BREXIT UPDATE 27: Run-Up to the European Parliament Elections: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

April 26, 2019

In News


What are the new developments since I posted Brexit Update 26 just before the parliamentary Easter recess?  It is best to divide them into four overlapping areas:

1)  The Labour/Conservative talks aimed at agreeing a revised deal that Labour can support.

2)  Growing Conservative pressure on the Maybot to resign.

3)  The forthcoming local and European Parliament elections

4) Divisions within the Labour Party about a second referendum.


The Labour/Conservative talks

On April 16, just before Easter, Corbyn was reported as saying that the talks were stalled on the questions of a permanent customs union and environmental and workers’ rights:

“There has to be access to European markets and above all there has to be a dynamic relationship to protect the conditions and rights that we’ve got for environment and consumer workplace rights…..the government doesn’t appear to be shifting its red lines because they’ve got a big pressure in the Tory party that actually wants to turn this country into a deregulated, low-tax society which will do a deal with Trump—I don’t want to do that”. [1]

After a break over the Easter holiday weekend, talks resumed on Tuesday (April 23).  But the two sides still appear to be wide apart and there are growing doubts about whether agreement can be reached.  If the Maybot agrees to a customs union, she could face Cabinet walkouts and even more pressure upon her to resign.  Nonetheless, the talks continue and there is still some hope for a breakthrough.

Growing Conservative Pressure on the Maybot to Resign

As was pointed out in Brexit Update 26, in December 2018 the Maybot survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership that had been tabled by her own party.  This meant, according to Conservative Party rules, that she could not be challenged with another vote of no confidence for another year.  However, the influential Conservative backbench 1922 Committee met on Tuesday night (April 23) to discuss changing the rules so that she would face another vote of no confidence next month.     They decided against a rule change, but Sir Graham Brady, the head of the Committee, issued a statement asking the Maybot to set out a timetable for her departure.[2]  There is widespread anger against the Maybot for a) producing a situation where the UK is highly likely to participate in the European Parliament elections and b) for negotiating with Corbyn.  The 1922 Committee is said to include the “men in grey suits” who traditionally tell a Conservative Prime Minister that the time has come to resign.  However, the Maybot of course is no ordinary Prime Minister and, even if told to resign by the 1922 Committee, could well refuse to do so.

Meanwhile,  there is also a grassroots constituency rebellion brewing against the Maybot.   More than 70 local associations have signed a petition calling for an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss her leadership.  Under Conservative Party rules, if more than 65 local association heads sign a petition calling for an EGM, one has to be held.  The petition in question includes the words:

“We no longer feel that Mrs May is the right person to continue as prime minister to lead us forward in the [Brexit] negotiations.  We therefore, with great reluctance, ask that she considers her position and resigns, to allow the Conservative Party to choose another leader, and the country to move forward and negotiate our exit from the EU.”[3]

The National Conservative Convention EGM will be held next month. A vote of no confidence, if held at this EGM, will be non-binding and could be ignored by the Maybot; but it will put added pressure on her to resign.  But, as we have seen, it appears that the only scenario in which she is certain voluntarily to resign is the unlikely event of the passing of her deal by Parliament.  Any other Prime Minister would have resigned after her deal was massively defeated the first time, let alone the third time.  It takes the Maybot to be rigidly determined that she will only resign if her deal passes.  And, as was mentioned in Brexit Update 26, the right-wing, No Deal-supporting Brexiteers are rumoured to be waiting till December to topple her with a new vote of no confidence and install Boris Johnson in her place.  But if – as seems increasingly likely — the UK does take part in the EU elections and results for the Tories in both the local and EU elections are disastrous, it is hard to see how she can continue as PM.

The local and European Parliament elections

The local elections for councillors, to be held on May 2, are seen mainly as a test of the attitudes of Conservatives to May’s leadership; widespread Conservative losses are predicted.  But it is unclear how much Labour will benefit from this.  A generally low turnout as a result of voter exhaustion with politics is likely — this could affect the vote for Labour, which in any case is only contesting 77 per cent of the seats, whereas the Tories are contesting 96 per cent; this is because most  of this year’s local elections are being held in rural Tory heartlands.  Labour is set to fight a primarily defensive campaign – – holding on to the seats it already controls rather than trying to gain seats. It is thought that many disaffected Tories will stay at home; the main beneficiary of this expected Conservative boycott is predicted to be the Liberal Democrats, rather than Labour.  But there are some fears that some disaffected Tories could vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which has moved to the extreme right and is standing a minimum of 1,415 candidates (nearly trebling their previous number).  In general, the two main parties are expected to lose out to the smaller parties – but the Conservatives to a much greater extent than Labour. [4]

