Will Hutton: Nigel Farage’s success will keep the UK in Europe
Next government will not be a Brexit Tory government but coalition of Remain parties
Nigel Farage is Britain’s most talented politician and he will change politics in Britain for ever, but not in ways that he intends. Photograph: Scott Heppell/Reuters
Britain was not meant to be taking part in these European elections – the country was due to leave the EU on March 29th. It’s a message Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party drives home at every turn.
“She promised she would deliver Brexit no fewer than 108 times,” declares one of their slick social media posts, “she betrayed us”. It continues. “ You can’t trust the Tories with Brexit. Make May 23rd the end of [Theresa] May. Change politics for good. Vote Brexit”.
Farage is Britain’s most talented politician, and he is using the European elections to launch the most telling if most mendacious political campaign in a generation. He had the political savviness to see that May would not get her deal through the House of Commons by March 29th and that an extension of the negotiations, forcing Britain to join the European elections, would be inevitable.
This is raw, visceral passionate politics about values – nationalism or internationalism, intolerance or tolerance, instinct against reason
He formed his party, raised the money and commissioned the advertising well in advance. There was no need to have a manifesto with detailed policies: it would distract from the basic message. Britain’s parliamentarians have betrayed the country in not following through the result of the referendum. Vote Brexit, declares the smiling Farage, the former City trader and now self-styled man of the people. It will change British politics for good.
It is a strategy that has worked – and will change British politics but in ways Farage does not intend. The Brexit Party, report all the polls consistently, is set to win more votes and seats than any other: the only question is to what extent. Disillusioned Conservative voters and disaffected working class Labour voters are defecting to Farage in their millions.
The Conservative party has nothing credible to say, and it is not even attempting it; it had no manifesto and no launch. It confronts an impending electoral catastrophe, when the party will come in fourth or even fifth behind the Brexit Party, LibDems, Labour and Greens – its lowest share of a national vote in modern times. It has already put paid to Mrs May’s prime ministership – she will resign in June.
For these are elections in which the focus is relentless domestic: the case for, and future direction of, Europe, is not even discussed. The Brexit Party simply wants out, taking it for granted that the EU is a “bad thing”: the Remain parties want in for the sake of “wanting in”, on their side taking it for granted that whatever the EU’s problems Britain will only intensify its difficulties by leaving.
The country has not heard much about Europe’s struggle with right-wing populism, the need to face China and the US collectively or that only through the EU working together can the continent make its contribution to fighting climate change or job insecurity.
Instead this is raw, visceral passionate politics about values – nationalism or internationalism, intolerance or tolerance, instinct against reason. Britain’s contribution to the next European parliament matters less to nearly all voters than how their vote will impact on British politics.
For the impact will be immense. The European elections now put the very survival of British conservatism at stake: its strategy to save itself, it is clear, is to become the party of English right wing nationalism under the leadership of Boris Johnson to win back the Brexit Party voters – and to go for a much harder no-deal Brexit.
Johnson is no unifier: he is a charlatan who will divide his party in the House of Commons, not have a stable parliamentary majority and so there will be a general election within 12 months if not sooner. Will the conservatives as right-wing English nationalists pledged to a scorched earth no-deal Brexit win? It is not clear – and certainly not against a well-led opposition.
Who will lead Labour? Here again the Euro elections impact will be immense. If the polls are right, Labour will come in third behind the Brexit Party and the LibDems, whose slogan – “Bollocks to Brexit” – has captured the spirit of the People’s Vote marches and won it growing support.
Corbyn has tried to face both ways at once: a sceptic of Europe as a capitalist club, he also leads a strongly Remain party and so has been forced into endless compromises and fence-sitting. It pleases no-one, and has catalysed an electoral disaster.
He will face a leadership challenge by a party disillusioned by his faceless, ambiguous leadership despite all his friends on the left – and which he is likely to lose. Indeed if the Labour party is to mount an effective challenge to Johnson, he must lose.
And the LibDems have suddenly re-emerged as a potent electoral force. They will do well in the imminent general election, and no stable government will be possible afterwards without their support.
The Greens, meanwhile, are also doing well – again capturing the spirit of the times. The next government will not be a Brexit Tory government; it will be some coalition of Remain parties.
The European elections may lead to Britain sending as many as 30 nihilist Brexit MEPs to the European Parliament, but paradoxically it will set in train a political dynamic that will bring Britain back to Europe. One step back – but ultimately two steps forward.
Will Hutton is a columnist with the Observer. This column is part of 27voices4Europe, an initiative of Voxeurop.eu, with 27 journalists from 27 media outlets writing about the main issue at stake in the election campaign in their country. For additional articles see irishtimes.com/news/politics/european-election