On May 23, the UK’s Brexit mess gets even more complicated.
Nearly two months since Brexit was supposed to happen, Brits will elect candidates to represent them in the European Parliament.
Why? Because Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to get her Brexit deal approved by the UK Parliament has forced the country to remain an EU member state and take part in European elections. And as livid leavers across the country point out, this doesn’t look a whole lot like independence.
European elections seldom capture the British public’s imagination. But in 2019, they’ve become the battlefield on which the fight for the nation’s future takes place.
The row between Brexiteers and those who want to stop Brexit hasn’t calmed since 2016. Remainers are bolstered by the fact that two Brexit deadlines have been missed – so why not a third or fourth?
Brexiteers know that Theresa May’s days as Prime Minister are numbered. They’ve hated her deal from day one and are now salivating at the idea of a hard-Brexit prime minister taking her place, taking on Brussels and perhaps even taking the UK out of Europe without a deal.
Two new parties formed to stand in the EU elections highlight the UK’s problem nicely.
Arch-leaver Nigel Farage launched his Brexit Party last month. Its message is simple: the political class has failed to deliver on the result of the largest democratic exercise in British political history. Let’s remind it who’s boss.
The party is expected to finish in first place in the EU elections. Farage’s success comes as no surprise to the high-profile Conservative Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. “He’s saying things people want to hear and that they’re entitled to hear. We’re saying we know better than the people and we shouldn’t let them make these risky decisions.”
Even said in a moderate voice, the Brexit Party’s message gives the political establishment a kicking. “The Brexit Party shouldn’t really exist,” says James Glancy, a conservationist and former Royal Marine who is standing as a candidate. “People across the political spectrum are really angry that politicians haven’t respected (the referendum) result.”
It’s likely that the governing Conservatives will suffer the heaviest losses to the Brexit Party. Rees-Mogg feels this acutely. “We’ve lost three-quarters of our vote in opinion polls to a Brexit Party. We now need a leader who will deliver Brexit clearly and cleanly … We have to be the Brexit party.”
What about the “stop Brexit” gang? The 2016 referendum returned a narrow result of 51.9% to 48.1% in favor of Leave. Remainers have been keen to remind people of this.
And fortunately for them, the UK has another new party, Change UK, which favors a second referendum and remaining in the EU.
The issue of a second referendum is a bitter fight in its own right. The opposition Labour Party has fudged its support for a second vote. “As many political commentators have pointed out, if Labour wanted to kill Change UK, it could be unequivocal about the need for a second referendum. But as we know, parts of the Labour have simply sat on the fence and continued repainting it,” explains Rachel Johnson, a Change UK candidate.
Unfortunately for Remainers, Change UK is not doing as well as the Brexit Party. It is predicted to pick up just 5% of the vote next week. However, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, whose campaign slogan is “Bollocks to Brexit,” might finish ahead of Labour, in second place to the Brexit Party.
Labour’s support of a second referendum would probably not only kill Change UK, but win back votes from the Liberal Democrats. So why won’t they do it?
The problem for Labour is that its vote is badly split between Leave and Remain. That’s why it has fudged the issue – leaving both sides unimpressed.
Becoming an explicitly stop Brexit party could cost them heavily. As one Labour source put it, a strategy that would see Labour “win EU Parliamentary elections but go on to lose the general doesn’t make much sense.” For its part, Labour is trying to force through its own version of Brexit, which is slightly softer than May’s deal.
All of this sets the scene for an almighty row in the coming weeks. Both Conservative and Labour frontbenches are desperate to deliver some form of Brexit, taking the issue off the table. The race to get a deal approved – and taking credit for it – could lead to further political success.
But it’s easier said than done. Despite the UK taking a bit of a Brexit breather, the fact remains that the House of Commons, which must approve any Brexit deal, has no majority for anything. We’ve had indicative votes for Brexit alternatives that came to nothing and to date, no one, it seems, has been able to put the national interest ahead of short-term politics. “For two years, Brexit has been used as a bullet in a weapon for both sides,” is the view of Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit chief.
Ironically, this deadlock in Parliament presents an opportunity to both Brexiteers and remainers. “I think Mrs. May’s deal is effectively off the table, and even if it came back it wouldn’t get through Parliament,” says a confident Rees-Mogg.
The reality of a “completely useless dysfunctional Parliament” and government that “can’t get any business through”, as Rees-Mogg puts it, would traditionally lead to a general election. But that is risky for both main parties.