09 May 2019
The Nigel Also Rises
The Brexit Party.
By J R Thomas
Of all the unlikely conjunctions in modern life, one of the more improbable tipped up last week when the joint efforts of Mrs May and Mr Corbyn – no, not wrought agreement on the terms of leaving the EU, but boosted both Nigel Farage’s very new party, the Brexit Party, and Vince Cable’s very old party, the Lib Dems.
This was of course not the intention of either Theresa or Jeremy. Theresa was expecting to do very badly in the local elections and she duly did so. She expected to lose at least 500, hastily revised to 800, seats on local councils. In fact, the Tories lost 1,269 seats, and control of 45 local councils – even Guildford, and if the Tories cannot hold Guildford something weird is going on. Even Mrs May’s usual confident if impassive face could not disguise that this was not great news, though not to the extent that she seems inclined to change her increasingly solitary course to get her Brexit deal through the Commons, somehow, anyhow. Let alone resign, of course. “A defeated Prime Minister,” Mrs M might say, “is better than me not being Prime Minister”.
But the greater shock was perhaps that for Mr Corbyn, who was expecting that the Tories would lose hundreds of seats – and Labour would win them. It turned out not to be so, at all, his party losing a net 63 seats. Say it quickly and that does not sound too bad, especially compared with 1,269 for the other lot, but to fail to have significant net gainers from such Tory losses is indeed shocking. Mr Corbyn seems to have had no inkling that this might be the outcome and had very little to say on the subject, though John MacDonnell made up for that by blaming politicians’ failure to deliver Brexit, and said that had to be sorted out. He did not however offer any suggestions as to how it might be sorted out.
The gainers were the Lib Dems, with 676 new councillors, the Greens with 185, and “Independents” (and a few others) with 285. This latter would mostly appear to be local Conservatives who flung themselves off the sinking Tory ship and stood on their personal reputations. (“Theresa May? Never heard of her, mate. Amber Who? Boris What? Remember the way I got the potholes fixed in your street though?”).
So was this an anti-Brexit protest vote? The turnout at local elections is never high – usually around 30% of voters care enough about dustbins and potholes to make an effort to influence things, but the percentage voting this time was the highest for many years – but at only around 33%, hardly suggesting imminent revolution. The number of ballot papers deliberately spoiled was though the highest ever – by far, apparently. Returning Officers have been coy as to what messages were left on those invalid papers, but have led enquirers to believe that there was some disappointment expressed, at the Conservatives in particular, failing to press the Brexit button. (Maybe, on reflection, this is the beginning of a genteel revolt. Next: tins of red white and blue paint will be thrown at local Conservative Clubs.)
It is probably a mistake to assume too much of a Brexit protest vote here – after all, the Lib Dems are united in their determination to frustrate Brexit, and UKIP, the remnants of the purest Leaver party, lost practically every seat they had left. Lib Dems are especially focused on local politics, and their network of workers in the country is very attuned to potholes and the like; Lib Dem councils tend to be better at running local matters – or, at least, voters tend to think they are – simply because they are not dogmatic and are issue focused and responsive which plays very well in the streets and lanes – and, let’s be cynical, take up popular local causes even if diametrically opposed to the party line if there are votes in them.
The Conservatives have had a good run at controlling local government in recent years, and over time voter discontent builds up when libraries are axed, and schools closed, and local grants cut off, so it is not surprising that a strongly rooted local party such as the Lib D’s can capitalise on that. If you want a bit more evidence look at Labour – some Labour councils are very good at delivering services and responding to local grumbling and reaped the benefit, such as Sandwell, where they won every seat being contested – and some are much more focussed on an ideological approach and paid the price. The Tower Hamlets problem, you might call it.
So it is probably an error to blame Mrs May’s Brexit problem for all that happened last week, but it further confirms the unpopularity of the lady herself. Tory councillors were eager to distance themselves from their leader in public; ministers were not sought to assist local campaigning; and few Tory activists turned out to help, even on polling day.
The agony is far from over. In two weeks time, on 23rd May, the European elections will be held. This was never supposed to happen and the Conservatives have decided to face the polls in the only way they can – by scarpering off as far away as possible in what is left of the run-up to election day, choosing candidates but not actively fighting a campaign. After all, you can’t be criticised for a disastrous showing at the polls if you didn’t really fight the election. But as we all recall from our science lessons, nature abhors a vacuum, and into this vacuum has elegantly sashayed the yellow trousered Mr Nigel Farage, and his Brexit party, formed in January this year. And already the party is doing well; by some opinion polls (not all of them) it is the largest single bloc, and has attracted support, it is said, of some 40% of Conservative councillors, (ex-councillors in many cases). George Galloway has promised his vote, Anne Widdecombe her candidateship, neither of which Mr Farage has made too much of, so far. Several Conservative MP’s have also made enthusiastic remarks – at least until they got a call from No 10, presumably inviting them to study the fate of Gavin Williamson. But, let’s face it, if you are vaguely Tory leaning, and want to leave Mr Juncker’s jolly little fete, who else are you going to vote for?
Mr Farage is on to a hot thing here. If Britain does not leave the EU, which is just a possibility, he may well lead the largest single UK representation in the European Parliament. And he has at a stroke seized control of a very visible campaigning organisation, just supposing another referendum needs to be fought. Plus he has thrown off very convincingly the embarrassing raiment of UKIP. Not a bad three months work for an amateur politician who has never held office.
This leaves just a little space to look at that other bold new party, Change UK Dot Org Not That Lot The Independent Group; or whatever it is this week. Not going so well now the first flush of excitement is over, is the word. Nobody can agree with anybody else about anything much, though they have selected a full slate of candidates. Like the Brexit Party they are a one trick pony, so we wish them luck and that they can agree on their name until after the elections.