Prince, Prince-Elective on the modern plan,
Fulfilling such a lot of People’s Wills,
You take the Chiltern Hundreds while you can—
A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills.
When a Member of Parliament in Britain decides to retire, he applies for the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, which as an office of profit under the Crown is incompatible with representing the people and requires his departure from the House of Commons. The other way of leaving the Commons is to lose a seat at an election. By and large MPs prefer to leave voluntarily. Many of them must now be thinking that a sinecure in the Chilterns is better than a principality in Utopia.
For in the short time since Theresa May postponed Britain’s departure from the European Union from the long-promised date of March 29 to October 31—which itself may be postponed yet again—the log-jam that has been UK politics for the last few years began to crack and break ominously. That observation does not apply, however, to the parliamentary gridlock on Brexit, which is still as frozen as ever.
The story so far: Two-thirds of MPs from various parties want to weaken or reverse Brexit without openly voting to do so. Two-thirds of the governing Tory parliamentary party, on the other hand, want to implement Brexit at all costs, if necessary without an EU-UK deal beforehand but under World Trade Organisation rules instead. May’s Withdrawal Agreement deal—which is an attempt to pass a Brexit that’s hard to distinguish from Remain except that it looks worse than Remain—has so far been presented to the Commons three times and defeated three times by substantial majorities. She is now trying to negotiate a still weaker Brexit with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the hope of passing it against the opposition of most Tory MPs and apparently half her cabinet. There are other complications too, but the broad picture is that May seems unlikely to get either a deal with Labour or enough Tory support to pass her Brexit Lite into law, but that no other coalition of MPs looks able to get any other form of Brexit-and-water through either. Now read on.
I think I may have written that last paragraph, with only minor variations, several times in the last year. You may feel you know it by heart. But be of good cheer. I just heard the sound of a bugle; the US Fifth Cavalry is coming through the pass.
Parliament’s own private gridlock meant that there was also a Mexican stand-off between itself and the voters. MPs have been inclined to think they could wait out the storm on the Chiltern Hills until the voters got bored with Brexit and allowed MPs to euthanise it without too much protest. They would kill Brexit by delay. After all, the voters had no way of bringing their gridlock with MPs to any kind of climax, had they?
And then, suddenly, they had. Because May has postponed Brexit, Britain as an EU member-state is legally required to hold elections to the European Parliament on May 23. Ministers reluctantly announced that these elections would go ahead. Apparently only one man was prepared for this. Nigel Farage promptly launched a new party, the Brexit Party, announced that it would contest every constituency, and toured the country addressing large enthusiastic audiences of new members. In less than a fortnight he had soared past both major parties in polls on the European elections. And the log-jam cracked more loudly.
One could see that establishment opinion was worried by this sudden surge of, er, populism because Bagehot, the Economist’s political correspondent, said that the European elections would tell us nothing important:
Will the election break the mould of the country’s two-party system? And will it act as a sort of soft referendum that will demonstrate that Britain wants to leave without a deal or that it wants to call the whole thing off? The Times says the election is “shaping up to be a moment of profound political importance”.
This is not only nonsense. It is dangerous nonsense. Nonsense because the European election won’t tell us anything useful about long-term voting intentions. Dangerous nonsense because politicians may be seduced by the results into making catastrophic decisions … The big danger is that Tory MPs will conclude that another Farage surge proves that they need to embrace a hard Brexit.
That was a combination of sophistry and whistling in the wind, however. If Farage’s party were to come first and the Tories were relegated to minor-party status on May 23, that would be a political earthquake. There really is no other way of describing it. And with every poll that appears in the press, such a result seems more likely. Polls on the Euro-elections conducted in early May showed the Brexit Party getting a 34 per cent share of the national vote to Labour’s 22 per cent—with the Tories falling to a mere 11 per cent. That collapse follows the loss by the Tories of almost a quarter of their council seats in the local elections of early May. (Not coincidentally, Labour also did badly in the local elections and is clearly threatened in its Northern blue-collar heartlands by the rise of a non-Tory populist party that offers a pro-Brexit policy more to the Northerners’ taste than Labour’s tortured ambiguities.) But the Tory defeat was an epic disaster.
These shifts in party support are dramatic, but they are also in line with recent political developments: the unexpectedly smooth and professional launch of the Brexit Party, which has mustered an impressive roster of candidates; Farage’s own assured performances in television interviews; the hostile public reaction to a fly-on-the-wall documentary film in which the EU’s Brexit negotiators were shown sneering at the Brits and boasting that they had turned the Britain into a “colony” as they had intended from the start; support for a “No Deal” Brexit, which was minimal a year ago, is growing; and above all, May’s betrayal of her Brexit Day promise which seems to have been a more significant turning point in popular attitudes to her and to the Tory party than anyone expected in advance.
Assuming that nothing happens to reverse this drift of events and that Farage’s Brexit Party does as well in the Euro-elections as the polls now predict, we can reasonably forecast the following consequences:
1/ There would be a very strong boost to the cause of Brexit and to Farage personally. It would have roughly the same effect as a second referendum victory. Indeed, polls on voting intentions already show that the Brexit Party would now get more votes than the Tories in a Westminster general election.
2/ That would put much more pressure on May and Corbyn, both threatened by the second coming of Farage, to jointly push a very soft Brexit through Parliament in the (vain) hope of putting the issue behind them. Unfortunately for such calculations, such a manoeuvre would strike the public as a cynical end-run around democracy and strengthen the suspicion of Tory activists that their party is contemptuous of them.
3/ The EU would wonder if there was any real chance of getting the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament and, no less important, implemented afterwards. European leaders don’t want the Brits obstructing every move towards more European integration in order to play to Nigel Farage’s gallery at home. It’s no longer unthinkable that the EU Council of Ministers would respond to a strong pro-Brexit vote in the Euro-elections by, in effect, imposing a No Deal Brexit on the UK. President Macron might even dress up this rejection as showing respect for British democracy. He would enjoy that, and it would not be an altogether false argument.
4/ In response to the mortal threat posed by Nigel Farage to its very existence, the Tory party would face public and party pressure to move in two directions: first, to ditch May as PM and party leader and elect a Leaver successor, probably Boris Johnson; second, to adopt a No Deal Brexit and leave the EU promptly in October (while holding out the prospect of post-Brexit trade negotiations from outside). It won’t be easy to manage. But Theresa May has driven her party to the point of distraction where they will force her out from simple self-protection. And since the Tory rank-and-file is now overwhelmingly for a clean Brexit on WTO terms, whoever is party leader will have to follow them.
All of which suggests that both mainstream parties, but the Tories especially, face a turbulent and uncertain future. As Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin point out in their important new book National Populism, the weakening of bonds between traditional parties and their activists would be a marked feature of the new populist politics in any event. That is so in Europe. But the Tories have given their supporters (and those who voted for them to achieve Brexit) particular reason to switch to Farage on this occasion. Many will now do so. And, like adultery, betraying your party is much easier the second time around.
Whoever is the next Tory leader, therefore, will have the formidable task of raising his party from the dead. He will also confront a more vexing problem. A political Right divided between the Tories and the Brexit Party cannot win elections. Even two or three months ago, a confident Tory leader might have been willing to approach Nigel Farage to discuss electoral co-operation. Today Nigel’s price would simply be too high.
A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills.