Something’s been missing from Westminster these past few days. Normally, in an election week, there is a buzz about the place. Politicians feast off their encounters with the voters, coming back from the campaign trail with new theories about what the public really want. But this time, few MPs from any party seem keen to talk about this week’s local elections — or the impact they are likely to have on Brexit, Theresa May’s tenure in No. 10 and the future of British politics in general. This is because they know that the European elections, which are just three weeks away, will have a huge influence on all of these questions.
The European elections are the vote that was never meant to happen. When the country woke up on 24 June 2016 to the news that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the EU, few would have imagined that almost three years later they would have been voting to send another cohort of MEPs to the European parliament for a term that ends in 2024. That these elections are taking place at all is a testament to the failure of the governing class to deliver on the referendum result.
For once, Nigel Farage does not need to exaggerate the failure of the governing elite — which is why his Brexit party went from launching to leading in the polls in less than a week. It remains top of the European parliament polls with an ever-strengthening lead. MPs look on, stunned, not sure what to make of this, where it will stop or what it will mean. No one knows whether the voters defecting to the Brexit party will ever come back.
Rumours are circulating that Farage’s aim is to destroy the leader he fears most: Boris Johnson. This is more doable than it might sound. The former foreign secretary holds a 5,000 majority in Uxbridge —respectable, but not a lifetime guarantee, given the volatility of contemporary politics and London’s drift away from the Tories. Word is that Farage is considering standing against Boris in the next general election. He’d lose. But he might take Johnson down with him by splitting the Leave vote in the seat, letting Labour in through the middle. This would be an entirely destructive act by Farage. But that this idea is being discussed in his circle shows how serious they are about taking out the Tories.
The Brexit party is outmanoeuvring everyone on the Leave side of the debate. Before this contest began, many — including me — thought the Ukip brand would make it hard for the Brexit party to break through quickly. But in just a few weeks, Farage has successfully confined his old party to the margins of British politics, making it pay the price for its flirtation with Tommy Robinson’s street thuggery and the darker corners of the internet. And it is not just Ukip that Farage is threatening. He is also visibly draining the Tory vote. The situation is so bad for May that two in five of her councillors are planning to vote for Farage’s new party.
Perhaps most remarkable is the way in which Farage has outstripped (and outclassed) the pro-Remain parties. Before this campaign started, many thought it would turn into a contest between the two ends of the Brexit debate, leaving the established parties stuck in the middle. But Change UK, the pro-second referendum vehicle set up by Chuka Umunna and fronted by Heidi Allen, appears to be in meltdown. It can’t agree on its logo or its name (calling itself ‘Change UK — The Independent Group’) and some of its activists have written in complaining about a basic lack of campaigning materials. The party lacks Farage’s knowledge of how to gain traction as an insurgent force.
More remarkably, it is also a less professional outfit. It is Change UK, not the Brexit party, that has had to drop candidates because of statements they have made on social media. The uncertainty over its name and leader seems to reflect similar confusion over its aims, policies and direction. The success of its February launch is a distant memory now. Back then, it looked like Change UK might block Corbyn’s path to No. 10. But it now seems to be a danger only to itself.
Meanwhile, Farage is clocking up successes. A few weeks ago, a second referendum looked more likely — it was seen to be the only way of breaking the parliamentary gridlock. But the growth of the Brexit party has revealed the extent to which Westminster has underestimated not just the anger out there, but the number of Brexiteers. MPs are becoming more wary of the idea of asking the people what they want, for fear that they’ll give the ‘wrong’ answer again.
Farage’s success has also underlined the risks to Labour in backing a second referendum (something its MPs want but its leadership does not). A Farage victory in the European elections would make EU leaders more sceptical about whether it is worth spending time trying to engineer a second referendum.
Meanwhile, the Faragists are showing none of the crankiness that narrowed Ukip’s appeal. And the man himself, who is standing as an MEP in the south-east, is on best behaviour. He’s armed with a simple message: the need to respect the referendum result. You told the MPs what to do, he says, and they haven’t done it. So send them a message they’ll understand.
Farage has realised that while SW1 thinks that the European issue has become more complicated since the referendum, for vast swaths of the electorate the Brexit question has become simpler: it is now a question about where power resides in this country.
