World

The Brexit Party Poses an Existential Threat to the Tories

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain May 8, 2019. (UK Parliament/Roger Harris)
Theresa May is probably on the way out, but a bigger threat is on the horizon for the Conservative party.

Theresa May’s departure from Downing Street and the premiership has been promised so many times and not materialized once that I react to the latest version of it like the Charlie Ruggles character to a rival suitor in the great Lubitsch comedy, Trouble in Paradise: “See here. You keep saying you’re leaving and then you stay. Why don’t you say you’ll stay and then leave?”

Last week it certainly looked as if May would finally gratify the wishes of almost all Tories outside Parliament (and now, it seems, most inside Parliament too) and resign as prime minister in early June. She and Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, agreed on a statement that kind of promised she would go but also left open the delicate question of when:

The prime minister is determined to secure our departure from the European Union and is devoting her efforts to securing the second reading of the withdrawal agreement bill in the week commencing 3rd June 2019 and the passage of that bill and the consequent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union by the summer. We have agreed that she and I will meet following the second reading of the bill to agree a timetable for the election of a new leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

The statement had an almost surrealist unrealism to it. The withdrawal-agreement bill she hopes to secure is regarded by almost all Tories, except hard Remainers, as the opposite of Brexit rather than its achievement — and even some of them see it as a roundabout way to Remain. Most Tories want it deep-sixed rather than secured.

As regards May’s departure, there are lots of loopholes and escape hatches on that too. If the withdrawal-agreement bill gets its second reading, she is threatening to shepherd it through the entire legislative process, which, given the bill’s complications and unpopularity, could mean a parliamentary slog of many months. If the bill fails, she has consented only to meet Brady to discuss a timetable for the election of her successor as Tory leader. In either case, she’s dragging out her departure for an indefinite period (which yesterday seemed to be either the Twelfth of Never or until she gets what she wants).

Until the end of last week, May had two reasons to hope she might get her withdrawal bill and so some sort of “legacy” through. The first was that the Labour party might agree to a compromise policy of softening Brexit even more than her bill does already. That hope evaporated last Friday when the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, issued his own statement closing down the negotiations between government and opposition.

It was a courteously worded letter, but only because May’s government was so divided and disintegrating that it wasn’t reliable as a negotiating partner. Labour could unite around that. The coup de grace to her hopes was then delivered when one of Corbyn’s more “moderate” front-bench colleagues, the lawyer Keir Starmer, confirmed that Labour would oppose May’s withdrawal deal when presented for the fourth time in the week of June 3.

May’s second hope was that enough Tory rebels would be persuaded by the whips to vote for her Brexit-lite legislation that it would pass on Tory votes and save her own position in the first week of June. That has looked a forlorn prospect for several months. The miscalculation that has bedeviled May’s Brexit strategy from the very start is simple: She thought she could win against the majority of her own party. She has mass-produced enemies on her own backbenches as a result. And as her fourth attempt to force the legislation through the Commons looms, Paul Goodman pointed out a further weakness in Conservative Home:

May’s opponents now have a very clear extra incentive to oppose it at Second Reading — since she would have no alternative in the wake of its defeat but to quit. The third Meaningful Vote whittled those opposed to her deal down to 34.  But 117 of her colleagues expressed no confidence in her earlier this year. So the number of those Conservative MPs who vote against the Bill at Second Reading is likely to rise from the mid-30s. Labour may yet come to the Prime Minister’s rescue, but that is very doubtful indeed.

But it seems that May herself doesn’t accept this pessimistic analysis. She knows that some MPs want her to stay, and she knows why. Hardcore Remainer MPs in all parties now see her tenure at Downing Street as a guarantee that nothing like the hard Brexit — the so-called “no deal” Brexit — they detest will be allowed to happen. For most such MPs, stopping Brexit matters much more than the electoral fortunes of their parties. The prospect of a Brexiteer — any Brexiteer but in particular Boris Johnson — being elected Tory leader and then changing policy in a no-deal direction alarms them. They will try either to keep her in Downing Street or, if that seems impossible, to tie her successor’s hands on Brexit before she goes.

So we arrive at the present moment. May’s desperate final strategy to get what she wants abandons any idea of getting her legislation through with majority Tory support. She will now cobble together a coalition of all parties committed to stopping both a no-deal Brexit and Boris Johnson at all costs. That emerged yesterday when she got her new! improved! withdrawal bill accepted by her cabinet colleagues and then revealed it in a speech (and in a mistaken symbolic piece of presentation) to the headquarters of an international accounting company.

Almost all of it was the same as the three previous versions of the legislation that Parliament has already rejected by large majorities. But it added significant concessions to Labour and Remainer MPs, concessions designed to persuade them to vote for the withdrawal bill on second reading in return for allowing them to amend it in the later stages of parliamentary lawmaking. If the bill passed on second reading, she assured them, the government would not block amendments that (1) kept Britain inside a customs union with the EU, (2) required a second referendum, and (3) somehow made the final act binding on a future government and prime minister.

All of these assurances break solemn promises that May has made repeatedly in the last Tory election manifesto and in speeches. But that probably won’t damage her. She has reached the point where no one expects her to tell the truth or to keep her promises. It’s all survival tactics now.

Her speech will also alienate those many Tories who are mired in guilty ambivalence about Brexit. They would like Brexit taken off the table long before the next election — ideally yesterday — but they don’t like the withdrawal bill either. They will like it even less if it’s amended by Labour Remainers in ways that openly abandon their own pledges. Indeed they are already rebelling. Within the first hour, about 20 Tories who had voted for her deal last time announced their decision to vote against it in early June. Boris Johnson is among them. Other things being equal, that would mean the bill being defeated, say, by a majority of 74. And last night the conventional wisdom was that May’s bill now faces certain defeat.

As before, I doubt May sees it that way. Between now and June 3, and beyond, a parliamentary-majority coalition for Remain, led by May from behind, that wants to pass a feeble and straitjacketed imitation of Brexit (so that it can claim to have fulfilled the referendum mandate) will be against a majority of the governing Tories who are now moving to adopt a no-deal Brexit under a new leader in the hope of staving off electoral oblivion and the collapse of support among their own traditional voters. Given that there’s a two-thirds Remain majority among MPs, but no majority for any particular outcome, the Brexit impasse might drag either indefinitely or until the EU itself loses patience and pulls the plug on any deal. And May would remain in situ, still determined to secure the U.K.’s departure, etc., etc.

That said, it’s more likely that her bill will fail for the fourth and final time. And if it does, her departure would presumably follow shortly. Her own party is now angry and despairing. It feels, not without reason, that time is running out. As Goodman concludes his earlier analysis: “Whatever happens, May’s replacement needs time to settle down over the summer, get dug in, appoint ministers, make some announcements and changes, and at least try to set the agenda before facing the Commons in the autumn. This will be impossible if the leadership election drags on throughout August into September.” Let her resign in June, however, and a new Tory leader would present a new Brexit policy to a relieved Tory conference in October.

That’s nice, of course. But will it be too late?

*   *   *

Watching MPs acting out these calculations, including maneuvers by about 20 Tory ministers, some quite obscure, to offer themselves as the next prime minister, I’m reminded of the 1970s movie poster for Jaws 2 showing a pretty bikini-clad water-skier blithely cresting the waves as, unseen behind her, a huge shark is erupting from the water and about to swallow her up. The shark in question is wearing a pinstriped suit and its name is Nigel Farage. The pretty young thing represents the mainstream parties, especially Labour and the Tories.

It’s only about a month since Farage set up the Brexit party to protest against May’s postponement and evident betrayal of Brexit. But it has already become the party with the largest single bloc of support in this Thursday’s European elections. Polls consistently give it between 30 and 35 percent support in an election that, in most constituencies, offers voters a choice of six or more parties. That is a massive tsunami of support in which Farage is swimming. The most recent poll has the Brexit party at 37 percent and the Tories at only 7 percent.

