The Brexit Party Arrives in the European Parliament
Nearly three years after the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, Brexit continues to wreak havoc on British politics, and the country remains a member state of the bloc. Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she will resign, on June 7th, after failing to secure a deal with Europe around the terms of British departure. A leadership contest is already under way, with Boris Johnson—the clownish former mayor of London and former Foreign Minister—the most likely candidate. Johnson favors a “harder” Brexit than May and has even threatened to leave Europe without any sort of deal, potentially sending the British economy into chaos. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the Labour Party and a longtime Euroskeptic, has resisted the pleas of fellow-Labourites to call for a second referendum.
Election results for the European Parliament were announced on Sunday, with far-left and far-right parties all over the continent gaining strength. In the United Kingdom, which a year ago was not even expecting to have a vote in these elections, Nigel Farage—the former UKIP leader and the politician most associated with the Leave campaign—saw his new Brexit Party emerge with a plurality of seats. Labour—caught between its pro-Remain base and some members from seats that voted Leave—lost support to the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, and did very poorly in Scotland, where voters are staunchly pro-Remain.
To discuss what these election results mean for the U.K., and the future of Europe, I spoke by phone with Helen Thompson, a professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge and a panelist on the British weekly podcast “Talking Politics.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the Brexit Party was able to achieve so much success, why Corbyn is struggling with voters who care about the environment, and the existential dilemmas facing the two main parties.
How much do these results in the U.K. seem similar to what is going on across Europe, and how much do you think what is happening in Britain is unique?
I think it’s pretty hard to make too many comparisons between Britain and the other member states, because, the way things stand at the moment, Britain’s supposed to be leaving on October 31st. The one thing in common is that there is fragmentation across party systems in a number of countries. Indeed, Britain is now actually following what happened in other countries, rather than the other way around, in that the urban younger left voters are deserting center-left parties, often for the Greens. And so it isn’t just the Liberal Democrats who’ve benefitted here from the Remain defections from Labour. It’s the Greens, too.
And the Greens have not really had much of a voice in the Brexit debate. They’ve had a clear position [in favor of remaining in the E.U.], but they haven’t been able to cut through, really, in terms of having a distinctive message. I think that their ability to win votes is both because of the environment issue itself, but also because we are seeing young center-left voters very disillusioned with social democratic, traditional center-left parties and looking for something else.
That’s interesting, because the Corbyn project has been to reinvent the Labour Party as more of a left party, rather than the more centrist, center-left Party of the past several decades. Does the fact that he failed so miserably to do that in this election suggest that he got tripped up over Brexit, or does it suggest a larger failure?
I think he got tripped up over Brexit. It’s reasonably clear that Labour lost Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, particularly in the larger cities and in some parts of the South, and that it lost Leave voters to the Brexit Party in the Midlands and the North. So Corbyn’s desire to play both sides of the Brexit divide has really fallen apart at this election.
I think, separately from that, there is growing discontent, which is fuelled by Brexit but isn’t only about Brexit, in a section of the voters that Corbyn initially mobilized: relatively young urban voters. And I think that that’s got another aspect to it, which is the disillusionment with his leadership about the anti-Semitism issues. So you had people who were willing to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt because they absolutely wanted to oppose the Conservative Party, but have found sticking with Corbyn, in the face of these anti-Semitism issues, more difficult than it previously was. I think if you go back to his difficulties last summer, when you started to see the project under considerable strain, that actually was at least as important as Brexit. I’d say right now that Brexit is most important, but I don’t think it’s actually the only thing that’s going on in terms of Corbyn’s ability to hold the movement together.
I think the environment issue is actually quite interesting in another way, and that is just because Corbyn’s not a natural for environment questions. He and the people around him were very much formed by class-based politics domestically and by the anti-colonial, anti-U.S. foreign-policy politics of the nineteen-seventies and the nineteen-eighties. They’re happy to talk the language of environment politics, but it’s not where they’re coming from. Whereas the defecting younger voters that they mobilized are very responsive on green issues.
There have been post-result rumblings that Corbyn will come out more squarely for a second referendum. But, although the results suggest that he lost a lot of Remain voters, he also lost some Labour voters, many of them in the North, who were in favor of Brexit, right?
Yeah, I think he’s going to come under a lot of pressure to move closer to a second referendum, because the people in the Party who have been pushing in that direction for some time tend to be the dominant Labour voices in the media. And they have the people from the People’s Vote campaign [a popular movement for a vote on the final Brexit deal] pushing very hard in that direction. But it’s also clear that there are individual M.P.s—not just from the North but also from the Midlands—who are very concerned about the Party going down that direction, and quite reasonably so.
Now, you could argue that Labour’s got more voters to lose on the Remain side than it has on the Leave side. That is quite probably true. The problem is that, when you look at the geography for the general election, the seats that Labour needs to win to have any chance of forming a parliamentary majority—if you leave the Scotland issue aside, where Labour’s just been hammered—are more Leave-looking seats than they are Remain-looking seats. While shifting over to a second referendum position might maximize the number of votes that Labour can possibly win in absolute terms, it comes with considerable electoral risks.
What did you make of the Brexit Party winning a plurality?