There is far more media and public interest in the May 23 European Parliament elections, in which the UK looks increasingly likely to participate.  The TIG group has now become a political party called Change UK, which is putting forward candidates for the European elections – it isn’t bothering with the low-key local elections.  But the main story on this issue is the growing success of Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit party, which again says it will not be involved in the local elections, but which is leading the field in the polls for the European elections.   A Yougov poll last week put the Brexit Party on 27 per cent, Labour on 22 per cent and the Tories on 15 per cent.[5]   Many disaffected members of the Conservative Party are said to be intending to vote for Farage’s new party. [6]


Labour Divisions over holding a second referendum

In early April, 80 Labour MPs, including members of the Shadow Cabinet, wrote to Corbyn calling for a confirmatory vote/second referendum – indicating how deeply split the Labour Party is on the issue and the difficulty Corbyn has in holding the party together.[7]  As we have seen, Labour has recently been tacking towards some qualified support for a public vote, in response to Remainer defections to the TIG group (now Change UK).

And most recently, as a result of the strong showing of the Brexit Party in the early polls for the European elections, Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, has written an article in Sunday’s (April 21) Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday edition), calling on Corbyn to give full backing to a second referendum, in a move that would reposition Labour as the leading Remain party.  He claims that Corbyn’s middle-way “soft” Brexit position of supporting leaving with a customs union and close alignment with the Single Market is “mealy-mouthed” and doesn’t provide Labour with a clear contrary message that can beat Farage.[8]  There has been a spate of other articles by “centrist” Labour MPs and supporters making the same point.[9]

But a letter organised by the Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock (the son of the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock) and Gloria de Piero, who support the “Norway Plus” option,  includes the arguments that a) a second referendum would be divisive; b)  that “a second referendum which did not have a No Deal option on the ballot would be fatally lacking in democratic legitimacy” in view of recent Yougov polling that suggests that 25 per cent of the electorate support No Deal; while on the other hand a No Deal option risked disaster; thus the  question of what to put on the ballot paper would face Labour with an insoluble dilemma:  c) that, after Labour’s recent turn towards qualified backing of a second referendum, “support for Labour amongst Leave voters has plummeted to just 13 per cent”; and d) that insistence that an agreement with the Conservatives should be dependent on their support for a second referendum would

“almost certainly cause the talks to collapse.  We must not allow what some colleagues see as their ideal outcome (ie a second referendum) to block the emergence of a pragmatic, sensible, bridge-building Brexit deal that a clear majority of Labour MPs would support.”[10]

This letter is due to be sent to Corbyn in the course of this week – it is thought that 30 or 40 Labour MPs are likely to sign it.[11]  Even though twice the number of Labour MPs support a second referendum, it is unlikely to win a consensus in Parliament, as the Kinnock/de Piero letter points out.  On March 14, an amendment on a second referendum was put forward by Sarah Wollaston of the TIG group (as it then was) and massively defeated (see Brexit Update 13).  It is true that in recent “indicative votes”, two motions on a confirmatory vote on any deal were defeated only by a small margin, but they did not specifically mention a Remain option (see Brexit Updates 19 and 21); and the motion on a customs union (though still defeated, like all the “indicative vote” motions) performed better.

And surely it makes sense for Labour to fight Farage on his own anti-Establishment Brexit ground.  He has said he wants to capture the traditional Labour heartlands in South Wales and the Midlands and North of England[12]  — areas that overwhelmingly voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, precisely in protest against the middle-class elitist outlook with which Watson is urging Labour to identify itself.  To reposition Labour as a Remain party like the Liberal Democrats or the ironically-named  Change UK  (which is an entirely Establishment party) would be to abandon Labour’s working-class base to Farage, instead of putting forward an alternative, left-wing vision of Brexit that will benefit “the many, not the few”.  This is so clear that the pro-Corbyn Skwawbox blog suggests that the calls by “centrist” Labour MPs and supporters for Labour to reposition itself as a Remain party backing a second referendum are actually intended to prevent Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister:

“Corbyn’s job is to change the UK – not just ‘stop Farage’ and leave everything else as the Establishment would like to keep it.   And he’s admirably on track to fulfil that function – which is why this threadbare Establishment tactic is getting another airing”.[13]

And the very latest news is there are many media reports of a row within the Labour Party over Labour’s leaflets for the European elections, because the leaflets indicate that Labour supports Brexit and do not include any mention of a second referendum. [14]  But, as Skwawkbox points out, the leaflets simply reflect Labour Party policy.[15]









See also:

and (for predictions of strong UKIP gains):









[9] For instance: and