What this also means, of course, is that the other parties are doing very badly. Most polls have the Tories falling into the doldrums of being over or under 10 percent. That’s an appalling result for a governing party. Labour hovers about in the teens and low twenties, losing some Leave supporters to the Brexit party and some Remain supporters to the Liberal Democrats. Nor is the Brexit party a purely English phenomenon, as its critics often suggest. It’s now the second-largest party in Scotland and the largest party in Wales — two countries in which the Tories have now fallen to below sea level in the polls.

Two weeks ago, in the Australian magazine Quadrant, I wrote that these shifts in party support were dramatic but in line with recent political developments:

The unexpectedly smooth and professional launch of the Brexit party which has mustered an impressive roster of candidates; Farage’s own assured performances in television interviews; the hostile public reaction to a fly-on-the-wall documentary film in which the EU’s Brexit negotiators were shown sneering at the Brits and boasting (apparently after guzzling the Sherry) that they had turned the Britain into a “colony” as they had intended from the start; fast-growing support for a “No Deal” Brexit, which was minimal a year ago; and above all, May’s betrayal of her Brexit Day promise which seems to have been a more significant turning point in popular attitudes to her and to the Tory party than anyone expected in advance.

If Farage seemed to be enjoying the Mandate of Heaven two weeks ago, heaven has become more generous since.

With only two days to go before the polls open, Farage was given three boosts that most politicians can only daydream about: a milkshake was poured over him by a bearded Leftie; the prime minister obligingly broke a major promise not to hold a second referendum on Brexit, as if to remind the voters why they were opposing her and supporting him; and an establishment quango, the Electoral Commission, having given the Brexit party a clean bill of health on its financing the week before, responded to an evidence-free demand from former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown that the party’s finances should be investigated for illegal contributions by returning to its offices two days before the election and going through its books again for several hours and finding nothing wrong — almost as if there were, you know, an establishment conspiracy against Farage, Brexit, and the party bearing its name. In fact, there’s almost a conspiracy of events to help them.

Even before the election results are known on Sunday, therefore, there’s a growing sense that the Brexit party may be a permanent factor in British politics. Opinion polls on how people would vote in a general election show that the party would do less well than in European elections but still run about level with the Tories and Labour. There are deep divisions on policy apart from Brexit that have allowed critics to argue that the party would fall apart once its main goal had been achieved. But the divisions don’t seem deeper than those of other parties, and power or its prospect is itself a unifying social glue. Farage’s rallies around the country are hugely successful — packed, good-humored, more diverse socially and politically than those of the other parties, full of confidence and optimism, and notably without rancor. As with Trump’s election rallies, people seem to find them enjoyable as well as genuinely serious. A kind of Brexit party spirit already exists with many different types of people happy to be together on the bandwagon. It seems less class-bound than any of the existing parties.

And if the Brexit party wins one-third or more of Britain’s votes this week from a standing start, it will change British politics. Such a result would have the effect of a second referendum victory for Leave. It simply would not be possible for Parliament and the mainstream parties to push through a Brexit that doesn’t get the effective consent of Farage and his party. If such a thing is attempted, it will be seen to be anti-democratic and will have to be abandoned quite quickly. It would force the EU to confront the fact that there is little chance of getting a deal like May’s withdrawal deal accepted, and that even if one were to make it into the statute book, it could never be effectively implemented. In those circumstances the EU might simply throw up its collective hands and declare that the U.K. has left without a deal.

The third effect of a Farage success in the European elections would be to realign political parties and, in particular, to place the Conservative party in mortal peril. Voting for a political party is a matter of both loyalty and habit. For lifelong Tories, the idea of voting for another party is anathema. Most people who think about it never actually get around to doing it. But the Tories have certainly given their traditional supporters and those new supporters who voted for them in order to achieve Brexit good reason to leave them on this occasion. Many will do so this week. And as with adultery, betraying your party for another is much easier the second time around.

It’s still unlikely, though not impossible, that the Brexit party will replace the Tories. But for the first time in 200 years the Tories would no longer enjoy a monopoly on the right. They would face a patriotic party on their own turf. And that would force them to pay more attention to what their voters want — starting with Brexit.

Theresa May may be the worst prime minister in British history, as her critics often say. But it also seems that she is becoming one of the most consequential.

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