The EU elections are over. Nothing is settled and Britain stands before a monumental dilemma – or two.
David Shirreff is one of the founders and current editors of BRAVE NEW EUROPE. He is a former finance and business journalist at The Economist, author of “Break up the Banks!”, and playwright
The Labour Party’s poor showing in the EU parliamentary elections must surely have shown its leader Jeremy Corbyn that dithering over whether Labour policy is to Leave the EU or Remain is a bad thing. Labour scored 14% of the poll and lost all but 10 seats in the European Parliament.
But Mr Corbyn is still dithering, despite the fact that his right-hand man John McDonnell has now said that the issue must be taken back to the people in a “public vote”. That might mean a general election or a referendum, but it’s an acknowledgement that co-operating with the present government on a Brexit deal is no longer an option. Mr Corbyn must then still have some lone hankerings for a negotiated Brexit, but for how long?
The lesson of Britain’s EU election night is that voters wanted parties that are clear about where they stand on Brexit. The Labour Party was not: 14.1% of the vote. The Conservatives were not (9.09%) of the vote. The Brexit Party was as its name implies (31.6%), and so were the Liberal Democrats, as fervent Remainers (20.3%).
But where is the leader strong enough and unifying enough to lead Britain out of this mess? Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, charismatic though he may be, is a mere gadfly with no developed policies to run the country. The upcoming Conservative leadership election looks likely to be a re-run of July 2016, when back-stabbing and confusion led to the appointment of one of the least charismatic prime ministers of all time. The only runner with a modicum of gravitas is Rory Stewart, but Ladbrokes’ odds on him are a mere 20/1. The probable victor will be either a hard Brexiteer, or a moderate heading for an impasse, as did Mrs May.
This leadership battle is the last thing the country needs as business leaders and civil servants combat the damage done daily to Britain and Europe by the uncertainty of the Brexit cliffhanger. It is a sad truth that the Conservative Party is more concerned with its inner workings and personal feuds than it is with running the country. Since the age of caring Conservatism, long before Thatcher, that has become an endemic fault. And although the Labour Party does appear to have greater concerns over inequality, housing, health and education, there is little sign that it has much more than a yearning to right the wrongs of its previous time in office under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
So what will be the solution? The pressure for a People’s Vote is mounting. One, perhaps wishful, analysis of the EU voting is that the Brexit parties, Brexit and UKIP at 34.9%, polled fractionally less than the Remain parties, LibDems, Greens and Change UK, at 35.79%. Wishful, and wistful, because two-thirds of the electorate did not vote. And those figures probably included many protest votes from habitual Conservative and Labour voters. Moreover, the pressure for a People’s Vote will not necessarily find the right mechanism to trigger one. A majority of MPs must decide on a People’s Vote, and there is no sure sign that a majority would be in favour, even after last night’s upheaval.
The hard Brexiteers, whoever is their future prime minister, will attempt to stall all other negotiating procedures until October 31st, when the extension of Article 50 expires and in theory Britain is pitched out of the EU. If Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and current 6/4 favourite, becomes prime minister, there will be an almighty struggle, assisted by Nigel Farage (with his posse of 28 newly-elected members of the European Parliament), to pitch Britain out of the EU even earlier.
Two escape routes are possible: either, a general election is called, whereby the Labour Party has a chance to recover the following it lost by dithering over Brexit. A new Labour government, or Labour-led coalition, would then precipitate a People’s Vote. Or, a minority Conservative government led by a moderate, with no further options, would call for a People’s Vote.
Meanwhile we have the prospect of UK politicians running around like headless chickens, while Britain’s economic and geopolitical assets burn and the new Brexit Party MEPs wreak havoc in the European Parliament.