What is commonly called populism is more accurately described as the self-immolation of centrism, and with Theresa May’s resignation and Nigel Farage’s triumph in the European Parliament elections this process has moved to a new stage. This is not a story about the Conservative Party, though it has suffered the greatest damage.
Old hands will tell you that the results will not be repeated in a general election, and up to a point this is right. The voting systems are different, for one thing. Apart from Northern Ireland, which uses the single transferable vote, elections to the European Parliament use the D’Hondt system of proportional representation rather than first-past-the post (FPTP), which applies in elections to Westminster. But these are new times, and the spectacular rise of the Brexit Party, alongside Change UK’s inability to win a seat, is only the latest sign that centrist elites have lost control.
Farage leads what will be the joint biggest party in the European Parliament, with the same number of MEPs (29) as Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Winning more than 30 per cent of the UK vote, he left the Conservatives in fifth place with a catastrophic 9 per cent. Labour came third, trailing the resurgent Liberal Democrats. Labour was routed in Wales as the Brexit Party came first and Plaid Cymru second, and lost both its seats in Scotland, where the SNP surged. As across much of Europe, the Greens performed strongly.
There is intense debate as to what the outcome tells us about voter support for Brexit, with both Leavers and Remainers claiming vindication. The most striking feature of the results, however, is the polarisation they reveal. The result of a botched Brexit has been the Europeanisation of British politics, with the old centre ground falling away.
The big winner is the nationalist right. The future of Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist alliance came second to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, is more clouded than before. Positioning himself as the last best hope of the European project rebounded against Macron, while Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán both made major gains. “Liberal Europe” has been shown to be a nostalgic dream. The reality is that European politics has been balkanised, with the far right continuing its advance.
Despite all of the contingencies of history, a thread of logic runs through the seeming chaos of events. But the result and the cunning of reason is very often to deliver the opposite of what history’s protagonists expect and intend, and so it is with Brexit. By resisting the verdict of the 2016 referendum, Britain’s centrist political class has set in motion a process that could end with the outcome it most dreads – a no-deal Brexit. Errors and accidents have played a role. If Ed Miliband had not changed Labour’s membership rules, Boris Johnson not plumped for Leave instead of Remain, Theresa May not opted for a snap election – if any one of these or other decisions had not been taken, we would not be where we are now. The party system would not be falling apart. An exhausted political establishment would not be facing a mistrustful and hostile electorate.
But there is more than chance at work. The collapse of the centre is not confined to Britain, or Europe. Liberal democracies everywhere face mounting popular insurgencies, which centrist establishments have not begun to understand. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Vladimir Putin and Steve Bannon are invoked to explain the alienation and anger of tens or hundreds of millions of voters. No doubt all of these have been factors. But even taken together, they cannot account for the scale and force of the shift that has occurred. If centrists have turned to conspiracy theories, it is because they refuse to acknowledge their own role in their demise.
The consequences are clearest in the case of the Conservatives. With the party’s foot-soldiers in open mutiny and its voters defecting en masse to Farage, only a hard Brexiteer can lead the party into a general election later this year. That is one reason why Boris Johnson’s strong start in the leadership race may not fade in the course of the campaign. MPs in panic about their seats may overcome their loathing and cling to him in desperation. More telling is how the party’s moderate tendency has been seized by the notion that Johnson could somehow be its saviour. A leading member of the 60-strong One Nation Group that has been formed to preserve the party’s centrist tradition, Amber Rudd, has hailed Johnson as a Tory of the kind she can work with. She is calculating that, ultimately, he can be relied upon to jilt his Brexiteer supporters. Johnson, it has now become fashionable to believe, could reset Brexit negotiations and prevent a disorderly exit.
