There have been very few days recently when politics have provided good news of a morning, but this morning is definitely one of them. The EU elections – which were always going to be a proxy for another go at working out what kind of a relationship the UK (specifically England) wants with the rest of Europe – have delivered that news.
And the news is…that with the strongly pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland still to declare, England and Wales voted in favour of pro-EU parties, with a vocal minority supporting pro Hard Brexit parties, UKIP and The Brexit Party. In reality of course the strong turn-out for UKIP in 2014 was ported across the the Brexit Party, as UKIP disappeared off into Nazi territory. And a smallish percentage of Tories (and an even smaller percentage of Labour voters) joined them.
The big winners (again this is just England and Wales) were the Lib Dems and Greens. I have to say I was delighted to see Molly Scott-Cato returned in the South-West. But for them to be joined by so many others, in the most surprising of places (East of England and West Midlands being perhaps the greatest surprises) is particularly uplifting (and even more so when you look at how well they did across the EU). As expected the Lib Dems did particularly well, soaking up many votes from pro-remain Labour voters.
Yes The Brexit Party won most MEPs, though with only a modest increase on UKIP’s outing last time. But as I wrote previously this election was not really about MEPs going to the European Parliament and being politicians there. I mean, seriously. Is multi-millionaire property developer Richard Tice going to spend his year shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg, sitting in frankly tedious meetings arguing over arcane policy questions? Of course he isn’t. I predict that very few of the Brexit Party MEPs will turn up in Brussels more than a handful of times. James Glancy will I hope prove to be an exception there. Hopefully the Living Marxism/Spiked online’s faux Libertarian Claire Fox will never turn up.
But either way, the Brexit Party was not formed to act as a serious political party in the European Parliament. It was formed to create pressure – mainly on the Tory party. And, now that Theresa May has finally been forced out, the pressure for a Crash-Out Brexit is going to be applied, in a very focused manner, on each of the prospective party leader candidates. This, coupled with the likelihood that at least some of those who have returned from the UKIP camp to be Tory party members again, will have done so in time to be able to vote in that leadership election (I believe 6 months is the cut-off), means that the Brexit Party/LeaveEU/LeaveMeansLeave and all the other fronts they have created, will have a big influence over who the next Tory party leader is. You could argue that the sole purpose of TBP was to drag the Tory party further to the right.
Assuming the Tories do indeed appoint a pro Crash-Out Brexit leader – and I really don’t want to think too hard about who it might be as I’m still feeling quite upbeat – their first test will be to form a Government. The DUP will no doubt feel happy to take another £billion to form some sort of coalition or support deal. But this is where it gets very messy for the Tories. Because there is already a significant caucus forming around some senior figures (who will be on the backbenches) like former chancellor Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd, who have already stated very clearly that they will oppose a Crash-Out No Deal Brexit. I have a seen a figure of 60 Tory MPs who have already committed to opposing this course of action. Which makes it highly debatable as to whether a pro Crash-Out Brexit Tory leader could even form a Government. So a General Election seems increasingly likely.
In such an election, as the Tories move further and further to the right to stop The Brexit Party, the centre ground is left open. And it needs no crystal ball to see the Lib Dems, fresh from their successes in both the Local and Euro Elections, rushing in to fill it – who knows some of the more reasonable Tory MPs might have already joined them, as well as Change UK. It’s difficult to see the Greens capitalising on their successes in either the Local or Euro Elections, with our ridiculous first past the post system, but in a few key constituencies they might do well.
Which leaves the big unresolved question: Labour. Labour has suffered horribly as a result of its ambiguity over Europe. Nobody believed their claim that they could get a better deal out of the EU – and of course the overwhelming majority of both Labour MPs and its constituency, voted for remain. Senior Labour leaders are now breaking cover. Both Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell have come out this morning and last night in support of a second referendum. But this would be unnecessary if a General Election is coming. It’s what goes in Labour’s manifesto which counts. Labour can put forward as many radical and exciting ideas on tax justice, on land reform, on a green new deal, as they like. But unless they have a clear position on our future relationship with the EU, they will be toast.
Personally I think their position should be this:
1. To honour the result of the referendum, while recognising that it was fundamentally flawed, both in the plan and the execution.
2. To leave the EU but stay in the single market and customs union.
3. To launch a high level independent judicial inquiry (equivalent to the Mueller Inquiry) into the cheating that happened during the 2016 Referendum.
4. To immediately commence negotiations with the EU with a view to rejoining within five years, subject to significant reform. Reform would have to include the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and a severe clamp down on the power of corporate lobbying within the EU, but the list would be much longer.
I would love for us to just be able to say “you know what, let’s just forget the past 3 years and pretend it never happened.” and somehow magically we would be back in the EU. That is not going to happen. The country is still more or less split 50/50 and the longer that continues, the greater opportunity it provides for populists like Farage to take advantage.