As Ukraine’s tragedy underlines an urgency for European unity, Britain remains the odd man out. The crisis has exposed the baleful opportunities created by British isolationism: slow to act and uncoordinated on the refugee emergency; conflict with the EU when cohesion is needed; and failure to deal with Russian dirty money flowing into London, government support for Ukraine notwithstanding.
British Pro-Europeans look longingly at President Macron’s almost-certain re-election in France, and the smooth continuation of Germany’s Europhile policy following Angela Merkel’s retirement and her replacement by chancellor Olaf Scholz transferring power from Christian to Social Democrats. Even the EU’s rogue states, Hungary and Poland, remain wedded to membership.
Of course, other nations have an anti-European presence in their parliaments, but these are small compared with the House of Commons’ Europhobic majority.
Germany’s main anti-EU party, Alternative für Deutschland, holds 11% of seats in the Bundestag, having broken through the 5% popular vote threshold required for representation designed to deter extremist parties, following defeat of the Nazi Third Reich and Soviet occupation of East Germany.
AfD’s French alter ego, Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement National, formerly the National Front, has only 1% of the French National Assembly’s seats and, unlike the AfD, recently dropped its opposition to EU membership, focusing instead on its anti-immigrant stance and hostility to further EU integration.
Contrast French and German numbers of parliamentary anti-Europeans with the 56% of UK constituencies held by Boris Johnson’s nationalist Tories, purged of pro-EU MPs from whom Johnson removed the whip, preventing them from standing as Tory candidates. That 56% seat share reflects 2019’s 80-strong Tory majority minus two byelection losses and one defection to Labour.
Partly this numerical difference reflects the diversity of electoral systems among Europe’s top three nations. Westminster elections are decided by first-past-the-post in which the winner takes all; French elections have two rounds in which the top two candidates in the first round go through to a second-round run-off; and German voters cast two votes, one for a constituency representative and another for a party, with the latter ballot roughly equalising the national vote share for each party.
Nonetheless, as one of the UK’s two dominant national parties, the Conservatives’ 41% popular vote share at the last general election dwarfs the RN’s 9% and the AfD’s 11% percentages in much more fragmented party competitions.
Britain’s 18th-century single-member plurality voting system seriously underrepresents the extent of pro-European British opinion. Despite no prospect of EU membership in sight, 49% of Britons believe it was wrong to leave the EU – essentially unchanged from 2016’s Remain vote share – compared with 39% who say leaving was the right decision and 13% who don’t know, according to YouGov’s latest polling. Yet this position is almost never voiced among not only Tories but also Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Current party polling doesn’t appear to offer the one in two Brits who are pro-EU much hope for change. That same YouGov poll has Labour only four points ahead of the Conservatives, 37:33, despite “partygate”; a deteriorating economy; 75% of the public saying they consider Johnson untrustworthy; 68% who say he should resign; and 64% who believe him to be incompetent, on YouGov’s February figures.
Plug in YouGov’s latest national vote shares – which have the Lib Dems on 9%; Greens at 6%; and 5% for Nigel Farage’s Reform Party – into election prediction website and Labour would be 46 seats short of a majority of only one, despite adding nearly 100 constituencies to its total. Add the 12 seats the Lib Dems would win on those YouGov numbers, and a Lib-Lab coalition would be 22 seats short of a majority over all other parties.
This would leave a Lib-Lab minority government dangerously dependent on Scottish nationalists to govern, a prospect that opened the potential for harmful propaganda during the 2015 general election.
Typically, an additional 100 seats would land the opposition firmly in power. Margaret Thatcher added 62 seats to the Tory column in 1979, securing a working majority of 44. Edward Heath took the Tories back into government in 1970 gaining 77 on 1966’s losing total. And David Cameron pushed up the Tory tally by 96 in 2010, not enough to govern alone but sufficient in coalition with the Lib Dems. But Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 202-seat legacy, Labour’s worst parliamentary performance since 1935, left a mountain for Keir Starmer’s party to climb.
Likewise, the 7% national swing from Conservative to Labour that YouGov’s latest poll represents compares respectably with the 5% national Tory-Labour swings that propelled Thatcher, Heath and Cameron into No 10. But again, from the low point of Corbyn’s 32% 2019 vote share, this places power out of Starmer’s reach even on such a healthy swing.
