How do we know that Britain hasn’t left the European Union yet? For most people, the answer is “because a polling card for the European parliamentary elections came in the post”.
One Conservative MP observed that in the past month the government has achieved something truly impressive: it has paid for three leaflets attacking its competence to be distributed around the country. There is the polling card for postal voters in the European election on 23 May, the one for in-person voters and the state-financed free postal delivery on behalf of every political party in the local elections on 2 May.
The government, of course, never wanted Britain to participate in this year’s European elections: indeed, the original Brexit date of 29 March was set in order to avoid them. So distributing the polling cards is a profound embarrassment. It’s one thing for the opposition to declare that the ruling party has failed to deliver its central political project, but quite another for the government to print and provide supporting documentation. After a trip to a battleground local authority, one young staffer at Conservative Campaign Headquarters asked an MP if the party’s present difficulties reminded them of the 1990s, when it gradually disintegrated on its way to landslide defeat. “No,” the MP replied. “Back then, everyone hated us. Now, they just hate everyone.”
For Labour, too, the campaign trail uncovered a general sense of disillusionment rather than an anti-Conservative wave. The problem was visible in the party’s focus groups, too. People are bored of Brexit, but they blame the deadlock on a failed political class, not Tory in-fighting. Staffers have dubbed it “the great Brexit conundrum”: people don’t want to hear about Brexit, but the media won’t stop talking about it.
Labour’s preferred campaign strategy was to talk about other topics. But Brexit has taken up so much time and energy that, instead of marshalling a series of announcements with an overarching theme to communicate its values, it has instead chucked a wide range of policies at the wall, hoping that one would catch people’s attention. Shadow teams worried they were wasting their energy on co-ordinating announcements when, at any time, a Brexit squall within the Conservative Party could blow them off the news programmes and front pages for days at a time. As a result, Labour strategists opted for what one of them dubbed “the world’s most flexible grid”.
That approach did yield some favourable write-ups and contributed to a general sense at Westminster that Labour has quietly got its act together. But not even the most optimistic of party loyalist would seriously suggest that any of their announcements (scrapping Sats, for example, or reversing cuts to bus routes) had caught fire.
Labour’s most sustained spell in the headlines came, inevitably, thanks to an internal row over Brexit. The cause? The contents of their own freepost message for the European elections and what, if anything, to say about the party’s 2017 manifesto commitment to leaving the European Union.
The difficult truth is the country’s divisions over Brexit are a hurdle to Labour getting into office – but nothing near as great a challenge as delivering Brexit would be in government. The Conservative Party has torn itself apart over negotiating our withdrawal, but the actual shape of exit is still entirely up for grabs. Deciding our future relationship with the EU will be equally, if not more, consuming of Whitehall’s energy and focus than it is now.
Labour’s pro-Europeans think they have an answer to that conundrum: discard the project entirely, through a second referendum. Supporters of the Norway model have another: copy a pre-existing accord. But it is not certain that Remain would win if the public voted again and it is far from clear that Norway’s institutional relationship can be copied wholesale by Britain, either.
Brexit’s capacity to take up political oxygen complicates the question that policy thinkers around John McDonnell are considering: how to win electoral support for a programme of long-term economic reform. The answer so far – authored by Mathew Lawrence, director of new think tank Common Wealth – is a plan to make large companies hand over shares to their workers, with dividends capped at £500 a year.
The Conservatives have no equivalent set of thinkers devoted to asking that vital future-gazing question: when Brexit is resolved and delivered, how will voters be able to tell that it has happened? The poll card is a visible symbol of failure. What would be the equivalent symbol of success?
Yes, a range of policy levers – such as the freedom to set agricultural standards – will become available to British ministers if the United Kingdom does leave the European Union. But very few of them produce immediate and instant “winners”, and a number of them will be the cause of short-term unpopularity.
The Conservatives also have another problem. There is a strong pro-Brexit media ready to deem their deal insufficiently liberating from the shackles of Brussels. And – while there is no major grouping to Labour’s left poised to tell a sympathetic media that Labour hasn’t nationalised enough – the Tories’ right flank is exposed to attacks by Ukip and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.
Labour has spent the local elections campaign avoiding the subject of Brexit. As the leaflet row shows, it would love to do the same at the European elections. And at a general election, voters’ Brexit fatigue actually helps Labour, because of the effort it has put into making a domestic policy programme beyond leaving the EU. But the bad news remains: Brexit is not going away. And just as it has eaten up the Conservatives’ time, it could lay waste to Jeremy Corbyn’s governing ambitions too.
This article appears in the 02 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal