics for the age of identity, by the party leader Vince Cable. Vince had already announced his imminent departure as leader. This was his parting shot. Good and bad, it is a fitting verdict on his leadership.

Beyond Brexit is not a difficult read. It is a series of short essays, a few pages apiece, which flow well enough. Alas that is not entirely good news. Vince is a careful and studious politician. In his essays he likes to analyse what is going wrong. Along the way he also has another agenda: to defend the record of Liberal Democrats in the coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Both of these tasks are important. Too often the left dismisses current problems as being some combination of “austerity” and “capitalism”, assuming that this is obvious; the populist right similarly assume that problems arise from departing from the ways of the 1940s and 1950s. Likewise the Lib Dem record in government is dismissed as a big mistake on the basis that it was electorally disastrous for the party without bothering to understand what it actually achieved.

But the trouble is that this doesn’t leave much space to develop solutions. Too often these seem to amount to “maybe a bit of this, may be a bit of that”. The hope seems to be that we should trust somebody with wise insights about what is wrong to come up with good answers, without being very specific about what they are. No individual proposals seem particularly radical. No sweeping away of fiscal discipline; no universal basic income or job guarantee; no Green New Deal. Taken as a package, however, Vince’s ideas would be a radical alternative to the various paths proposed by the conservative right, the neoliberal right or the radical left. Whether it amounts to a radical departure from the social democratic left depends on how seriously we take his ideas on devolving power. Too often politicians drop such ideas when going gets rough, as it inevitably does; social democrats have no real patience for devolution.

Of course this lack of headline radicalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I tire of activists on the left who demand “radical” solutions. Such ideas have two flaws: almost by definition they go well beyond any evidence for what works (using the argument that everything else has failed…), and politically support for them tends to be narrow, so implementation requires some sort of mechanism to bypass consent. Most activists assume that the people are behind them, and that popular frustration with the system will lead to support for their form of radicalism – and it isn’t too hard to sneak such ideas through in a manifesto few people read. When they eventually collide with political reality, things are apt to get ugly. There is something to be said for a steady but gradual approach.

But political ideas don’t just need to be right, they need to hit the political zeitgeist. That is as much a matter of timing as it is of content. Mrs Thatcher seemed right in 1979; and her polar opposite, stylistically, John Major in 1990. Unfortunately now is not the hour for Vince’s understated intelligence and good-natured engagement. If his policy programme is right, it needs to be sold in a radically different way.

How? The most important step is to identify a single organising idea, with maybe a couple more to be held in support. This is plainly lacking in this book. It ends with a chapter on “My Roadmap to a Better Britain”, with ten points. All worthy, but these need to be organised around as few deeper themes as possible. Up until now the single organising idea for the Lib Dems has been opposition to Brexit. In the title of his book Vince rightly understands that the party has to move on from this: both because the issue will, eventually, recede one way or another, and also because it has become very tribal. Labour have such a theme: opposition to austerity. So do the Greens: radical action to reverse climate change. From Vince’s book there are a number of candidates for a Lib Dem theme, of which the main ones are education, environment (or the “Green Economy”) and political reform. There is also something he calls the “Entrepreneurial State” and housing.

Personally I think that political reform is the most important theme. The country’s politics is too centralised, while dominated by big parties that can be taken over by extremists. Fix this and the problem of disenfranchisement and the left-behind can be solved. But it suffers from two fatal drawbacks. First the British public is very conservative on political structures: we learnt this from the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011. They may agree that politics is broken, but they think that it is the politicians that need replacing, rather than the system that needs fixing. They are easily persuaded that any change will at best be a waste of time and money, and at worst make things worse. Brexit may be an exception, but that was sold on the basis of membership of the EU being a constitutional reform that had gone wrong or overreached – and being as unspecific as possible about what would replace it. And on that last point the country has become quite stuck, between conservatives who want to take the country back to 1970, and conservatives that want to leave things as they were in 2016. Secondly, when reform is about devolving power and improving democracy, it usually has the effect of giving sustenance to your political opponents. Proportional representation has helped conservative populists gain traction; local power centres are often conservative (as experience the highly devolved countries like Switzerland and Austria shows). To me this is a necessary part of the journey, but for most politicians it is simply self-harm.

The Green Economy, or Green Growth, has a lot going for it, as it combines popular concern for the environment with an answer to the challenge that it will make working people worse off. But both Labour and the Greens are likely to pick up something like a Green New Deal: a programme of top-down investments and regulations designed to have a rapid impact. While the Lib Dems may get away with camouflaging its more bottom-up approach with that name, it will be hard to make an impact in such contested space – which makes it a useful supporting theme, rather than the main line of attack (much as Labour will use it).

So maybe education is the best place to find an organising theme. There is no chapter on it in Vince’s book, but it comes up in several places. Fourth in his roadmap is “The best education in the world”. In particular Vince wants to develop vocational and lifelong education, especially through FE colleges. This is promising. Also the way in which the Conservatives have let loose the Treasury cynics on Britain’s schools is both damaging and unpopular. While some schools are not as financially well-run as they could be (though many are), this drive points to a narrowing of the curriculum and tossing difficult cases out of the system. This is desperately short-sighted. So education will resonate as an issue with a lot of voters.

But more important than that, liberals really believe in education. It is mass education, above all, that has spread liberal ideas. And a liberal education is probably the most compelling liberal idea, as it is a surer path to personal development than the rote-learning preferred by conservatives. The biggest weakness of populism is that it stands for a reversal of gender-fairness, and a rejection of diversity of race, culture and sexual orientation. This horrifies most younger people – which is clearly a function of improved education. In countries where education is weak younger people are as susceptible to populists as other age groups. There are pitfalls: too much open propaganda for liberal values in schools can, paradoxically, look intolerant (look at the problems sex and relationships education can have). Faith schools are a particularly ticklish issue. And neoliberals have too readily assumed that improving education is a substitute for other policies that address personal and regional inequalities. High quality universal education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a fairer society.

But I suspect that Vince, ever the economist, thinks that his economic ideas should be the key theme: the first two ideas in his roadmap are “Strong public services and honest tax” and “An entrepreneurial state”. And yet I can’t see how that can be turned into a rousing organising theme to tackle the challenge of identity politics.

Such will be Vince’s legacy. I feel that he was the right man at the wrong time. I hope the party can find a replacement who is both capable of developing a strong policy programme and selling it to the public at large.

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.