If ever an example of how internationally embarrassing and politically absurd the conduct of Theresa May’s government has been in handling the Brexit negotiations it is the fact that the UK now faces holding elections for the European Union’s Parliament even though we still intend to leave.
The cost to British taxpayers of running the elections in the UK is budgeted at £109 million, irrespective of how long the MEPs serve. The only explanation for sending British MEPs to Brussels (and Strasbourg) for what might end up being only a matter of weeks is that it avoids potentially costly legal action from political groups that have promised to go to the British courts for being denied representation as proscribed in EU laws.
For Leave voters who were promised the UK would be leaving the EU on 29 March and then 12 April there can only be a sense of bewilderment and anger that they are now being asked to turn up at polling stations to elect politicians for jobs that should not exist. Their inclination might be to boycott the elections altogether, but if their passions can be stirred up they might protest by supporting pro-Brexit candidates.
For Remain voters who wish to see Brexit reversed there must be a shared sense of incredulity that the EU’s democratic process is being left open to ridicule. The EU has already redistributed the UK’s constituencies to other countries and cannot take them back. Successful candidates might not even take their seats if the PM’s deal is finally approved – who would wish to be a candidate in such circumstances? Why make the sacrifice of taking time off work and spending money to be a footnote in the most pointless election in British history?
Yet could these European elections, normally the least able to stir any political passions, prove to be a watershed in British politics? With so much disharmony in the country and the argument now focused around a single issue we are already seeing a reshaping of British politics, a direct consequence of the Brexit mess.
Jeremy Corbyn, in his new role as a respectable sage of political consensus and compromise – created for him by Theresa May – has rightly argued the need to hold the European elections is a manifestation of the government’s failure to deliver on its promises within the timescale it set itself. Calling it a “diplomatic failure” was, I thought, rather restrained, but then he is still in talks with the PM to try and win over some concessions.
The European elections are traditionally badly supported by the British public. In 2009 the turnout was only 35% and in 2014 it was 36%, compared to the last three general elections all attracting at least 65% of those registered to vote.
The predictable consternation towards the elections going ahead from Brexit-supporting MPs will be as nothing compared to the squeals of pain from politicians if the public use the EU elections as an opportunity to register their disgust with the unfinished negotiations. The two new parties on the scene – the independent group of rebel MPs who left Labour and the Conservatives and are now called “Change UK”, together with Nigel Farage’s new political vehicle “The Brexit Party” – can both be expected to make significant gains at the expense of the established parties.
The Conservatives came only third the last time but can be expected to take a pasting this time as volunteers have started refusing to canvass, donor funds are drying up and candidates have doors slammed in their faces – and that’s just for this May’s English council elections. Even trying to figure out what their message to voters will be has Tory supporters raging at the predicament their leader has put them in.
And make no mistake, Theresa May and her government owns this problem. So despised is her Withdrawal Agreement it would still have been defeated in parliament even if the Brexiteer ERG group of Tory backbenchers had voted for it. Only a fortnight ago she was telling MPs she could not consider an extension of Article 50 beyond June – now it is going to run until the end of October. Thus Tory support will either stay at home, spoil their ballots or turn to other parties.
The Conservative crisis gives Corbyn no cause for complacency. Labour’s leave supporters in the Midlands and North of England are likely to be attracted to the Brexit Party instead of UKIP while Labour remainers could easily switch to Change UK – who will campaign on forcing a second referendum. The new europhile party also creates a challenge for the Liberal Democrats whose base could shrink to the point of obscurity.
Even the SNP could be vulnerable. While a strong campaign can be expected from Nicola Sturgeon to stress that Scotland voted to Remain, the third of SNP supporters who voted for Brexit will have no natural home. It remains to be seen if they can be attracted to a party led by Nigel Farage, but I have my doubts. Staying at home might be their choice if no party can connect with them and encourage them to vote.
If there’s one good thing that might yet come out of this farce it is that the public might get over their displeasure of MPs’ conduct enough for referenda decisions to be respected in future.