What happens after May?
Nearly three years after the referendum, Britain’s weary voters will use Thursday’s poll to pass judgement on the Brexit mess many think was created by the two big parties. If you’re a disgruntled Brexiteer, you will almost certainly vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. If you’re an angry Remainer, you will probably vote either for the Lib Dems, the Greens or Change UK.
The latest YouGov poll shows Tories and Labour on just 7% and 13% respectively, with Farage’s party way in front on 37%. Traditionally, minor parties do well in European elections and then fade away as voters return to their traditional homes. The fear in both parties is that because of Brexit, this may not happen this time and the anger at the two main parties may carry over to a possible Autumn general election.
The end of Theresa May
Theresa May had hoped to avoid these elections altogether but her failure to secure agreement with Labour on a Brexit deal made them inevitable. The PM still hopes that the elected UK MEPs will never need to take up their seats. But the reception to her speech yesterday, unveiling the Withdrawal Agreement Bill she hopes to pass next month, shows that thinking is delusional.
We are in the dying days, perhaps the dying hours, of her premiership. Boris Johnson has already declared his intention to stand for the leadership and is the clear front runner among members. Some caution that front runners rarely win Tory races but Johnson has charisma, is very popular among Conservative members and may appeal to nervous Tory MPs fearful of the Farage surge.
On the other hand, he has the potential to implode and is disliked by many Tory MPs. He will face a stiff challenge from Dominic Raab to be the standard bearer for the Eurosceptic right. Other runners are yet to formally declare but prominent cabinet members including Jeremy Hunt, Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove are likely to run on a more moderate platform.
Yet every contender will need to adopt a harder position on Brexit than Theresa May’s if they are to win over the membership, which will be asked to choose between two candidates shortlisted by MPs. The EU has already warned that it will not even sit down with a new Prime Minister who seeks to harden the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. But the EU has no votes in the Conservative leadership contest and it is telling that two thirds of Tory members, in a recent YouGov poll, backed a no deal Brexit.
That outcome is now more likely than it has been at any time since Brexit was triggered. So, too, is no Brexit at all. The failure of parliament to agree any orderly exit from the EU – a failure that is likely to continue regardless of who becomes the new Conservative leader and Prime Minister – means that the two extremes have emerged more strongly as the most likely destinations.
That polarisation is reflected in the advance of new and smaller political parties and in the deepening splits within Labour and the Conservatives. Both have seen the emergence of internal factions such as the ERG, One Nation, and Blue Collar groups on the Conservative side, and Momentum and the Social Democratic group on Labour’s.
It is difficult to predict how and whether this fragmentation will reshape British politics. But the fissures opened up by Brexit create the potential for a significant realignment. A Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson or indeed by any other leader which clearly aimed for a no deal Brexit would likely be a bridge too far for some Tories, including prominent members of the current Cabinet.
Already one grandee, Lord Heseltine, has been suspended for saying he intends to vote Liberal Democrat. He was joined today by the lifelong Tory commentator Matthew Parris. If the Conservatives become the party of no deal we should expect the rebellion to increase, including resignations from cabinet. It is possible that a new leader, perhaps even Boris, could find a way to avoid that disintegration. But the forthcoming leadership contest is unlikely to give grounds for much optimism.
For Labour, Brexit is equally divisive. The leadership has just about managed to avoid a serious split by adopting a fudged policy that can be interpreted whichever way the reader intends. But if a general election were called, it would be forced to adopt a clearer position for or against Brexit and a second referendum. That moment of clarity could trigger a much bigger split than the initial trickle into Change UK. Most likely it would be led by Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who heads the Social Democratic caucus within the PLP.
The underlying structure of UK politics, in particular the first past the post electoral system, makes it extremely difficult for new or third parties to challenge for power. The last party to successfully break the dominant two parties – Labour – was formed in 1900 but did not win a majority until 1945. Fundamental political change has tended to take time in Britain.
However, the conditions for another major political realignment are clearly developing. It might take more than one election for that process to be realised, but the next election could herald its beginning. The collapse in support for the two main parties makes a further hung parliament likely. Smaller parties may come more strongly into play as the Lib Dems prepare to elect a fresh leader and the Brexit Party threatens to develop into something bigger than a pressure group. Individual MPs, even the leading party of government, could be elected on historically low shares of the vote. That will make politics even more volatile.
And this scenario could emerge sooner than later. With parliamentary arithmetic making it all but impossible to break the Brexit deadlock, the UK is likely to face a constitutional crisis in October, which may force an early general election if it doesn’t bring about a second referendum.
Things fall apart
While the party system could be on the verge of breaking up, a more fundamental rupture looms. For the arrival of a figure like Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be a seismic political event, threatening the very existence of the Union.
Brexit is already causing a constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland, increasing calls for a border poll and threatening a return to political violence. It is also raising the temperature in Scotland, where discontent with Brexit would be magnified many times if allied to the premiership of Boris Johnson, whose approval ratings north of the border are minus 40. In such circumstances, the clamour for a second independence referendum may become irresistible.
If Jeremy Corbyn came to power it would not need to be. The hard left leadership has effectively written off Scottish constituencies and priced in the likelihood of a significant body of SNP MPs being returned at the next election. They are rumoured to be willing to offer up “IndyRef2” as the price for Nationalist support in a hung parliament.
The political fragmentation being wrought by Brexit is not, therefore, restricted to the parties. It potentially extends to the system of government and politics itself. The challenge for whoever replaces Theresa May as Prime Minister, if they wish to pursue it, is plotting a future path that enables the centre to hold.
By Lexington’s Director Declan McHugh
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