Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Brexit – whither now?

There was little point in commenting on Brexit again while Theresa May’s premiership was in the process of finally collapsing, until the outcome of the election for the European parliament became clear. As was to be expected, Nigel Farage is now crowing like a farmyard cockerel atop a dung heap. He complains of media bias against him and his shiny new party, but in fact the way in which the BBC and others reported the results of the recent election was, if anything, unduly kind to the Faragistes.

In reality, the Brexit Party is simply a break-away faction from UKIP, and to get a true picture of the results one has to consider both of those parties together. Their combined share of the vote, compared with the results in the last Euro-elections in 2014, went up by just 7.4% and they gained 5 extra seats (all of which went to the new Brexit Party faction and none to UKIP, which is now effectively moribund). This compares with the Tories, also a pro-Brexit party (whose official position up to now has been that they wish to deliver Brexit on agreed terms which would enable this to happen in an orderly fashion). They lost almost 15% of their previous share of the vote, with a consequent loss of 15 seats. The extra 7% of the vote gained by the two Brexit parties almost certainly came from former Conservative voters, and perhaps some former Labour voters, who found their respective parties insufficiently ‘Brexity’. This hardly represents any significant increase (or any increase at all) in the overall pro-Brexit share of vote.

The performance of the two wings of the extremist Brexit faction can be compared with the results for the Lib Dems, whose share of the vote compared with 2014 went up by 13.4%, giving them 15 extra seats. The other unequivocally pro-European parties (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Change UK) gained an extra 9% of the vote, giving them 5 extra seats. So the combined figures for these five anti-Brexit parties represented and overall gain of 22.4% of the vote and a net gain of 20 seats.

The precise position of the Labour Party is still a mystery, and even now after they lost 11.3% of the overall vote compared with 2014, leaving them 10 seats down, the official position of the Labour leader is hardly distinguishable from the Tories, apparently favouring some kind of Brexit on agreed terms, but not ruling out as an option the possibility that they might perhaps support a fresh referendum, but only if they have failed (after how many attempts?) to engineer a General Election. Unsurprisingly, the electorate was confused and are still unsure where the Labour Party stands. It seems to be neither fully pro-Brexit nor is it unequivocally anti-Brexit.

The combined votes for the out-and-out Brexit faction (UKIP and Faragistes combined) were 34.9% of the total votes cast, whereas the combined votes of the unequivocally anti-Brexit parties (Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Change UK) came to 40.4%. No matter how Nigel Farage tries to spin it, this is hardly a clear call for the result of the 2016 referendum to be delivered; in fact, it is nothing of the kind. The exact views of those voters who still voted for the two main (or formerly main) parties is difficult to discern, but the majority view among Labour members and supporters seems to be anti-Brexit, and many of those who still voted Conservative can probably be counted as pro-Brexit. To be realistic, a roughly equal number of Tory and Labour voters can probably be added to each side of the debate, which would bring the pro-Brexit share of the vote to 44% and the anti-Brexit vote to 54.5%. This confirms that recent opinion polls were broadly correct in detecting a definite shift in public opinion away from Brexit and in favour of Remain.

MEPs are elected by proportional representation, but the D’Hondt system is not perfect (and a single transferable vote might arguably be preferable). So despite the use of this proportional system, the Brexit Party with 31.6% of the votes won 29 seats, whereas the unequivocally anti-Brexit parties (Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Change UK) with 40.4% the votes won just 27 seats between them. Taking the number of UK seats (73 in total), a total of 29 seats for the Brexit Party falls somewhat short of a majority of UK representation in the European Parliament. So, despite claims to the contrary, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party did not ‘win’ this election.

These results nevertheless underline the inevitable consequence for the various parties opposed to Brexit of failing to reach an electoral pact with like-minded political parties in good time before an election. In the first-past-the-post system that we use for our domestic parliamentary elections, and in particular in our next General Election (whenever it comes), it is even more important that the anti-Brexit parties agree among themselves as to which constituencies they will contest, standing aside in those constituencies where another anti-Brexit party stands a better chance of winning the seat. The Labour Party ought to participate in these arrangements, but I fear that the political dinosaurs who control that party are so incorrigibly tribal in their attitudes that they could never bring themselves to compromise in this way. The precipitate and ill-considered expulsion of Alastair Campbell from the party this week is a sad reflection of this obscurantist attitude, which does not bode well for the future electoral prospects of the Labour Party. Maybe the time has come for Jeremy Corbyn to follow the example of Vince Cable, and step down from the leadership of his party, so that he can spend more time on his allotment.

The important point is that, interesting though the European election may have been, it has not changed the parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster. The Tory leadership contest may well be influenced by last week’s vote, although Jeremy Hunt has sounded a timely warning note about misinterpreting that vote, but in the final analysis the identity of the Tory leader is an irrelevance. I would not hazard even the most tentative guess as to who may ultimately emerge as the new Tory leader but, whoever it turns out to be, they will be faced with exactly the same political and parliamentary problems as Mrs May.

Those Tory leadership hopefuls who talk about going back to Brussels to negotiate a much better deal than Theresa May was able to achieve have either been failing to pay attention or are simply deluding themselves (and their followers). Not only has the EU made it clear that the draft agreement that has been reached cannot be re-negotiated, but the agreement by which the UK was given an extension to Article 50 until 31 October specifically provides that this extension cannot be used for any renegotiation of that agreement.

The stark choices that will face parliament, and the government under its new Tory PM, are unchanged – (1) sign off on the deal that has been negotiated, (2) ‘crash out’ of the EU without a deal or (3) revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice (so as to put an end to Brexit). One or two of the Tory leadership contenders have enough common sense to appreciate that a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would be catastrophic, and that no government could realistically contemplate such a disastrous outcome to the Brexit process. Whilst the current ‘default’ position is that, in the absence of any other course of action having been adopted in the meantime, the UK is indeed set to ‘crash out’ of the EU on 31 October without transitional arrangements of any sort, there is a strong possibility that if it were to become apparent that the government was seriously prepared to allow this to happen, there could be enough Tory abstentions on an opposition ‘No Confidence’ motion in the Commons to bring the government down and precipitate a General Election. It would need only a handful of Tory abstentions to bring about this outcome, if this proves to be the only way to defend the vital national interest, rather than the narrow political interests of the Tory Party.

One prediction I will make - the tenure of the next Tory prime minister will be as difficult and unhappy as that of Mrs May, and may well prove to be brief and inglorious.


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