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Lord Buckethead vs Theresa May - meet the UK's weirdest political parties

Forget rail nationalisation - how about yogic flying? 

On 8 June, voters across the country will face a choice. Again. And for most of us it will be a fairly binary exercise: the least bad of the two most likely outcomes, whether or not either happens to particularly represent anything you might happen to believe in. But they aren’t the only choice. Nor are the third party candidates, or even fourth or fifth - keep going. All the way down.

Since the 1950s, candidates have stood for more than 700 different political parties in UK parliamentary elections. The Official Monster Raving Loony Party might be the most famous these deposit-losingly futile exercises, but even on the eccentricity front it’s got some competition - on name alone comedian/psychologist Pamela Stephenson’s “I Want to Drop a Blancmange Down Terry Wogan's Y-Fronts Party” has got to be up there.

Sometimes these endeavours are little more than cynical promotional exercises, as in the 1993 Christchurch by-election, when a pub landlord ran for the "Highlander IVth Wednesday night promotion party". Why bother? Well, besides the inherent attraction of a publicity stunt, standing for election gets you free postage for one piece of "campaign literature" to every registered voting household in the constituency. See also "The Alfred Chicken Party", who were promoting a video game, and "Buy The Daily Sport".

Was PR what motivated Lord Buckethead of the Gremloids Party? Buckethead, birthname unknown, took the name and appearance of a Darth Vader-esque character from a 1984 film called Gremloids, an obscure Star Wars parody. He made his entry into UK politics in 1987, when he stood against Margaret Thatcher with policies including free sweets for all children and the demolition of Birmingham to make way for a starbase. Lame marketing ploy by the film’s UK video distributor or an extremely obscure in-joke? Either way, he, or at least someone with the same name and costume, rematerialised temporarily for a failed attempt to take on John Major in 1992, before presumably dying on his way back to his home planet. (Ed: Or so we thought at time of writing: Lord Buckethead, or an inheritor of the title, has apparently returned to stand against Theresa May in Maidenhead. Presumably Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were Gremloid-endorsed.)

Then there’s the Dog Lovers' Party - which on the face of it sounds ridiculous on any number of levels, but was actually a small part of a deadly serious, albeit bizarre episode of British political history. The party’s name was pointedly selected by its sole candidate - the journalist Auberon Waugh - when he stood against the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1979. It referred to a scandal in which an associate of Thorpe had attempted to assassinate riding instructor Norman Scott, with whom Thorpe had had an affair - in the process killing Scott’s dog, a Great Dane named Rinka. Waugh was primarily standing to distribute his anti-Thorpe campaign literature, which was so "forceful" that an injunction was taken out to stop it. The DLP lost their deposit. Thorpe lost his seat.

But it was the 1990s which saw perhaps the boldest attempt by a niche group to transform UK politics, in the form of the Natural Law Party, who contested over 500 seats between 1992 and 2001. Their underlying principle was that transcendental meditation and yogic flying (which, as demonstrated in some memorable Party Political Broadcasts, looks a lot less like flying and a lot more like crossing your legs and bouncing around on your arse) could end all war and all crime. Their backers included George Harrison and his spiritual adviser the Maharishi, who proposed that all three then-living ex-Beatles to stand in Liverpool constituencies (they declined). Not a single Natural Law candidate ever managed to keep a deposit and the party quietly bounced into the aether in 2003.

While not as ambitious as the NLP, the Vote For Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket Party nonetheless made electoral history. Sort of. Founded by "Rainbow" George Weiss, who claimed to have initially entered politics on the advice of his “extraterrestrial soulmate”, at various times party policies included concreting the Thames, replacing the pound with “the Wonder” and renaming Belfast “Best City” in honour of George Best. The 2005 election saw the party contest 23 seats; Weiss himself was the candidate in a record-breaking 13 separate constituencies (a record he’ll likely hold in perpetuity since it’s no longer legal to stand in more than one). In Cardiff North the party attracted a single voter, the lowest number of votes a candidate has received since the introduction of universal suffrage - and it wasn’t from the candidate herself, who was registered to vote in a different constituency.

Whilst the spectrum of British political parties is impressively broad, it is not without limit. In 2015 the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party saw a setback after objections to their use of the word crumpet (here referring to women, rather than baked goods). After some consideration they rebranded as Beer, Baccy and Scratchings Party. Their low vote share would indicate further research into "the three most popular things in the constituency of Eastleigh" is required.

Maybe the best the brave souls of Britain’s fringiest parties can hope for is to ensure that the winning candidate has to attempt to give a dignified victory speech in front of someone wearing a gigantic leopard print top hat. But sometimes there’s a candidate who just seems a bit before his time, like the 34-year-old businessman who ran as independent in the 1995 Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, having first changed his name by deed poll to Mr Blobby. His policies? A four-day week, fixing wobbly tables in restaurants, and bricking up the Channel Tunnel. He never stood again, which is a shame as his policies seem perfectly triangulated for 2017 Britain.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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