LONDON—Three years after Britain’s political establishment bungled the campaign to stop Brexit, they are doing it all over again.
If Britain were to hold a second referendum, opinion polls indicate that a (narrow) majority of the population would choose to overturn the result and remain in the European Union. Despite that national change of heart, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is poised to pull the Remainers’ pants down and secure a historic victory in this month’s European parliamentary elections.
Pro-Remain votes will be split among the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the new Change UK party, Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Scottish Nationalist Party, and Labour, some of whose loyal voters refuse to accept all available evidence that Jeremy Corbyn is trying to facilitate Britain’s exit from Europe.
Support for the ruling Conservative Party has collapsed to such an extent that the Brexit Party is expected to sweep up virtually all pro-Brexit voters in European elections that are only being held because Theresa May’s government has failed to negotiate its exit from the European Union three years after the country voted Leave. Powered by frustration at that failure, Farage’s party—which is only a few months old—is likely to break all British records for ballot box success for a nascent political party.
Relying on just a handful of political advisers and media aides, Farage is poised to outwit the entire political class, which had even excluded him from the official Leave campaign during the original 2016 Brexit referendum. He was forced to run a rival pro-Brexit campaign along with populist rabble-rousers Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore.
Admittedly, Farage has a far easier route to success by aggressively promoting a single issue that appeals to approximately half of the country (Leave beat Remain 52 percent to 48 percent), but the Remainers have failed to create a rival power base able to capitalize on support from the other half of the country.
“Twelve percent, 12 percent, 12 percent between ourselves, Greens and Change UK would damage everyone,” Alastair Carmichael, a senior Liberal Democrat lawmaker, admitted to The Daily Beast. “It's certainly not helpful.”
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair had been chief among those encouraging the creation of a new centrist political party. That finally happened earlier this year but the launch has been verging on catastrophic with party name changes, no clarity of message, social media fails and—so far—a total inability to break through.
Even Blair, whose back-channel support helped birth the new party, says he won’t vote for it in the upcoming elections.
While the Brexit Party has gone from zero to leading the polls in a few weeks, Change UK has failed to break through as the voice of Remain. Even though most of its founding members had been closely aligned with the People’s Vote campaign, which is pushing for a second referendum on Brexit, the party decided not to emphasize its anti-Brexit roots at launch.
Instead, party leaders claimed they were here to change politics entirely. The ambitious upstarts were hoping not to alienate the Brexit-voting half of the country so as not to hinder their imagined ascent to glory. Instead, they missed the chance to dominate on their home turf and now risk total obliteration.
Some of the new party’s difficulties have been forced by Britain’s deeply entrenched political system, but some of the errors have been baffling.
When 11 politicians from the Labour and Conservative parties left their established homes to join a breakaway group in February it was first called The Independent Group. Some abbreviated that to TIG and for a few weeks the members enjoyed calling themselves the Tiggers.
They formally changed their name to “Change UK – The Independent Group” a month later and started referring to themselves as “Change UK.” The new name makes it very difficult to find the party on Google, and angered the local chapter of Change.org a well-established campaign organization that goes by Change.orgUK/ on Facebook and @UKChange on Twitter.
During the European elections, held on May 23, Change UK will be the only party on the ballot paper with a blank space where their logo should be. The Electoral Commission rejected the image they had chosen—which was not the stripy logo they have been using on the rest of their promotional material— it was a black box with white writing that read “TIG #change.” Election officials did not like the inclusion of the hashtag and said the logo was “likely to mislead voters.”
On Twitter, meanwhile, the party shifted its handle last week from @TheIndGroup to an entirely new formation of words: @ForChange_Now. It didn’t occur to anyone that they ought to retain control of the old handle, which was soon taken over by pro-Brexit activists who used it to post embarrassing messages about the fledgling party while its lawmakers’ profiles and official website continued to link to it.
Anna Soubry, a former Conservative who helped to found Change UK, blamed Labour veterans within the People’s Vote campaign for disrupting efforts for the Remainer parties to work together to stop Brexit. “It is an absolute farce,” she told The Times.
May’s mishandling of the Brexit negotiations meant it was only decided this month that the European elections were taking place at all. Leading Remain campaigner Gina Miller, who defeated the government in the courts to ensure that parliament had a say on Brexit, has tried to bring the factions together through her Remain United initiative but they have only had a matter of days to try and change generations of entrenched voting patterns.
“There is no denying Farage and the Brexit Party started to campaign, organize and coordinate with other Brexit supporting groups, while the Remain parties and campaigns were still arguing among themselves,” she told The Daily Beast.The extended teething problems for Change UK, however, may open the way for the best hope for a relatively unified Remain vote at the European elections.
In the absence of strong new pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats have emerged as the anti-Brexit force with momentum. They massively out-performed expectations at local elections held across the country at the beginning of this month and are now looking to consolidate the Remain vote with the official European election slogan: “Bollocks to Brexit.”
On Wednesday, Change UK’s top nominee in Scotland quit the party and said he would back the Lib Dems.
“The public can switch support behind parties far quicker than parties can react themselves. You can see that with how swiftly many Brexit voters have abandoned the Conservatives for the Brexit Party,” said Mark Pack, a former Lib Dem strategist. “I'm optimistic that Remain supporters can see which Remain party has the most momentum and best recent election results—and make their judgments based on that.”
In the last three national polls collated by the BBC, the Lib Dems have moved up into third place ahead of the Conservative Party as Change UK trends downward.
The complicating factor for those who wish to turn the European elections into a proxy second referendum is the Labour vote—they are in second place in the polls. The majority of Labour voters are anti-Brexit but the party is keeping its options open.
Their official position is to respect the result of the 2016 referendum and enforce Brexit but only on their own terms, which would result in a closely aligned relationship with the European Union. Corbyn and May have been locked in negotiations for the past six weeks trying to find a compromise Brexit deal that might see the two main parties agree on a negotiated settlement they could put to the E.U.
Those negotiations are likely to end in stalemate, however, and the party is irreconcilably split over what to do next. The deputy leader, Tom Watson, and Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, have both stated a preference for a second referendum to end the domestic impasse, but Corbyn, the party’s left-wing leader, is reluctant to commit to stopping Brexit.
Although there is little clarity from the top of the party, senior Labour politicians are appealing to the electorate to support their vision of a softer Brexit—or potential second referendum—as the most realistic route to prevent a hard Conservative Brexit, with the Lib Dems, Change UK and the Greens not in position to win the next election.
“Absolutely stick with voting Labour,” Baroness Smith, Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, told The Daily Beast. “They will get nothing with the other parties anyway—they've got nothing to offer.”
Despite these Labour pleas, the polls show a sharp decline in support over the last six weeks.
“The great British public have finally realized that the Labour Party is not the party of Remain and they are now looking at the different options,” said Carmichael, who is clinging to the belief that the Remain side could still post a convincing result in this month’s vote. “If you are crude enough to want to say bollocks to Brexit then vote for the Liberal Democrats.”