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Why the European elections spell a drastic rethink for the Big Two parties

Both Labour and the Conservatives were savaged – and both are considering extreme measures on Brexit to regain support. 

 

There is something about Boris Johnson that makes Conservative MPs think about food. One parliamentarian told me a little under a year ago that they would rather eat broken glass than see the former foreign secretary as prime minister, while another suggested that they would prefer to swallow their own bodily fluids than install Johnson in No 10. Over the years, I have heard Tory MPs compare the prospect of a Johnson government to all manner of unappetising meals and a near full house of sexually transmitted infections.

But MPs are discovering that there is something with a nastier taste than broken glass or excrement: defeat. In the local elections on 2 May, the Conservative Party slumped to its worst set of local election results since 1995, with a net loss of more than 1,200 councillors. Three weeks later, the party recorded its worst ever defeat in a European Parliament election, finishing fifth.

The only source of solace that Tory MPs have is that although voters show a great appetite to punish the Conservatives, they aren’t yet flocking to Labour. The opposition also lost councillors on 2 May, albeit not in such dramatic numbers, and in the European election on 23 May slumped to its worst result in a century, finishing third.

The big winner in that poll was Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which did not so much challenge the Conservatives as usurp them, taking 31.6 per cent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats came second on 20.3 per cent – 6 points ahead of Labour, on 14.1 per cent, and 11 ahead of the Conservatives, on 9 per cent. (Fourth place went to the Greens, on 12 per cent.) The newest party, Change UK, received only 3.4 per cent and is now bitterly split over whether to co-operate with the Lib Dems.

Looking at the terrible results, there is a ready and plausible narrative available to worried Tories: that in second-order elections, given the chance to kick the ruling party, people will take it. At a general election, when the choice is between a Conservative government and one led by Jeremy Corbyn, voters will see sense and vote Tory, provided that MPs don’t do anything silly in the meantime. This theory tends to be held by supporters of leadership candidates such as Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock, who believe that the party cannot face another general election before resolving Brexit.

A similar, and equally seaworthy, thesis is available to Labour. Yes, there are many Labour voters who want to stop Brexit, and a smaller but still significant chunk that wants to speed ahead with it. But at a general election, when the chance to remove the Conservatives from office is in play, both factions will put their feelings about the EU to one side, remember how much they hate austerity, and vote Labour.

Both theories have a ring of plausibility in England – but they disintegrate on contact with electoral reality in Wales and Scotland. Labour voters who defect to Plaid Cymru or the SNP run a smaller risk of accidentally ending up with a Tory MP.

For the Scottish Conservatives, these elections showed that Ruth Davidson’s default trick – ignoring the activities of the Tory government in London and running against the threat of another independence referendum – failed to provide the usual insulation from British Conservative woes. They came fourth.

Adding to the misery of many MPs in the Big Two parties, it is not clear if this parliament even has the means to resolve Brexit one way or another. A significant minority of Conservative MPs have voted against Theresa May’s deal and will vote against any negotiated agreement a new prime minister could conceivably bring back from Brussels. A significant minority of Labour MPs viscerally oppose a second referendum – but have thus far refused to vote for the withdrawal agreement either.

Under these circumstances, a fresh election may be inevitable, and that leaves both parties desperately worried about how to stem defections on their Remain and Leave flanks.

Both are willing to contemplate drastic measures. On the Labour side, that means a growing warmth in public towards a second referendum on the UK’s membership with the European Union. As yet, the formal wording of Labour’s position hasn’t changed. It remains party policy to seek a deal and prevent a no deal exit, if necessary by recourse to a public vote. However, two-thirds of the parliamentary party, the majority of members and most of the trade unions are crossing their fingers about wanting to “seek a deal”, seeing the whole shtick as a necessary preamble to another referendum. For the remaining third, any final move to embrace a public vote must be avoided at all costs.

 The immediate consequence of the European elections has been to shift the balance of forces within Labour, draining support from the party’s pro-Brexit tendency to its second referendum wing. The media enjoys covering the anxieties of Labour MPs in small towns where Ukip came second in 2015. But look at the numbers; there are more Labour MPs in seats where the electoral challenge comes from the Lib Dems.

