As the by-election result came through from Wales last week, one Tory Leaver tweeted this:
“Brecon and Radnor is a timely warning to Brexiteers. Vote for the @brexitparty_uk and you will hand another seat to Remain. How could you be so stupid?”.
So stupid? The nerve, when after all, it was the the Brexit party that resuscitated the referendum result after a near death experience created by his party. I was furious at the arrogance. But he isn't alone; this view has now become the narrative popularised by some Tory grandees and voters, even though many of the latter loaned the Brexit party their votes in the Euro elections.
Yet without the Brexit party, it is likely that Theresa May would still be prime minister. Given that May promised much at the start of her leadership and delivered zilch over three long years, it would be foolish to take Boris’s promises at face value. No number of Conservative politicians, armed with count-down clocks, is proof that Brexit is a done deal. Rumours of some kind of reheated version of May’s dreadful deal, without the backstop, is not enough for me to bring out the bunting.
However, the Brexit party does face new challenges: for once the debate is not Leave vs Remain, but between Brexiteers. Does the rise of the new Brexity Boris and his band of Brexiteer advisors signal the end for the newly formed, insurgent Brexit party? Should the Brexit party stand down to let the Tories get on with the job? Here’s my thoughts and advice for the Conservative party:
Show some humility:
Might I suggest that, when it comes to the (sometimes newly-converted) hard Brexiteers now installed in positions of power in Westminster, perhaps they might show just a smidgen of humility when they try to claim that it is they who are rescuing Brexit.
No one should be under any illusions: Boris would not be talking tough now had it not been for voters – mainly rallied by the Brexit party – forcing his hand. The re-assembling of the official Vote Leave campaign around Number 10 is not a credit to the Conservative party; it is a testament to the resilience of Leave voters who have strong-armed the Government to see through what they were told to do three years ago.
Don’t get me wrong. On the day Boris became leader, I was interviewed on Sky News and Adam Boulton, the presenter, seemed surprised that I wouldn’t wish the new administration ill-will.
But such a sectarian response would be politics-as-usual, reflecting politicians who are only concerned about their own skin and not any broader principles. I am an MEP fighting not to be that, after all. So the Brexit party should be – and is – a different animal. I will cheer any party or politician, of whatever party, who actually delivers Brexit. I suspect that the same goes for Leave voters from all parties and none. We are united by a demand for democracy and respecting the referendum result. While we are genuinely delighted to say goodbye to Theresa May, Philip Hammond et al, and to welcome a new Leave Cabinet, that is not because we are Tories – and this is key – but because we have had to endure a political class telling us that Brexit was too difficult or damaging to deliver. So we are just relieved that it might happen at last.
Stop assuming you own Brexit or its voters:
Avoid that complacent tone you have adopted in recent days, implying we should all just leave it up to you. Your assumption that you lost Brecon because the Tory vote was split by the Brexit party makes two mistakes.
Firstly, you don’t own Brexit. A large number of Brexiteers are left-of-centre Labour Leave voters who cannot be expected to jump over to your party. Secondly, don’t presume that your own voter base is stable. The debacle of the last three years had made people question their loyalties and look to other organisations with less baggage. You need to recognise that many of those voting for you on a Brexit ticket are lending you support to deliver a specific outcome. However, if you assume that this means deep-rooted, long-standing loyalty to the party – as though the last three years didn’t happen – you really don’t get how revolutionary the Brexit mood is.
By treating the the Brexit party as little more than a warm-up act for the Tory party – to be dispensed with now that you appear to be back on track – you imply that Brexit belongs to you. But NO one party owns Brexit, not the Tories, nor indeed the Brexit party.
I’d go further: after three years of let-downs and parliamentary shenanigans in defiance of the electorate, following decades of technocratic rule in which all parties became estranged from their ideological support base, no party can claim voters as their own anymore. Each and every election will mean winning each and every vote. There can be no return to normal, in which voters were used as stage armies by any party. As Eric Dempsey, a traditionally Labour voter told me: “If the Brexit party ceases to be an electoral threat, everything unravels. If voters have nowhere else to turn, Tory MPs will once again treat them with contempt”. Being taken for granted and treated with disdain WAS the norm. No longer.
Don’t underestimate the thirst for change:
Disillusionment with all the mainstream political parties hasn’t created apathy, but an appetite for a new kind of politics. While the Brexit party has been dismissed as a pressure group with vague pretensions towards being a party, thank God we formed. Who knows if those “vague pretensions” can be realised, but at least the Brexit party’s slogan Changing Politics for Good gets under the skin of a desire for change far better than a smug assumption that the same-old, same-old two-party status quo is good enough.
Much depends on the date of a General Election and what Boris does in the run up. There may well be room for electoral pacts; I for one would like to see those Labour MPs who have stood in defiance of their Northern Leave voters punished at the ballot box. That’s a task I doubt the Conservative party could ever deliver but the Brexit party would stand a chance of achieving. But there’s more at stake than electoral calculations: democratic politics is now alive with possibilities.
You can’t underestimate how radicalising the last few years have been. What became apparent to me on the campaign trail and since was that Brexit is no longer just about Brexit.
At first, the 2016 result was about sovereignty in terms of the EU; but it’s now as much about popular sovereignty itself as the UK’s own democratic deficit has become more obvious. At street stalls and meetings in the North West, voters have constantly talked about how the delay on delivering Brexit had pulled back the curtain on the establishment, its institutions and mainstream parties not fit for purpose.
If historically those who ran society were guarded in spouting their prejudices about popular democracy and the ignorant masses, now they have dropped their guard. For many it has been shocking to glimpse the lengths to which unelected peers and sections of the judiciary would go to block popular sovereignty. The British broadcast media, always held in high esteem – almost untouchable – is now being called out for bias and openly criticised.
Many people are openly enthusiastic about shaking things up (so it’s doubly ironic that Labour born-again Remainers are the most enthusiastic about preserving the status quo). In the real world, people are actively discussing whether we should adopt proportional representation because First Past The Post disenfranchises too many electors? Should we abolish or reform the House of Lords? Is the media really impartial? What global opportunities exist after Brexit? This enthusiasm for long-term change, once we have left the EU, won’t be sated by a bit of Boris banter.
A word from Marx:
As my favourite philosopher once noted, history isn’t always made in conditions of one’s choosing. I’m sure Boris would rather not have fulfilled his childhood dream of being the Prime Minister as a result of pressure from Nigel Farage’s new upstart party. He would surely rather that his flimsy popularity wasn’t dependent on leaving the EU, a position he wasn’t even sure he believed in when the referendum was first called.
As for me, history has thrown me a curve ball and I’m now willing a Tory cabinet to succeed in this one key objective. For the sake of the democratic franchise and making history, I will grit my teeth and say: “Come on Boris; deliver a clean break Brexit”, precisely because I recognise an opportunity to recover the value of democracy. I’m supportive of the Brexit rhetoric but it doesn’t make me a Tory, and as yet, it hasn’t convinced me.
I’ll stick with the exciting work of helping to build a new bottom-up movement fit for voters that will sweep away the moribund shells of the political past. What a time to be alive. Whatever your politics, whether Conservative, Labour, even Lib Dem – one pact we should all sign up to is making the most of this seismic democratic moment. Bring it on.
Claire Fox is a Brexit party MEP for the North West