EU Elections and the race for the Tory leadership

We didn’t really need to wait for the results of the EU elections to know that the Conservatives were going to get demolished. As results started to come in last night, it was very apparent that support for the two main parties had evaporated, and voters had backed parties with a very clear position on Brexit. Leavers piled in behind The Brexit Party, and remainers backed either the Lib Dems or the Green Party.

The Tories were punished for failing to deliver Brexit, and Labour have taken a drubbing for failing to take a clear position on Brexit.

When you look at the number of MEPs elected, The Brexit Party (leave) has a clear lead with 29 seats, and the combined Lib Dem and Green (remain) tally is 23 seats. The underlying share of the vote is a lot closer – the combined Brexit / UKIP vote is about 35%, and the combined vote of LB / Green / Change is also 35%.

All of the parties are trying to put a spin on these result. But the best analysis is coming from the likes of Professor Sir John Curtice – this result is clear evidence that the country is as split as ever, with opinion polarised between those with a clear vision for Brexit (either a hard brexit or a second referendum / revocation of Article 50).

And as Prof Curtice has also observed, this is not a clear mandate for either side of the argument. Whilst the two extremes represent the largest share of the vote, neither have a majority.

But on the other hand, those parties who are trying to occupy the middle ground, to find a compromise that keeps both leavers and remainers happy, have suffered.

The splits within the Tory party over Europe have been part of the party for as long as we have been in the EU, with multiple Tory PMs leaving office over the EU (Major, Cameron and now May). However, the splits within the Labour party are beginning to show.

To date, the policy of the Labour party seems to have been one of ‘constructive ambiguity’ (i.e. sitting on the fence). But last night, Emily Thornbury (Shadow Foreign Secretary) was making a clear case for Labour to adopt a policy of a second referendum. Alistair Campbell (Blair’s former spin doctor) admitted voting Lib Dem, and is a leading light in the People’s Vote campaign. And despite Corbyn being naturally euro-sceptic, he seems to be drifting towards a second referendum.

Calls for a General Election – particularly against the backdrop of the Tory leadership election – are growing. However, I cannot see any MP – either Conservative or Labour – wanting a vote in the current climate. Firstly, it would be yet another proxy for another referendum on Brexit – and if last night’s results are anything to go by, they would be decimated. (Indeed, if the results were to be repeated in a General Election, it is likely we would have no Conservative MPs, just a handful of Labour MPs, and the largest party by far would be the Brexit party).

And secondly, I cannot see either of the main parties finding a clear unambiguous position on Brexit that would be acceptable to all of their candidates (let alone all of their supporters). Any attempt to arrive at a clear position on Brexit would just serve to reinforce the divisions, and would split the two main parties in half.

So what now? Sadly, we seem no closer to resolving this than we ever have been.

We have the Tory leadership election over the coming month. These elections tend to become very bitter, and quite honestly is the last thing the party or the country needs right now. And this will be yet another ballot that will come down to the candidates’ positions on Brexit. I suspect that in much the same way as Labour are drifting towards a ‘remain’ position, the Tory party – or at least its membership – will want to move towards a tougher stance on Brexit, with the option for ‘no deal’ to be firmly on the table and a clear commitment to leave the EU on 31st October, deal or no deal.

And what about Theresa May? I think it is amazing that she stayed as long as she did. Having opened Pandora’s Box, David Cameron lasted less than 24 hours after the result of the referendum was declared. In contrast, Mrs May lasted 3 years. Despite a disastrous General Election in 2017 in which she lost her majority and was forced into a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the DUP, repeated defeats in Parliament for her Brexit deal, disloyalty from her closest colleagues, and humiliation at the hands of the EU, she kept battling on.

Mrs May did not want to leave the EU – and some of her critics on the Brexit side of the party claim this is why she failed to deliver. I do not believe this was the case. I think despite all the setbacks – indeed, you could probably say her Premiership was nothing more than one setback after another – I think she showed integrity and a determination to deliver a Brexit deal that would, as close as possible, meet the expectations of both Leavers and Remainers, and would respect the result of the referendum.

This proved to be an impossible task. Neither extreme in the Brexit debate were willing to compromise, and there was a dogged determination from the Opposition to derail any deal for no other reason than their own political ends (at every stage, they had their eyes set on a General Election).

I fear that history will judge Mrs May’s time in No 10 rather harshly. If you look at her achievements as Prime Minister, then perhaps this might seem a fair judgement. However, taken in context, I think she should be remembered as the PM that had all the right intentions, but was given an impossible task and was doomed to fail from the moment she took office.

I do not believe that anyone could have done anything differently, or succeeded where she failed, in the same circumstances. The blame for the current mess is not on her – it is on Parliament as a whole, and a large number of individuals MPs (extreme leavers and remainers) who have put their own interests and political dogma ahead of the wishes of the country, and the responsibility that rests on them as our elected representatives.

To quote Otto Von Bismark – the 19th Century German Aristocrat and Statesman:

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”

In other words, it’s not about what’s right or what’s best. It’s about what you can actually get done. It’s about setting pragmatism over your ideological goals. Getting everything you want is impossible, and often, you have to severely compromise in order to get anything you want at all. But in the end, refusing to compromise means you get nothing whatsoever (

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