This modish fancy looks too clever by half. By committing himself, in an offhand remark last week in Switzerland, to taking Britain out of the EU when the Article 50 extension finishes at the end of October, with or without a deal, Johnson has made himself hostage to events. In closing off the option of Britain seeking another extension, he has strengthened the hand of those in the EU who would be happy to cut the UK loose. A beleaguered Macron might welcome the chance of pronouncing a de Gaulle-like veto on Britain staying in the EU any longer. The idea that it will end up in limbo like Turkey, interminably negotiating its relations with Europe, underestimates the growing resistance to allowing an unstable Britain to stay in an EU that is itself increasingly unstable.
The economic impact of no deal would surely be damaging – possibly more so for some European countries than for the UK. But the EU is first and last a political project (like Brexit) and there is little chance of it agreeing any new deal that could compromise its future. Johnson may think threatening no deal is a brilliant wheeze, but Britain looks to be headed in that direction anyway. If he attempts to renege on his commitment, the immediate result will be a further haemorrhage of Conservative voters to the Brexit Party. He is hardly in a position to break his promises to Brexiteers if he becomes leader, even if he tries.
The lessons of Theresa May’s painful premiership have not been learnt. Predictably, commentators have cited her secretiveness, lack of communication skills and inability to make friends and influence people to argue that she was simply not up to the job of being prime minister. Rightly, her ill-judged attack on MPs in March of this year is considered a defining moment in her fall from power. But this leaves out the most important fact about her premiership, which is that it coincided with Brexit. Starting with too many “red lines” on the UK’s conditions for leaving, she ended up with none at all. If she had begun by exploring a compromise – some version of the Norway model, perhaps, though it is unclear whether free movement would have been accepted by her party – then maybe her inheritance would not be a country divided. In other circumstances she might have been a successful and innovative prime minister.
All things to all men: centrist Tories are now suggesting Boris Johnson might avert a no-deal exit
Leaving aside Brexit, May’s chief mistake was in not breaking more radically with the policies of her predecessors. With their mindless pursuit of austerity and marketisation, David Cameron and George Osborne hacked away at the state’s core structures. The justice system, the armed services social care provision were all severely damaged. By imposing savage spending cuts on the police force and prisons, May was complicit in this assault. But she could have abandoned some of the worst follies, such as the Universal Credit scheme, and done more to reverse the privatisation of key state functions. Renationalising the probation service, which she did only weeks before she was prised from power, was much too little far too late. The neoliberal paradigm of a shrunken, resource-starved and part-privatised state has been broken beyond repair. It is this fact, more than a botched Brexit, that has given Corbynite Labour – as much an expression of populism as anything on the right, and no less polluted by racism in the form of embedded anti-Semitism – a prospect of power.
The breakdown of the neoliberal state poses a dilemma not only for the Tories but also for Farage. His brilliantly executed reappearance as the deciding force in British politics is based on ducking what the Brexit Party would do if it ever entered government. The policies he promoted in his Ukip incarnation – which included a much smaller state and further marketisation – are hardly mentioned today, but they have not been renounced. Yet there is nothing like a majority for making post-Brexit Britain the site of another experiment in libertarian economics. In many ways Farage is ahead of the game. The start-up structure of his new party – a corporate body with registered supporters but no members or collective decision procedures – gives him a flexibility of which other party leaders can only dream. Its command of social media is second to none. The Brexit Party is the perfect vehicle for postmodern politics. Yet in continuing to promote a bankrupt type of capitalism Farage is ignoring one of the central facts of the age.
At the same time, Farage’s silence on major policy questions is shrewd. By making democracy the centre of his campaign he is mobilising the frustration and anger of millions of voters. The idea that the 2016 referendum could be quietly consigned to memory was as delusional as the fantasy that Brexit could be pain-free – maybe more so. Whereas Brexit can be delivered at a cost, the referendum cannot be airbrushed from history. By resisting its result in every possible way – through successive lawsuits and circumventing long-established parliamentary procedures, for example – Remainers in both main parties created the political wasteland the Brexit Party has now occupied. If May was desperately unlucky in becoming Conservative leader when she did, Farage is supremely fortunate in having such bungling enemies.
Smart opinion has it that nothing is about to change in the Brexit dilemma: a new Conservative leader, even an incoming Labour government, will face much the same unpalatable options and parliamentary arithmetic. In fact, both have already changed. The idea that no deal has been taken off the table has been exposed as the nonsense it always has been. As an Institute of Government report last week showed, there is no parliamentary procedure that can reliably prevent a determined government taking Britain out in this way. Nor is it clear that an immovable body of MPs still exists to block no deal. For all but a handful of the most committed Remainers, the existential threat posed by Farage looms larger than any positions they may have taken on Brexit. To be sure, a new Tory leader who embraced no deal would split the party, perhaps irretrievably. But Tory centrists who jump ship could find themselves sinking and drowning like Change UK. If there was ever a majority of voters that identified with them, it no longer exists.
A Conservative split may in any case be the price of averting the party’s extinction. In the past, a surge in Ukip has been regularly followed by a hardening of the Remain vote. Today the paradox works the other way. No deal means no Farage, while failing to deliver Brexit means even greater disaster for the Conservatives at the polls. The next leader may be compelled to accept no deal in order to prevent the annihilation of the party. On the other hand, if they use the threat of no deal to present parliament with a rebranded version of May’s withdrawal agreement, it could again be rejected. In both cases the result could be a general election, which could prove more problematic for Corbyn than many have assumed. No deal is not as dangerous for the Conservatives as continued division and dithering.
Labour’s options have also changed, and not for the better. Following large losses in Remain regions and near wipeout in Scotland, constructive ambiguity no longer makes any strategic sense. Yet backing a second referendum is also a risky strategy. The only purpose of a second referendum, for those who most fervently support the idea, is to overturn the first. But if the European elections were a trial run, the result was not encouraging for Remainers. With around a third those who voted endorsing no deal parties and another third supporting parties that declared for Remain, this is not a very safe bet. Equally, a rigged referendum – such as the confirmatory vote now being proposed by Labour, which would include a Remain option while excluding that of exiting without a deal – could backfire. The exercise would be boycotted by Leavers, led by the Brexit Party. This was the issue that toppled May, and there is no chance of the Conservatives supporting such a vote. If it ever happens, it will settle nothing.
However framed, any referendum sanctioned by Labour in a general election will incur a heavy cost in the votes of its traditional supporters. With the Brexit Party reaching 39 per cent in the north-east of England, the prospect of a Labour collapse in its northern fortress cannot be lightly dismissed. Ukip may have been unable to break through under FPTP. According to the Electoral Reform Society, it would have achieved 83 seats if the 2015 general election had been fought under the D’Hondt system. That is why Farage, along with the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, petitioned the government in May of that year in support of proportional representation. After three years in which Brexit has been semi-derailed, Farage’s slick new machine may jump the hurdle of FPTP. Even a handful of Brexit Party MPs could be a pivotal force in another hung parliament.
It is often asserted that if it commits to a second referendum Labour will gain more votes than it loses. But as the European election results in London demonstrated, the millennials who have lately flocked to Labour could just as quickly desert it. Formed by the transactional capitalism they claim to despise, they will not hesitate to switch their vote if Labour’s product ceases to please. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens will benefit, while the Remain cause will be fragmented, as it was in the European elections. Corbyn’s reluctant, half-hearted and still ambiguous conversion to some type of second vote may not be enough to prevent this outcome.
There is, in any case, insufficient time for parliament to legislate for a referendum and hold it before the legal default for leaving comes into play in October. Unless the next Conservative leader requests and secures an extension, the only way Brexit can now be prevented is by revoking Article 50. With her Remainer instincts, Theresa May might have been ready, if all else had failed, to trigger this nuclear option. None of her most likely successors, with the Brexit Party roaring at their heels, will be.
When a reckless leader of Britain’s centrist elite called the 2016 referendum he bequeathed it a problem it could not solve. But the dilemma will not remain unresolved for very long. An electoral upheaval is sweeping away the political class that created the impasse. Britain faces a clash between populisms of the right and left, while the forces of the centre sleepwalk into the flames.
John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)