It could be argued after last night’s EU election results that the two biggest forces in UK politics at the moment – achieving a combined 50.2% of the vote – are The Brexit Party (31.7%) and the Liberal Democrats (18.5%), supplanting the split Labour Party, who polled at 14.1%, and the Conservatives, on a dismally low 8.7%. While a similar tally in a Westminster election is unlikely – dashing my hopes of some gripping Farage/Cable PMQs – the results have reinforced my belief that the spectre of an undelivered Brexit will hound the next Prime Minister’s tenure just as much as it has that of Theresa May, but has also signalled a potential seachange in UK politics.
This forecast really, crucially, depends on who wins the Conservative leadership. While a moderate might make some concessions in a bid to find common ground in parliament, a hard-Brexiteer like Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab would have no problem pushing the nuclear button on October 31st and taking the UK out of Europe without a deal. Given the Tories’ crushing defeat last night, my odds are on the latter being the case. Having already blocked no-deal via an extension to the Brexit deadline back in April, there is clearly no appetite in the House of Commons to leave the European Union empty handed – in fact I think Article 50 would sooner be revoked. The incoming PM does have a range of procedural devices at their disposal to prevent MPs from taking control like that, but amidst the myriad further bills required to “make a success of Brexit,” I reckon an amendment would be squeezed in somewhere. Given the current parliamentary arithmetic, the only route the next Prime Minister could realistically go down would be that of a general election. Unfortunately for the Tories, an election sooner rather than later would likely lead to a comparably poor – if not worse – result to that in 2017.
Getting down to the nitty gritty of last night’s poll, despite their message of unity (aka fence-sitting), Labour haemorrhaged votes to more explicitly pro-remain parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Brexit Party, similarly, played off of the electorate’s mistrust of the Tories, soaring to victory and collapsing the UKIP vote in the process. Even if Johnson or Raab could claw back some of the grassroots vote, I anticipate that The Brexit Party would do substantial damage to Tory majorities across England and Wales, unless they stood aside in Conservative-held seats. This would result in gains for Labour, given the mechanics of First Past the Post – although an absolute majority for Jeremy Corbyn’s party would be unlikely. Whether or not we will see last night’s results extrapolated to a Westminster poll may hinge on the upcoming Peterborough by-election (June 6th). While not a typical bellwether, the constituency-level swings could be indicative whether or not last night’s trends will be reflected on the national level. The Brexit Party candidate, Mike Greene, is currently the favourite to win.
Nevertheless, some are arguing that Farage “won’t make a dent in a general election,” citing “Labour vigour and Tory retrenchment:” the revival of tactical voting will drive political vagrants back to their old tribal ways out of fear of one another. Admittedly, the polarisation of the parties probably hasn’t helped. Jeremy Corbyn epitomises middle class fears of Labour dating back to the ’70s (despite many of the working class decrying the party’s ‘pro-wealth interests’) and in spite – or perhaps because – of Theresa May’s middle-of-the-road leadership approach, the Tory party continues its ugly lurch to the right of UK politics.
The reason Brexit has been able to crack UK politics wide open is that its support/opposition goes beyond the traditional left-right cleavage. Over the course of the last three years, divided evenly, both the Leave and Remain camps have come to find the other fundamentally treasonous, for their betrayal of country over a European cause. These divisions extend to Parliament, having rendered both the Conservatives and Labour incapable of carrying out their conventional functions, and last night, they were punished for it. If the result of last night’s election moves the Tories firmly onto the right of the political spectrum and gives the Labour leadership the impetus to firmly back remain, or at the very least, a second referendum, then The Brexit Party really will have changed UK politics for good.
But for the better? We’ll have to wait and see.