In the old days we would just have had a civil war and been done with it. The truth is that the polarisation of the British demos is getting worse, not better, as time since the Brexit referendum passes. The two sides are roughly evenly matched – and they are entrenching at the extremes of their positions.
Three years ago almost everybody who advocated for Brexit supported a negotiated deal of some sort. Now a party that indignantly demands a ‘WTO Brexit’ – No Deal in new branding – has comfortably topped the polls in a national election.
On the other side, parties with the most clear cut Remain messages hoovered up votes. The Lib Dems ran on the frank and pretty uncomplicated slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ and they were rewarded with second place and huge trawl of new MEPs. The Greens shot up in vote share and seats too – a trend replicated across the EU, where Green parties appear to have been the beneficiaries of an upswing in turnout driven by opposition to populist and far right insurgents.
Stuck in the middle, doing astonishingly badly, were the two major parties. The Conservatives collapsed almost completely – punishment for declaring themselves the party of Brexit and then failing to do Brexit (or, for at least a year, anything else). Labour did better in sheer numbers but that should not offer any comfort to its leadership. The coalition that saw them do so much better than expected in 2017 – metropolitan liberals and traditional working class voters – has been tempted in both directions. Some votes for the Brexit Party, some for the Remain options. By trying to be all things to all voters Labour ended up nothing to no-one.
What does it all mean? Well, the real import of these elections (for now) is what effect they will have on the main parties as they dust themselves off and work out how to respond to a democratic kicking. It is likely that their awful result will convince enough of the Conservative Parliamentary Party of the need for a no-dealer that Boris will succeed in making it through to the final two and onto the ballot of members. At that point it is hard to see how he fails to become Prime Minister.
Labour faces a precise reflection of this logic – they aren’t about to become a ‘WTO Brexit now!’ party and so political gravity dictates that they must move to firmer Remain territory. This is uncomfortable for Jeremy Corbyn and anathema to his closest advisers. But the party is insistent and the logic is pretty inexorable. Expect a big and bitter fight.
The Liberal Democrats – meanwhile – can dare to dream once more of playing a decisive role in our politics. An election could see them clean up in the areas where their vote at both local and European levels has rocketed over the last month. During their negotiations with Change UK, the Lib Dems felt that the new kids on the block were underestimating the importance of an existing campaign infrastructure and overestimating the extent to which the Liberal brand had been toxified by the coalition. Turns out, Sir Vince was right.
Of course, the truth is that none of this changes the basic chemistry of our current parliamentary log jam or our national stalemate. Both parties could elect entirely new leaders with entirely new agendas and it would not do much to shift the arithmetic in Parliament or to open up new opportunities on Brexit. For that reason, these are unlikely to be the last elections that Britain takes part in this year. Brace for yet another campaign – probably in the Autumn. Tiresome, yes, but probably better than a civil war. On balance.