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MICHAEL WHITE on why Nigel Farage is all mouth and yellow trousers

MICHAEL WHITE on why Nigel Farage is all mouth and yellow trousers. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE takes a look at the past week’s events as the main parties took a beating at the local elections and Nigel Farage blustered on.

Trying to predict the outcome of the Brexit stalemate these past many months, let alone to pick Theresa May’s eventual successor, has been even more futile than trying to guess the sex and names of the Duchess of Sussex’s baby. Those who knew the answers to the royal teasers weren’t saying (the tot was never going to be a Nigel, Boris or a Jeremy), but at least they knew. Even at this painfully late stage, only the confidently ignorant claim to know how Brexit will be resolved – or by whom.

A ministerial chum, who would resign and leave politics if Boris Johnson ever got the top job, says he clings to “useless” May because the alternatives are worse. He concedes that “insipid” Jeremy Hunt would be slightly less worse than the other WhatsApp candidates currently sharing their hopes, dreams and family photos on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

That’s wrong, counters a backbench Tory moderate. Last year Mr Moderate was confiding that “I’d trust my cat more than Boris”, but has since decided that “a managerialist like Hunt” isn’t what the crisis demands. That’s code for ‘Boris’ – who has never managed anything except self-promotion – the “brightly coloured elephant in the room”, as someone puts it.

I can grudgingly see what Mr Moderate means, but remain pretty sure that what the immediate crisis doesn’t need is a change of Tory leader, a process which would exhaust all concerned without resolving the shape of a Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that would satisfy a Westminster majority and Brussels. Where’s the fresh talent to pull that off? Dominic Raab seems to have a very nice wife and kitchen, he bravely promises 1p off income tax, but it’s not leadership. If Boris really means it (always doubtful) his own “renegotiation” pledge translates into a hard Brexit or a shameless U-turn.

Much the same dismay can be mustered over Labour’s declared preference for a general election, despite the evidence of last Thursday’s local election revolt that it might not even emerge as the largest party. A People’s Vote? Fine by me in principle, albeit divisive and risky, as Jezza’s minders have noticed in the north. I still don’t see how we get there in practice, which options would be on the ballot paper or how Remain wins without a more persuasive offer to disaffected voters. It would have to start with “Sorry, sorry for everything we insensitively got wrong”.

But there is some evidence that events, shifts in the public mood and her more pragmatic ministers could force May or her successor towards a second referendum. A gamble all round, but not the only one. The existential dilemma prompted one of the best exchanges of another grisly week. Not for the first time the electricity sparked between Diane Abbott, who is pro-People’s Vote but sits on Jeremy’s fence out of loyalty to her old biker pal, and Brummie troublemaker, Jess Phillips, who has never seen a fence she didn’t want to kick over, especially one with Diane on it.

“What we really want is a general election,” Hackney’s Abbott told the BBC. “I want to be a size 10, but just keep eating cake,” replied Yardley’s Phillips, also a People’s Vote supporter, but more forthright. “You don’t just get what you want. A general election is not the thing that is in front of us. Brexit is the thing that is in front of us.” What’s more, Jeremy had been elected because activists thought he was honest, not because he’d sit on fences, she reminded everyone.

But I’m beginning to suspect I’m wrong about all this – I was wrong here last week about tracing the cabinet leaker – as the impasse continues and the clock ticks on towards that Halloween Brexit. My prognosis is far too rational in a situation where emotion rules and too many people say “we must do something, anything, even commit political suicide by losing our seats”.

Logically May and Corbyn should cut a deal over some form of temporary customs union (didn’t we used to call that a ‘transition period’?) and other sensitive symbolic issues, so that the country can move on. We won’t be able to move far because we still face those more substantial talks on the post-Brexit EU/UK settlement under a new Tory leader, possibly a Labour one too.

But purists in their parties, both Remainers and Moggsters, look like they won’t let them. May’s signature on a ‘Westminster stitch-up’ with Jezza just might precipitate her immediate overthrow by the Keystone Cops of the 1922 executive and provincial party sans culottes with their pitchforks. I doubt it, but it might.

