There is a lesson in British politics for the rest of the world: A democratic revolt of the people against the establishment cannot be resisted forever.
The immediate result of the Brexit vote in 2016 and Parliament’s decision to accede to the will of the electorate and turn in its Article 50 notice to the EU was a strengthening of the two oldest mainstream parties, Tory and Labour, against the ultra-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, and the ultra-Brexit party, UKIP. The Tory and Labour parties subsequently pledged in their campaign manifestos to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum, and usher the U.K. out of the EU in a timely and orderly fashion. That Article 50 notice promised an exit date of at the end of March 2019, a date that was repeated endlessly in the media. By endorsing the populist outcome, both parties looked like they might thrive.
And then Parliament refused to pass Theresa May’s negotiated agreement by that date, and also refused to “crash out” of the EU on WTO terms. Leading voices in both the Tory and Labour parties began to embrace the idea of a second Brexit referendum, obviously hoping that voters would come to retroactively bless their indecision, and possibly relieve them of Brexit altogether. Voters seem inclined to destroy them instead.
And now those two parties are about to reap their reward — in the grinning face of Nigel Farage, and in his new Brexit party, which has welcomed in Brexiteers from the left and the right. The former leader of UKIP, and a man who helped the Brexit cause get over the line in 2016, has done some studying on the new populist politics. And he is newly sharp. Asked by the media why his party did not publish a traditional manifesto, he said, “I will never, ever use that word manifesto. I think in most people’s word association, ‘manifesto’ equals ‘lie.’” After the performance of Parliament in the last two years, who could possibly dispute the charge?
Even though this new party is only a few weeks old, Farage’s outfit is already polling as likely to win a majority of the seats in the European parliamentary elections on May 23rd — a contest that his party believes should never have happened in the U.K. The Brexit party is polling at over 30 percent, with the Tories dropping to 12 percent and rapidly heading for the single digits. If this is a foreshadowing of how U.K. parliamentary elections will go, then the Brexit party is an existential threat to the Tories.
It’s also a sign that the Tories can no longer play the Corbyn card against their own supporters. Previously it was thought that Tory voters would be so afraid of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister that these voters would never defect or try to teach the Tory party a lesson by staying home.
But voters seem to think that the democratic principle itself is more important than their preferred party. After all, the government solicited the opinion of the British people in the Brexit referendum. That same government campaigned overwhelmingly for Remain, and deployed incredible scare stories about immediate economic recession in the wake of a pro-Brexit result, even invoking unknown threats to European peace in the wake of it. The voters rebuked them. But, after more than two years, members of Parliament have done little more than deliver lip service to the Brexit cause, with a heaping dash of grumbling about having to get on with it. A second referendum at this stage amounts to a reversal of parliamentary democracy, in which elected members demand voters do a better job of mirroring Parliament’s priorities.
The Tory party has a history of letting its own internal politics distract its members from anger issues in the United Kingdom. But the initial polling for the Brexit party should awaken them to the fact that they face an existential threat due to their own dithering and impotence. They must decide immediately whether the government should negotiate a deal Parliament can support, or whether the Tory members in Parliament ought to set aside their criticisms of the deal on offer and save their party from imminent destruction. The promises that Brexit will happen at some point in the future or that Theresa May will be replaced at some later date, when it is more opportune for the chancery who would do the replacing, must come to an end. This is no longer a choice for the public, but for the Tory party. Leave or be pushed out for good.