Greece and France have defied the eurosceptics

Both countries voted for pro-European politics and confounded the anti-EU right.

So what does the eurosceptic elite, which controls most of the media, the governing party and has its representatives in both the Lib Dems and Labour, do now? For months, we have been told that "Eurogeddon" or "Grexit" was just round the corner. Lucky Britain with its pound and made-in-Britain recession was not involved as the dreadful Europeans, with the deadweight euro around their necks, would sink below the waves. The best and the brightest of monolingual English commentators flooded into the Plaka in Athens to sip their ouzo with their columns already written, explaining how the Greeks pulled the plug on the euro. The Greek people have let them down.

In the French election, the left-wing windbag, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was given star treatment by the BBC and English papers, who love a leftie as long as he beats up on Brussels. Then it was the turn of Alexis Tsipras. The Financial Times cleared away its usual stable of Nobel-prize winners on its comment pages to welcome the populist posturing of the new anti-Brussels oracle of Delphi. He said Greece would stay in the euro but not meet a single condition of continued EU help.

Both Mélenchon and Tsipras have a critique of the way the economy has been run in their countries and, more broadly, in Europe in recent years. They are right to reject the recession-generating austerity of British and German conservatives. But it is one thing to denounce 1930s economics, another to come up with policy that makes sense to a democratic electorate. In both France and Greece, voters had a second chance over multi-round elections to reflect and, in the end, they voted to reject the false prophets who offered simplistic solutions that could not work. They also rejected the advice from British pundits like Norman Lamont, Nigel Farage, David Owen, and nearly all press commentators, who insisted that the euro was all a dreadful mistake and the sooner Greece was booted out, the better.

There was generalised talk about the need for a referendum, promoted by both Tories and Labour, as if a single plebiscite (on what question exactly is never made clear) would settle the Europe question once and for all in British politics. Among our political and media elites there was an almost Trotskyist fervour of “the worse the better” as if a collapse into chaos of banks closing down and the euro being forcibly converted into drachmas or pesetas would be a ritual purging of Europe into a new entity approved by the bankers and bank-rollers of entrenched British euroscepticism.

But as so often, Europe failed to conform to the eurosceptic script. Both the Greeks and the French voted for pro-European middle-of-the-road politics. Neither the victory for the left in France or New Democracy’s win in Greece solves any of the underlying problems both countries face. Hard decisions have to be taken and there will be social unrest just as there was a year ago in Britain or as we suffer when doctors and bus drivers go on strike. There is no Brussels fix or German cash cow that can solve the democratic capitalist world’s core problem, one neither the US nor Europe will admit, namely that debt-driven economics and state-financing no longer works.

But just as the US keeps rolling on, so does Europe. Britain can join in a conversation about what needs to be done with the new MPs in Paris and Athens. Or we can believe the Greeks and French have made a terrible mistake and keep pumping eurosceptic iron, hoping the final crisis is only around the next corner.

UK Independence Party leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.