In the real world we ought urgently to be addressing the past week’s weighty international reports, one on climate change (a “scam” in Farage-speak), the other highlighting the threat that human activity poses to one million other species, not including Gavin Williamson’s tarantula. But the global sustainability challenge is a larger version of the housing crisis, knife crime or Chris Grayling – problems we’re too busy to address because Brexit is an opportunity cost, a forest fire that devours most things in its path.

In Brexit Britain’s introverted world the electorate’s ‘plague on both your houses’ verdict on the two main parties in the English local elections was eventually replicated in Northern Ireland when tellers finally finished the complex, centralised counting process designed to protect the integrity of the ballot. Arlene Foster’s DUP lost eight seats but it and Sinn Féin (no change) hung on to first and second places. The pro-EU Greens and centrist Alliance picked up votes, as they did in England.

Over here the Tory loss of 1,330 seats – well above expectation managers’ predictions of 1,000, at worst – was matched by Labour’s net loss of 84, instead of the 400+ hoped-for gains. “We face the unstoppable disintegration of the post-Victorian political model,” says my gloomy ministerial chum, who can’t see a way out. Steady on! What about whiskered William Gladstone’s Victorian model? With 704 gains for the Lib Dems (including control of Jacob R Mogg’s Somerset council) even dour Vince Cable managed to look perky. This week he turns 76. At that age, Gladstone still had two more spells in No.10 ahead of him. Perhaps Sir Vince will stay on as leader for want of a more credible replacement. That’s what May and Corbyn do.

By my reckoning the Lib Dems were unduly punished for their naivety in coalition with David Cameron, where they curbed nastier Conservative impulses. By targeting their seats to get his slim majority in 2015 Cameron ended up destroying his own premiership via that half-baked referendum. Serves him right – but not the rest of us. The Revenge of the Cleggies!

The Greens also picked up 194 seats, UKIP dropped 145 to just 31, a further reminder of just how volatile and fragile our petulant politics have become. The new Farage Party didn’t run, nor did Change UK. But pro-Remain centrists can claim a good night – and did. Those EU elections on May 23, now all but certain, may produce a more alarming story.

There again, though Greens think globally they pick up litter and promote bus routes locally. Localism is part of their DNA and does not easily lend itself to much pragmatic policy bandwidth about the arts of government, which limits their usefulness on the national stage. In saying that I risk annoying decent people, but anti-nuclear Greens’ influence in Germany has contributed to the burning of much more dirty coal, it’s just imported Polish coal. So I rank them among the ‘none of the above’ independents (606 gains) and residents associations (49) who did well on Thursday as voters recoiled from the big two, even in the north – tribally Labour, but Brexit-riven.

Such independents may be untainted by Brexit, but they are also untainted by experience. Nothing wrong with localism in local elections or with new blood, but further fragmentation into the purity of identity politics doesn’t contribute much to solving the national Brexit stalemate. The problem is compounded by the fact that English nationalist Nigel Farage doesn’t do policy bandwidth either (he once repudiated his party’s manifesto). ‘Just leave’ and ‘Betrayed’ are not policies, they are slogans, virtually meaningless as they stand.

Tuesday’s Guardian detailed his ingratiating interviews with Alex Jones, Facebook-banned, toxic Texan conspiracy theorist, no surprise to TNE readers. The Brexit Party leader is shallower and nastier than he pretends and won’t dare risk standing himself (again) in the significant Peterborough by-election on June 6. Not you either, Annunziata? Oh dear. Where’s your money coming from, Nigel? Alex Jones?

Thoughtful Tory activists of the old school should ponder this stuff and recoil from it, as many voters do from Jeremy Corbyn’s persistent insensitivity – I put it no stronger – to similar anti-Semitic conspiracies on the left, where Jews are equated with capitalism by simple-minded zealots. But they don’t – 60% of Conservative activists say they will vote Farage on May 23, not for the vicar’s dutiful daughter. The Daily Telegraph has told them it’s OK and nailed its shabby colours to Farage’s mast. What would its gentle ex-editor, ‘Dear Bill’ Deedes, make of his inflammatory “coalition against the people” talk?

Isn’t it ironical then that Britain should have voted for Brexit at a time when its politics are taking on a European flavour – populist, nationalistic and multi-party, this despite the retention of first-past-the-post voting at Westminster, which favours the post-Victorian duopoly? We’ve even got a Belgian version of a government: gridlocked and impotent, with the civil servants running more and more of the show.