First of all, it is an existential threat to the Conservative Party, unless the Conservative Party can have Britain leave the European Union, if not exactly on October 31st, then reasonably quickly afterward. The Conservative Party is now in a position where, for it to make a recovery, Britain has to leave the European Union. The second thing is that the Brexit Party is not run like a political party. It is a more slickly organized than UKIP ever was. Nigel Farage has sort of reinvented himself. This is a more effective Farage than the man who ran UKIP. And they did really quite a striking job of putting together a demographically diverse group of candidates, something that UKIP was never able to do at all. And so I think that if this Party sticks around, because Brexit doesn’t happen, then it’s got more legs than UKIP would have had in circumstances in which Remain had won the referendum in 2016. But if the Conservatives were able to take Britain out of the European Union, then I think that it would wither away pretty quickly, if there was no deal in the departure. It would be a bit more complicated in the case of Britain leaving with an agreement.
What, if anything, do you expect the Brexit Party to do in the European Parliament?
Nothing much. I don’t think it’s about that for them. They want to insure that Britain leaves the European Union. If the deadline gets pushed further than October 31st, there’s likely more scope for them to impede business in ways that would be really problematic. But, on October 31st, if this gets sorted out, I don’t think there’s much wrecking business that they can do. I think their first stroke is now going to be the [parliamentary] by-election coming up in Peterborough, which is a reasonable bet for them to be able to win.
This result seems to put the Tories in a major bind. The hard right will eat away at them if they don’t deliver Brexit, but, regardless of who their new leader is, it’s not clear what Brexit deals can be reached with the E.U. Do you agree?
Yeah. First of all, I don’t think it’s right to think about Brexit as a far-right party. They campaigned on the democracy issue [that the results of the referendum would be respected], all the way through, rather than anything else. The problem for the Conservatives is that, in order to confront the Brexit Party, they need a tough Brexit at least. The only way out of the dilemma would be if the E.U. offered some concessions on the Irish backstop. [This is the tricky subject of how to deal with the border between Northern Ireland—still part of the United Kingdom—and the Republic of Ireland, which is an E.U. member state, if Britain leaves the Union.] If that doesn’t happen, then they’re in a bind, because, if the new leader tries to take the U.K. out without an agreement, that will almost certainly precipitate the end of the government, because enough Conservative M.P.s will support a no-confidence motion to stop it happening.
Do you agree with the conventional wisdom that Boris Johnson is the clear favorite, and, separately, is there any Conservative Prime Minister who could take office next month who could make the Brexit situation any easier, or is this going to play the same regardless of who’s chosen?
I don’t think it’s a given that Boris Johnson will win. I think he’s probably more likely than not, but there’s clearly a significant fraction within the parliamentary Conservative Party that’s determined to stop him. I think that the only way out for a Conservative leader would be anybody who could go and persuade the E.U. to make some compromises on the backstop.
Not Boris Johnson, in short.
Yeah, otherwise the next Conservative leader is stuck. You would think, in principle, that [the Cabinet minister] Michael Gove would perhaps be the most likely, if anyone was. I think he wouldn’t have the level of distrust [with the E.U.] that Boris Johnson would have. But, at the same time, this is an issue which goes way beyond British politics. If it’s going to change, it would have to be a strategic geopolitical judgment made by the most powerful member-state governments, that they have to make it possible for Britain to leave in an orderly way.
It’s hard not to look at this and feel like Britain needs an election to provide some guidance. Do you think that’s correct, or is another election probably just going to lead to another mixed result? How do you think about that as someone who thinks about British democracy?
All constitutional logic says that there should be an election, because, in our system of government, if you have a government that doesn’t command the confidence of the House of Commons, then it shouldn’t exist. And right now we have a government that got to a point where it did not have a command majority. It didn’t command majority confidence of the House of Commons, and yet the House of Commons is unwilling to bring the end of that government. So I think that Commons is acting in a constitutionally problematic way at the moment.
It would be better to try to get back to a situation where we have a government that could command confidence. Having said that, it’s quite difficult to see how that would come about. Neither of the main parties now is going to want a general election because they’re both in terrible positions. And, even if one was forced upon them by circumstances, then it’s quite easy to see how some stalemate results. It’s difficult to see how Labour can form a majority government so long as they are as weak as they are in Scotland, and it’s difficult to see how the Conservatives can form a majority government until they can reassemble a coalition that includes not only Leavers but at least some of their pragmatic Remain voters.
Finally, I want to ask about Theresa May, because she seems like almost a completely unique political figure to me, in that she’s been acting like a conviction politician for something that it’s not clear that she actually believes in and has been willing to kind of throw her career away for it. I can’t think of a comparison for her. Or am I misreading her?
I think that she’s a unique politician in terms of British politics. It’s pretty difficult to imagine a person who’s been as much of a loner in politics as she has rising to the top. She is also almost painfully introverted, which I think is pretty unusual for a political leader. In terms of conviction, I always thought it was less important than perhaps some people did that she didn’t believe in Brexit. Because I think that, for her, to go back prior to the referendum, she was Remain by pragmatism, rather than by anything else. The closest advisers that she had were both actually committed Leavers. So there was always a little bit of a Leaver in Theresa May, even if her head over her heart, so to speak, actually came down on the Remain side during the referendum. But the British people had been asked to vote on the referendum, and they had given their majority verdict. I think that she thought that was something sacrosanct, something that couldn’t be undone. It didn’t really matter what any particular leader thought about the rights and wrongs of that. It had to happen.
There were plenty of judgments that she made for herself about how it should happen, and she changed her position on that at least twice. But the absolute necessity for it to happen is something that I think that she never doubted. I don’t think she doubts it now. I think that, when you watch her in that space of distress as she made a statement on Friday, you see a deep sense of personal shame that she wasn’t able to do what she thought was her duty that is now eating her up.