He is also tapping into the suspicion that many MPs are out to stop Brexit altogether. We have already seen 191 of them vote to revoke Article 50 without any kind of public consultation to stop no deal; 280 voted for a second referendum despite the government having promised that the first one would be final.
Politicians such as Yvette Cooper say that they respect the referendum result but that this country mustn’t leave the EU without a deal. But then they vote against the Brexit deal. If you won’t let the country leave without a deal and you won’t vote for the deal, then — whatever you say — you are effectively stopping Britain from leaving the EU.
Beyond this lies a broader sense that the governing class has sought to dilute the referendum verdict at every opportunity. Rather than approaching Brexit as an opportunity to be seized, it has been treated as a damage limitation exercise. The lack of enthusiasm for this project in Whitehall has been palpable — and has underlined a sense of an unresponsive democracy and an intransigent elite. Farage is capitalising on 20 years of cynicism about politics that goes back to the Iraq war, the financial crash and the expenses scandal.
Now, to be sure, the argument isn’t as simple as Farage suggests it is. He himself is opposed to the very withdrawal agreement that would take Britain out of the EU. But parliament’s failure to deliver Brexit has given him his opening, and he’s determined to use it. So where will it end?
Some hope that Farage’s storm will blow out as quickly as it blew in. Ukip won the 2014 European elections, they say, with the Tories coming in third — yet David Cameron went on to win an outright majority the next year, proving (say the Tory optimists) that the European elections are a meaningless protest vote. But there is a crucial difference between now and 2014: the Tories hadn’t failed to deliver Brexit then. Cameron offered a referendum, and it made sense for those serious about Brexit to vote Tory. It makes less sense now. The plummeting Tory poll rating suggests that there is little electoral future for the party unless it gets Britain out of the EU. This is the sine qua non of any Tory recovery.
If the Tories cannot do this, then we are — in the words of one minister — ‘in Canadian territory’. This is a reference to the fate of the Canadian Progressive Conservative party, which in 1993 went from being the governing party to holding just two out of 295 seats. The party never recovered from this blow. Ten years later, it had to merge — on unfavourable terms — with other parties of the right. Some Tories fear that if they cannot deliver Brexit, they face a similar fate.
One minister, whose constituency is safer than most Tory ones, remarked to me this week: ‘For the first time, I think I might lose my seat.’ This minister’s fear is that not getting Brexit done creates not just a massive trust problem for the Tories but a competency issue too. A party might just about be able to get away with being cruel but competent. If it loses competence, not much remains. Most worrying for the Tories is the sense of fatalism. Sometimes parties don’t do the thing that might save them, hoping instead that something will turn up. The Tories are now in danger of doing this. Theresa May is being left in place not because the cabinet and her MPs have confidence in her to find a way to deliver Brexit, but because they are not sure who — or what — else they do have confidence in.
The other worry for the Tories is that the old dog Farage has learned new tricks. Many assumed that the Brexit party would just be a return to pre-referendum Ukip. But it is a slicker, more professional outfit than Ukip ever was. Many of its candidates, with their non-party-political backgrounds, would have looked quite at home on David Cameron’s A-list.
The candidates also come from left and right — an effort to build a far broader base of support than Ukip ever did. By having only one policy — ‘delivering the referendum result’ — Farage is able to claim that ‘this isn’t about left or right, but right and wrong’.
There is only one possible upside to this for the Tories. Farage talks a lot about how he wants to win Leave voters in traditionally Labour areas. If he succeeds, then some Labour MPs will start to fear for their own jobs and ask how to get rid of Farage and the Brexit party. There is only one answer: by voting through Brexit. Failure to do so would mean a general election fought with Brexit party candidates standing across the country. The results would be thoroughly unpredictable; remember how Ukip’s strong performance in 2015 was one of the things that cost Ed Balls his seat.
But getting Brexit through will also mean the Tories passing a withdrawal agreement. A new leader wishing to leave without one would be up against parliamentary opposition so stiff that they might need a general election to get their way. But the Brexit party would be in that contest and wouldn’t spare the Tories. You can almost hear Farage on the stump, reminding voters of the old adage: ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’
If the Tories go to the country without having passed a Brexit deal, then they would be taking a huge risk. It is worth remembering that before the 1993 election, the Canadian Conservatives changed prime minister, bringing in a new leader who was lauded as a breath of fresh air. But that didn’t save them from obliteration. It would take a very bold Tory to think the party stands no risk of suffering the same fate.