Cabinet secretary and leak-hunter, Sir Mark Sedwill, who is taking an unprecedented delegation of Whitehall permanent secretaries to talks in Beijing (cue for mandarin joke), apparently doesn’t mind getting more power as May’s shrinks. Sir Humphrey rarely does. It’s very Italian or French. Expect more government-by-technocrat if ‘No Details’ Boris or Jezza (even fewer details) become PM. But it’s not what the ‘Take Back Control’ crowd told folk they were voting for.

And, of course, the EU27 – they’re being so quiet that we sometimes forget they’re still there, waiting for us to make up our minds – has been telling May for years to find a cross-party solution to Brexit, as they would do in their own Grand Coalitions. Left with no option by diehards in the European Research Group, May eventually reached out to Corbyn and John McDonnell after that 230 vote defeat of meaningful vote one in January.

Goaded by Thursday’s shared election failure, Teams May and Corbyn duly put a bit more welly into their desultory talks on Tuesday, less to find a compromise, I suspect, than to ensure the blame for failure will fall on the other side. May’s alleged leak of Tory concessions to the Sunday Times (it read more like a bit of freelance sabotage to me) gave McDonnell the chance to tell the BBC’s Andy Marr he doesn’t trust her and ask what’s the point if she’s doomed anyway. But serious people tell me both sides are serious because the risks outweigh the alternatives.

To discourage the negotiators, 100 Tory MPs promptly made clear they could not vote for anything with a smidgen of customs union in the text. At least 100 Labour MPs spurned any prospective deal that did not also offer what is optimistically called a confirmatory referendum, except those Labour MPs in the north whose alienated voters backed Brexit.

Tory purists behave as if president Trump was not picking un-free trade wars in all directions, Labour’s as if a decisive swathe of Leave voters have finally woken up to the impossibility of a Brexit that does not damage us all (except in the north).

All such assumptions are fragile. Tory diehards pretend their 2017 manifesto explicitly gave the party a mandate to leave both the single market and customs union, as May promised in her ‘red line’ speeches.

They conveniently ignore the obvious fact that May effectively lost that election, and with it her majority. As is now clear beyond doubt, the 2017 election created a Commons majority against a hard Brexit, though not decisively in favour of a softer alternative.

‘Sort it out’ is not a policy either and the numbers who would vote for a May-Corbyn pact are shaky. So are the political risks for Labour. Why be seen to ‘rescue’ May? If 100 of the 313 Tory MPs were to rebel and be joined by 80 or so MPs from the SNP and other minor parties, the reported refusal of “two thirds” of Labour’s 246 members to back a cross-party leadership deal would be enough to deny is the needed 320 majority. What then?

On last Thursday’s showing, a new Tory PM seeking a fresh mandate via an election in 2019 might well create a replica of the 2010 result, according to an analysis for the Sunday Times.

Both main parties would fall sharply back from their 85% vote share in 2017. The Conservatives would narrowly be the largest party against a Labour leader without much appeal beyond the core vote, but with pro-Remain Lib Dems and SNP holding the balance.

Of course, the Brexit Party or Change UK might upset that scenario, but past history suggests that’s a very big ‘if’ for insurgent parties under FPTP voting. And Remain parties risk casualties from friendly fire.

All options are scary.

A charismatic Tory leader like cake-and-eat-it Boris (he’s not size 10 either) might see off a yellow-trousered Farage. Other Tory wannabes are as charismatic as fish on a slab, unless we count cabinet new boy and May loyalist Rory Stewart as a wild card, which I do. Alas, long experience has taught me that thoughtful candidates whom I fancy are doomed, so we can discount young Rory. All in all, another hung parliament with a noisy claque of hard Brexit intransigents and conspiracy theorists is an unappealing prospect for any rookie PM.

Might it be better to pass the buck back to the people on grounds of expediency and see if the Brexiteers have the courage of their convictions after three years of failed predictions and serial resignation? Has the dogged People’s Vote campaign’s hour come at last? Is that why Farage is wearing yellow trousers, so the stain won’t show when he wets himself?

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