I mentioned last week that I would talk about the earthquake – earthquakes really – in UK politics. In particular that Nigel Farage’s new party, the Brexit Party won the European Parliament elections in the UK by a mile last month.
They did win by a mile, but it’s important not to get carried way. They won by getting 30 per cent of the vote. That was way more than any other party, but of course nothing like a majority, and a fair way below what was predicted by pollsters. But it has still upended politics, and let’s not forget that was a stunning result for a party that was only a month old.
But that only tells half the story. The party that came second was the Liberal Democrats – a centrist party, very pro-European. They got a huge increase in their normally tiny vote with a very simple slogan. Stop Brexit – Vote LibDem. Third came the opposition Labour party, and fourth came the Green Party. Have you noticed what’s missing? The Conservative Party, Theresa May’s party, the government party, came fifth. She got less than nine per cent of the vote.
But that’s the European Parliament elections, a second-order election, a chance for the voters to let fly, it’s probably going to have no effect at all and the turnout was low, so we can safely ignore the result – right? Not quite.
Opinion polls for UK government elections have taken a decisive turn. The Brexit Party doesn’t do so well; it’s still doing impressively, but the real story is how British Politics have been totally upended.
The Liberal Democrats are in first place in the polls for the real, grown-up election, for a British parliament, with the Brexit Party in second place, and Labour and the Conservatives coming third and fourth. In a US context, that’s a bit like the Libertarian Party and the Green Party both overtaking both the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s about that unthinkable.
Now, there isn’t a UK election due until 2022, so for the time being the LibDems stay small, the Brexit Party has zero MPs in the British parliament, and the Conservatives have just shy of half the total.
But what there is, is an election for the leader of the Conservative party. In the first stage of that selection process, Conservative MPs choose two candidates to put to a vote of the party membership. They’re normally an unflappable lot these Tory members of parliament, but not these days. Those Conservative MPs will be making their selection while looking at the European Parliament results and extrapolating them to what might happen to their own employment prospects.
And the results are clear. If the polls are right, a great majority of them would lose their jobs. By the way, if the European Parliament vote was repeated in a general election, every single one of them would lose their seat. There would be exactly zero Conservative MPs left. None.
And that is sure to influence the way that they vote.
They’re losing some votes to the pro-Europe LibDems, but they lost the great bulk of their votes to the Brexit Party, and they are desperate to win them back. It’s worth noting that the Brexit Party has no policies, no manifesto, no statement of principles and no spokespersons on particular issues. Their platform is entirely negative, they just say ‘vote for us because the Conservatives have failed to deliver Brexit’ – and that clearly has an impact with the majority of Conservative voters.
All that has a crushing impact on the Conservative leadership race. They are a pretty smart bunch, on the whole, and they also know that tearing up the trade relationships that they have with the EU, along with all the trade treaties that they have with EU partners around the world would be catastrophic for the British economy. But they also know that their base will not tolerate not following through on the Brexit vote.
For that reason, most of them have promoted a carefully negotiated exit from the EU, with a long transition period. A minority – up to now, a minority – have favored leaving without any deal; some of them have tried to assemble some sort of economic case for that, but it’s clear that’s just motivated reasoning, they are approach is purely ideological. A host of economists, business organizations, trade unions and others have said that for the UK to tear up every trade deal it has with every country on the planet would be economic suicide.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the fact that anyone who wants to be conservative leader is absolutely forced to back leaving the EU with no deal and no transition, however disastrous that would be for the economy. And if they want to stay leader, they will need to follow through on that, regardless of the consequences.
There is one candidate for leadership of the Conservative party who does not support that, and is saying so openly. He’s called Rory Stewart. He hasn’t a cat’s chance in hell of winning, by the way.