This was not supposed to happen. Theresa May’s timeline for Brexit was constructed backwards from the upcoming European elections – with the express intention of avoiding them. Article 50 provides a two year window for negotiating exit. Add on a few months contingency – you know, to iron out the details – and a March target for Brexit looked pretty reasonable. After all, a Parliament that voted to trigger Article 50 by an overwhelming majority was hardly going to then refuse to vote through the resulting deal for three months, was it?
Spoiler alert – they did. And so, because we are still members of the European Union and because citizens of European Union members have an absolute legal right to representation in the European Union’s Parliament, elections we shall have. There are quite a lot of MPs – Labour and Tory alike – who are absolutely furious about this. But given that quite a lot of those MPs have refused to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement on multiple occasions you might forgive the Prime Minister an eye roll at their expense.
The Conservative Party is almost certainly going to be humiliated on May 23rd. They have a confused and confusing field of candidates (including every hue of opinion on Brexit, from People’s Voters to No Deal headbangers) and are – by proxy – running in theoretical support of Theresa May’s deal. Which very few of them support.
Leapfrogging the Tories for the Brexiteer vote is Nigel Farage’s new Ronseal Party. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, the Brexit Party is campaigning for just that. They want out. No deal, no messing about, out out out. It is a simple message and it has been well received by voters who are tiring of the complexity of what they chose to do in 2016. Most polls show Farage’s new outfit leading on vote share – at somewhere between 23% and 27%. They have the opportunity to grow further if they can take votes off UKIP, which in its new anti-Islam incarnation is sitting on around 6%.
Brexiteers, then, are being given the chance to assemble behind a single party that unites No Deal Tories with the more respectable Kippers. Of course UKIP might split that vote in places but Farage has been very successful at getting the message out that he – and the Brexit true believers – have left UKIP behind for pastures new. He will do well at reuniting the Brexit vote behind him and may poll up to or above 30%.
Die hard Remainers have more complicated choices to make. It is a fractured field with – in England – three and a half pro-referendum parties to choose between. The Greens, Lib Dems and Change UK mob (the new party of disgruntled Labour and Tory defectors) are calling for a ‘People’s Vote’. In Scotland and in Wales the SNP and Plaid Cymru add to the sharing platter of pro-EU options. Why three and a half? Well, because there is also Labour – which is committed to a referendum but only in certain circumstances.
There is an obvious issue here for the Remain cause. It is likely that parties pledging one ‘People’s Vote’ or another will outpoll Farage considerably. They may get at or around half the votes counted. But the narrative will be one of a famous Brexit Party victory, and of Farage’s huge personal base and mandate. And that is before we even get to how the incredibly complicated electoral system (a closed list version of D’Hondt, a fiendish form of PR) may conspire to leave the fractured Remain field further disadvantaged by their lack of unity.
Why have they not combined into a sort of pro-EU super group? For a number of reasons. First, the Change UK party sees this as their first real test (and electoral opportunity) and they do not want to dilute their message or (as they see it) toxify their brand by association with the Lib Dems. For Vince Cable the appeal of an alliance was balanced by the reality that his party’s democratic structure would make it hard to force through in time. And for them all, the unfortunate legal reality is that the Electoral Commission has no means by which to register ‘alliances’. They would have had to set up a new, specific party for this one specific election. In the end the hurdles and the egos were too great.
And so, back to the beginning. The Conservative Party will do very, very poorly. A very bad night might get their number of MEPs down to single figures. Labour will do ok – dependent though, on the candidates and leadership managing to stick to the line that there will be a confirmatory vote (all polling, public and private, shows that Labour being seen as Brexit or Brexit-adjacent would decimate their appeal at these elections). Nigel Farage will do very well, barring an unexpected major event or revelation. And the other parties will be left fighting it out for the uber-Remain voters who make up circa 25% of the electorate – dividing up a dozen or less seats between them.
What will this mean for Brexit? Well, in the Conservative Party it will probably provoke another attempted putsch by those who would use Farage’s success as proof that the party must tack to the right. For Labour a healthy showing would confirm that a referendum has to feature in their red lines if they are to hold on to the metropolitan and younger voters who now dominate its membership. And yet it is quite hard to see how any of this changes the fundamentals. Brexiteers will claim they have a mandate to crash out. Remainers will argue that it is a lot more complicated than that. Both will have a point. Neither will have a majority in the Parliament that matters here, in Westminster. And so after much fire and more than a little fury we will be right back here, at the impasse, peering over the edge and working out whether to change direction or simply take the leap. Yet again, nothing will have changed.