Thursday 16 May 2019 8:57 am

The Brexit Party genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle

It was said of the French Bourbons during the Restoration following the Revolutionary and Napoleonic interregnum that “they had learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”.

Utterly oblivious to how France had changed since Louis XVI had been driven from the throne, his relatives proceeded to attempt to roll back the clock and restore their vision of kingship. The strategy ended in disaster, with Charles X’s forced abdication in 1830 and the end of the Bourbon monarchy.

The Bourbons may have long passed into the mists of history, but it appears that their influence lives on. For this week, we learned that the Prime Minister’s rejected Brexit deal will be placed before the House of Commons for a fourth time by early June.

With the hope of delivering parliamentary consensus through negotiations with the Labour party receding, it appears that the Prime Minister is staking her remaining political capital on a last-gasp attempt to cross the line.

It is not difficult to see why May has taken this course of action. Threatened by the prospect of an imminent coup de grace by her despairing – yet vacillating – Conservative colleagues, she has kicked the can down the road as far as they will let her.

May is playing for her legacy now. She risks leaving office with history’s judgement heavy against her tenure. Her final gambit at least offers the faint hope that a parliamentary miracle will deliver her salvation.

It will not work. The constellation of parliamentary forces remains stacked against the bill’s passage. The DUP has already announced its opposition, and the list of Conservative rebels appears to be growing rather than shrinking.

Were a deal to emerge between the two main parties, it would also almost certainly be voted down through a mixture of anger on the Conservative side that Labour votes were being bought with a softer Brexit, and disgust on the Labour benches at the failure to agree a confirmatory referendum.

There is, however, an even more important factor now at play that the Bourbons in 10 Downing Street have seemingly failed to appreciate: the rise of the Brexit Party.

Out of nowhere, the Farageian phoenix has risen from the flames to lead the polls for the forthcoming European elections.

Perhaps this was to be expected given the incongruity of being forced to hold this contest three years after a vote to leave the EU. But it is the polling for the next General Election that is the real eyebrow raiser, with the Brexit Party now running at parity with the Conservatives at 20 per cent in a recent survey.

May is gambling that this obvious threat will corral her rebellious backbenchers into line. But even if her bill somehow staggers past the finishing post, the Brexit Party genie cannot somehow be stuffed back into the bottle.

Its European election broadcast is both brilliant and chilling in its simplicity in explaining this.

The broadcast is an entirely policy-free zone. But with a central theme of betrayal by a political class who “can no longer be trusted to represent the will of the people”, it shows how the Brexit Party can carve out a space and take a wrecking ball to British politics regardless of what Westminster politicians in their current constellation decide.

If Brexit continues to be delayed, the Brexit Party will reap the electoral dividends of what it terms our “broken politics.”

Yet if May’s deal passes with some form of customs union membership as the price for Labour’s support, it will be denounced as a tawdry Westminster compromise designed to cheat the people out of what they voted for.

The trap has been set, and the government is walking right into it.

The Conservative party’s response to a massive Brexit Party European election victory and the end of the May premiership is likely to be the election of a no-deal supporting leader to outflank Farage. Yet a no-deal Brexit cannot command support in the House of Commons.

It is therefore unclear how that new leader will be able to deliver upon their position short of engaging in the Russian roulette of a General Election that could produce any number of outcomes at such a volatile time, including victory for Jeremy Corbyn.

There remains one pressure valve that could still be opened to avert this climactic scenario. A two-part referendum encompassing the Prime Minister’s deal as the first question, and a straight No-Deal versus Remain run-off if that fails to pass, would assuage all viewpoints.

The Prime Minister would have a final attempt at redemption for her Brexit position, politicians could offload the live grenade of Brexit back to the people who first removed the pin, and the public would be heard decisively with the two most antithetical options finally potentially on offer to them if they so desired.

This is the only way that we will be able to move forward as a nation, without politicians opening themselves up to the charge of betraying the people. Our leaders can either recognise this, or they will be swept aside in the torrent that follows.


City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.