For Jeremy Corbyn, the success of the Lib Dems at these elections strikes uncomfortably close to home: the party topped the poll in his home borough of Islington, a feat that eluded them even in 2004 after the Iraq War. That surge is still more personally troubling for his shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, in Islington South, who came within 484 votes of losing to the Liberal Democrats in 2005.

Islington has returned Labour MPs consistently since before the Second World War. It is a Labour heartland, as is Wales: the fact that both areas appear willing to flirt with Remainer parties at Labour’s expense means that the leadership may have to embrace a second referendum with greater enthusiasm.

So much for Labour’s emergency ripcord. The equivalent grand gesture on the Conservative side is choosing Boris Johnson as leader. At first glance, it is hard to fathom why he is the current favourite, topping a recent YouGov poll of Tory members. Conservative MPs have always had doubts about Johnson’s ability to serve as prime minister, and those anxieties were further entrenched by his tenure as foreign secretary. Even many committed Brexiteers doubt both his work ethic and his commitment to the Leave cause. Some of his long-term supporters talk up his ability to hire well, citing Kit Malthouse and James Cleverly, former deputies of Johnson’s at City Hall, as a sign of how a Johnson Downing Street need not be dysfunctional. A counterpoint to this argument is that both Malthouse and Cleverly are likely to run against him.

So why is a man who Conservative MPs believe is unsuited to running the country leading the field? The answer is simple: he has beaten Labour twice, in the London mayoral elections of 2008 and 2012. His second victory is considered particularly impressive because it came amid a set of local elections that turned out to be the high watermark of Ed Miliband’s appeal.

Yet Johnson’s electoral pull is not what it once was. In London, he once gloried in a +58 per cent approval rating. It now stands at -51 per cent in the capital and -31 per cent outside it. He currently benefits from the fact that the rest of the field have nothing like his profile.

MPs backing candidates as ideologically varied as Esther McVey, Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid all note that one reason Johnson appears to be so much more popular in the polls than his rivals is because of the large number of people saying “don’t know”.The other candidates agree that the crucial question for the next Tory leader is “can he or she win?” McVey’s pitch is that the next election will require a scrapper, and having started her life in a care home, she is certainly that. Her spiel is already so well known that one MP checked their mobile during a conversation with her to find that another candidate had sent a text predicting the entire pitch.

Meanwhile, former diplomat Rory Stewart is winning over MPs with his candid interviews and TV performances: the only problem is that they are MPs for other parties. Several opposing campaigns suspect that Stewart is actually running as an instrument of Michael Gove to damage the Brexiteer ultras. After a few weeks of gunning hard, this theory runs, he will retire and leave the field clear for “unity candidate” Gove. (It is a charge that Stewart denies.)

Matt Hancock is also attacking Johnson’s electoral appeal by talking up the success of the Liberal Democrats and the threat they pose to the Conservatives’ hope of a majority. It is a gentle nod to Johnson’s own woes among socially liberal voters, who were the bedrock of his mayoral triumphs but now loathe him. Sajid Javid’s allies believe that among Tory members who have heard of both the Home Secretary and Johnson, their man is more popular.

All of these candidates have the same disadvantage: time. The party machine has chosen a short, sharp contest to be concluded at the end of July, rather than a long race that might expose Johnson. (Frontrunners tend to prefer short contests: to this day, many supporters of David Miliband believe that the long contest in 2010 was a ruse by Harriet Harman to give Ed Miliband time to undo his brother’s lead.)

A short contest means less time for nervous MPs to second-guess whether Johnson is still the guaranteed winner that his backers claim he is. It increases the chance that he will be crowned leader on 23 July.

For Labour, the choice of Johnson as the next Tory leader might mean that their own emergency mechanism – actively campaigning for a second vote on membership of the European Union – does not need to be activated. The leadership believes that Boris Johnson is so widely disliked among Remainers – even those who once strongly supported him in London – that swing voters will return to Labour from the Greens and Lib Dems to vote against him, even if the party has not committed definitively to a second vote.

Boris Johnson, saviour of the Labour Party? It’s British politics in 2019: stranger things have happened.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy