Well, not actually “Tory” but I wanted the headline to line up with George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Dangerfield took a close look at the political chaos which engulfed England just prior to the beginning of WWI when, he argues, the spirit of progressivism was largely eliminated from English politics. Essentially, the gentry progressivism which had dominanted both the Liberal and Conservative parties since Victoria’s day was crushed between the class politics of the Labour Party, the intractable problem of Ireland (specifically Ulster) and the demands of the Suffragettes. The subsequent mass murder of the British Officer class in the trenches of France meant that there was very little left of the spirit of liberal progressivism by the end of the war.
In a few hours we will find out just how well Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party have done in the European elections. Given that the party was only launched six weeks ago, anything over 20% of the vote will be astonishing but the bookmakers and pollsters are seeing numbers north of 30%. Farange is being seen as the most significant English politician of his generation.
The resignation of Theresa May because of her failure to get a “Brexit deal” no matter how lame through the House of Commons has opened up the Prime Ministership and the leadership of the Conservative Party. The party itself is significantly split between Remain leaning, establishment MPs and Leave supporting Conservative Party members. It seems clear that were it left up to the Conservatives in Westminster there would be no Brexit at all. The country may have other ideas.
Across the aisle, the Labour Party is lurching off in all directions. It is pretty much impossible to get a straight answer from Corbyn as to what the Party’s position is on Brexit. I am reminded of MacKenzie King’s marvellous circumlocution, “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” Corbyn’s problem is that the more lumpen of his supporters, particularly outside London, are full-throated in their support of Brexit while gentry Labourites cannot imagine who let these dreadful people into the party. Corbyn’s position is further complicated by the rise of a Jacobian ultra faction in the form of Momentum demanding a clear “Remain” stance or, at the very worse, a Second Referendum.
The great Brexit wars in England are as much cultural as they are political. Elites, the media, the academy and some sections of the business community are fervent Remainers as much for social signalling reasons as for any political analysis of the Remain position. Supporting Remain is simply what “smart” people do and who does not want to be smart?
Brexit supporters are more about downmarket ideas like “votes matter” and “politicians should do what they promised to do”. They are immune to the elite argument that the Referendum voters had no idea that Brexit meant leaving Europe or that Brexit supporter’s votes should be discounted because they are all old, white, racists and other clever arguments which make sense in BBC studios if nowhere else.
“Liberal England” died because its political class, smug in its sense of moral and intellectual superiority, could not imagine that the Labour movement, much less the gels prattling on about “votes for women” were even slightly serious threats the liberal, progressive, established order. Within a decade that order was swept away by war and radical political reform.
“Tory England” by which I mean the upper levels of the Conservative Party, the media, the academy and much of the non-Momentum Labour Party is walking towards the same fate. The luvies were quite right to understand the Brexit Referendum vote as a vote against uncontrolled immigration, political correctness and political hypocrisy. But their reaction which was to dismiss Brexit voters as unworthy of the new, enlightened, modern England was a huge, strategic error. That error was compounded by the House of Commons being unwilling to actually reach agreement on a deal to leave the EU.
All of which has given Mr. Farage and the Brexit Party an unprecedented chance to remake the politics of England. First, by providing a measure of the anti-EU, anti-Westminster sentiment in England. A rock hard 20% would be destabilizing, but if the Brexit Party manages 30% or better, Farange becomes the effective kingmaker of the Conservative Party.
The Brexit Party currently does not have any seats in the House of Commons (though that may change). What it does have is a well oiled, motivated, mass organization. How that organization is deployed in the next General Election – which could be coming up very quickly as Labour has promised to welcome the incoming Conservative leader with a no-confidence vote – is very likely to determine which party attains government and which leader becomes Prime Minister.
There are, perhaps, fifty seats in England that the Brexit Party could win outright in a General Election. But there are several hundred more where Conservative or Labour Remain supporting MPs would be vunerable to defeat if the Brexit Party ran a candidate. And there are many seats where Brexit supporting MPs of both parties would be very grateful if the Brexit Party refrained from running.
The current Parliament has refused to implement the clear results of the Brexit Referendum despite have been elected in a General Election to do juist that. For Brexit supporters the tactical defeat of Remainers – either in straight up contests or by running or declining to run spoiler candidates – is Job #1. Farage understands this. The question is which of the Conservative leadership candidates is bright enough to realize that Farage and the Brexit Party are the key to the survival of the Tories in England?
Let’s first see how big a noise the Brexit Party and Farage make in a few hours.
UPDATE: Winner? Obviously Nigel Farage and the Brexit party with 31.7% of the vote and on track to take a minimum of 21 of the MEP positions. Second place to the Lib Dems who provided a refuge for all those decent people who were simply appalled at that dreadful Farage chap and worried about their ability to reach their summer homes in Tuscany. (Greens picked up 3 seats for much the same reason.)
Biggest loser? Right now the Conservatives are running at 9.2% of the vote for 2 MEP positions. Total disaster. But Labour did not do all that much better getting a mere 13.9% of the vote and going down to 7 MEP positions. Where Labour was really beaten up was in London where the metro elite defected in droves to the Lib Dems.
There will be more results coming in but at this point, it is safe to say that neither Labour nor the Tories have much to look forward to in British politics if they stay with the politics of flannel mouth on Brexit. There is much commentary about how the “Remain” vote Lib Dem+Labour+Green was larger than the Brexit vote but in the coming general election run on first past the post, those percentages will be uninteresting.
As I said, the question is whether or not the new Tory leader can cut a deal with Farage to ensure that Leave Conservatives have a clear run at their seats. Which means that leader has to be commited to real Brexit.
If the Conservatives elect another squish leader, the Brexit Party has nothing to lose running strong candidates in close-fought constituencies and hoping i) that rank and file Tory supporters will vote Brexit, ii) that the Lib-Dems, Labour and the Greens will hoplessly split the Remain vote.
A serious Tory leader will have already been on the phone to Farage who is, right now, and for the next few months, the most powerful person in British politics.