Since the June 2016 referendum in which 52% of those casting their ballots voted to leave the European Union, British politics has been convulsed by the issue of Brexit. With the arrival of Boris Johnson at No. 10 Downing Street and the imminent prospect of either a no-deal exit from the EU, or a general election, or both, the current British political system finds itself at a crossroads.
The political divide over the issue of Brexit is now far more fundamental than the long standing divide between political parties. A recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that 40% of voters claimed to be either a ‘very strong Remainer’ or a ‘very strong Leaver’, while just 8% said they were are a ‘very strong’ supporter of a political party. My own research shows that the Brexit divide should not be seen merely as a conflict over one particular issue, but instead reflects a broader “values divide” that encompasses a range of identity issues about Britain’s relationship with the outside world and “outsiders” more generally. These issues include immigration, multiculturalism, the role of Islam, gay rights and even climate change.
The party system has been convulsed by this deepening divide. Most of the smaller parties, namely the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP, the dominant party in Scotland), the Green Party and Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales), oppose Brexit and have called for a new referendum. On the other side of the divide, first the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and subsequently the Brexit Party, both led by the maverick Brexiteer Nigel Farage, have called for a radical and complete break with the EU. The two major parties, the Labour and Conservative Parties, have hitherto tried to accommodate both sides of the divide. The Labour Party fought the 2017 elections on a pro-Brexit manifesto, but paradoxically won the support of most Remainers. It has since maintained a position of “constructive ambiguity”, intended to appeal to both Brexiteers and Remainers, and has advocated a close partnership with the EU. More recently Labour has suggested that it may campaign to remain in the EU in the event of a referendum held under a Conservative government, while not ruling out the prospect that it could negotiate its own Brexit deal once it is in government. The Conservatives promised to take the UK out of the EU, but have also been deeply divided over Brexit; due to successive rebellions by pro-Brexit Tory MPs, Theresa May failed to win the support of the House of Commons for the Withdrawal Agreement that she negotiated with the EU, leading to a delay in implementing Brexit.
Growing disillusionment amongst Remainers with Labour’s ambiguous position and dismay amongst Brexiteers about the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit as planned on 29th March led voters to desert the two main parties in May’s European elections. Farage’s Brexit Party won the support of most Brexiteers and finished first with 31% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats, with their provocative slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”, scooped up the largest share of Remainer votes, coming second with 20%. Labour was relegated to third place (14%) while the Conservatives languished in fifth place with 9%, behind the Green Party (12%). The SNP finished first in Scotland, winning three out of the six EP seats available.
The regional pattern of support for the parties in the European elections reflected the divide between Brexiteers and Remainers. The graph below compares the difference in 2019 between the combined vote of the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ parties (The Brexit Party and UKIP) and the combined vote of the parties that want to stop Brexit (Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP, Change UK and Plaid Cymru) with the difference in 2016 between the Leave vote and the Remain vote in each local authority area (district or borough council) of Great Britain. The dots on the map represent each counting area and are coloured to represent the party that gained the highest number of votes in the EP elections in the area.
The most striking feature of the graph is that the divide between Remain and Leave regions in 2019 was even wider than it was in 2016. At one extreme, we see that in Boston (Lincolnshire), where 75.6% voted to leave the EU in 2016, 63.6% voted for the Brexit Party or UKIP in 2019, while just 15.3% voted for anti-Brexit parties. At the other extreme is Cambridge, where just 26.1% voted to leave in 2016. Here the anti-Brexit parties (LibDems, Greens and ChangeUK) garnered 70.5% while the Brexit Party and UKIP won just 13.9% between them. Remarkably, this trend holds even though votes for the Conservative and Labour parties were discarded from the analysis, meaning that these parties were little more than bystanders in the elections.
The results of the European elections suggested that at least four parties could all be major contenders nationwide in any general election; as well as the Conservative and Labour parties, these would also include the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party. For a while opinion polls showed these four parties more or less level pegging at around 20% of the vote or a little more. The Green Party also experienced something of a revival, boosted perhaps by increasing concern about the climate emergency, while the SNP remained dominant in Scotland.
Since the elections, however, Boris Johnson has become prime minister of the United Kingdom and has pledged to leave the EU on 31st October, deal or no deal. As such he appears to have moved his party to an unambiguously “hard Brexit” position in order to woo back voters who had deserted the Tories for the Brexit Party in May. The strategy is clearly to unite most Brexiteer votes behind his leadership, splitting the Remain vote between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Given the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, this could be a winning strategy in the event of an election. It is not, however, risk free.
First of all, by appointing a cabinet of “true believers” in Brexit, Johnson has alienated many remain-leaning Tory MPs. Several have not ruled out voting against their own government in a no-confidence motion to avoid a no deal Brexit. Given that the government now has an effective majority of just one (including its allies from the Northern Ireland based Democratic Unionist Party), any such rebellion is likely to result in the government falling. This would lead either to a general election or to a new, probably short-lived, government without Johnson as prime minister. While some sources close to Johnson insist he could postpone a general election until just after the UK is due to leave the EU on 31st October, a disorderly Brexit in the middle of an election campaign is unlikely to end well for the Tories.
A second danger for the Tories in a general election is posed by the possibility that Remain parties will work together to prevent Boris Johnson from winning reelection. The new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, has signalled her willingness to work with other Remainer parties, most notably the Green party and Plaid Cymru, in order to form strategic pacts in key constituencies. This strategy proved successful in a by-election held in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire on 1st August. Both the Green Party and Plaid Cymru stood aside, allowing the Liberal Democrats to take the seat from the Conservatives. While the Labour Party is unlikely to be part of any pact, pro-Remain campaign groups will seek to persuade Remain voters to vote for the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the Conservatives, be it Labour, Liberal Democrat, or anyone else. Although opinion polls suggest that support for the Conservatives has risen since Johnson took over as prime minister, as voters who had leant towards Farage’s Brexit Party return to the fold, the Brexit Party continues to take around ten percent of the vote. In Brecon and Radnorshire, it was that ten percent that prevented the Tories from holding on to this seat.
Overall, the outcome of the next general election, whenever it is held, will be determined by the deep divide in values that has polarised Britain over the past three to four years and by each party’s strategy to position itself with respect to that divide. The end destination is anybody’s guess.