In fact, Starmer’s Labour needs an 11% swing from the Tories for a bare working majority of 22 – comparable to that achieved by John Major in 1992, which just about secured five years in power – all other party shares on that YouGov poll being equal. On YouGov’s numbers, a 10% swing would achieve a sustainable majority in coalition with the Lib Dems or courtesy of a confidence-and-supply agreement, whereby the latter allowed important government legislation to pass.
Beyond such herculean electoral hurdles, Johnson’s Tories have other built-in advantages. The government is pushing ahead with The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, which will repeal the coalition’s 2011 Fixed-Term Parliament Act, returning to the prime minister the exclusive right to choose the date of the next general election. This will enable Johnson or any Tory replacement to call an election at any time before the last possible date, January 23, 2025, to suit the Tories’ potential prospects.
Adding to this advantage, the Tories will enact new Westminster constituency boundaries before the country next goes to the polls. Legislation will redraw lines last used in 2010’s general election in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and those dating from 2005’s election in Scotland. New rules require the electorates for each seat to be within 5% of the average, with a handful of exceptions.
Respected psephologist Lord Hayward estimates that the boundary changes will afford the Conservatives 10-20 additional seats, based on 2019’s election results, because Tory-held constituencies are disproportionately more populous than Labour’s. This makes for a notional majority of 100-120 seats rather than the majority of 80 that Johnson achieved in 2019, setting an even higher bar for Labour.
Historically, such majorities have been overturned in one go. Harold Macmillan’s 1959 victory and Harold Wilson’s 1966 win, which gave way to a 30-strong Tory majority at the following general election, were achieved with majorities of around 100. But Thatcher’s 1987 101-majority took Labour two shots to overturn: 1992 and 1997.
With the opposition seemingly becalmed in the polls, how can the disaster of yet another term of nationalist Tory rule be avoided? Pro-Europeans can be sure that even if Tory MPs depose Johnson, potential replacements are discouraging. True-believer Europhobes Dominic Raab, Priti Patel or Liz Truss might be worse than Johnson’s opportunistic nationalism. Meanwhile, “moderates” Rishi Sunak, Ben Wallace or Tom Tugendhat also oppose EU membership and therefore would represent a continuation of Britain’s current anti-Europe foreign policy.
Whatever way one slices future political uncertainty, cross-party cooperation for Westminster constituencies prior to the next general election offers the best hope for a pro-European governing majority. While EU membership will remain off the agenda for possibly quite some time, a pro-Europe shift in the UK’s foreign policy is achievable – but only if today’s Tories are replaced in government.
Such a pact is worth pursuing regardless of the many unknowns that lie between now and the next general election. Inflation approaching double digits, higher interest rates, tax hikes, runaway utility bills and recession may make for worse political weather for the Tories but, as Ukraine’s crisis shows, other factors may boost their fortunes.
A deal is also a wise insurance policy even if Labour decided it might be better off with, say, Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting or John Ashworth as their leader or, more complicatedly for lack of a current Commons seat, Andy Burnham or Sadiq Khan.
Similarly, Lib Dem figures who seem more substantial than Ed Davey, perhaps deputy leader Daisy Cooper or Westminster parliamentary candidate Ed Lucas, would be smart to embrace such Lib-Lab collaboration if they ever replaced him, either before or after the next general election.
Obviously, Lib-Lab co-operation isn’t a cure-all, not least because some Labour voters would be unwilling to back a Lib Dem candidate and vice versa. And some electors won’t warm to an idea that could be seen as an insiders’ stitch-up. If such dissenters abstained in large numbers, this would assist the Tories.
But a pact would likely enable both opposition parties to reach further down their target marginal lists, some of which include constituencies that even Labour’s three-time election-winning machine, Tony Blair, didn’t win in 2005.
Additionally, some pro-Europe Tories may be attracted by the idea of opposition cooperation removing the current government, giving them intellectual and emotional “permission” to break out of tribal party lines.
On current boundaries, which only provide a very rough guide as they will be redrawn by the time of the next general election, there are 120 Labour target seats where the incumbent has a majority of 10% or less. Some 102 of these are held by the Tories, 17 by the SNP and one by Plaid Cymru. Among Conservative-held constituencies, these range from Bury North (Tory majority: 105) and Kensington (150) to Macclesfield (10,711). Of course, in some of these targets the Lib Dems came second in 2019, in which case a comprehensive deal would require Labour to step aside.
This Labour target list includes 42 of the 45 so-called “Red Wall” seats lost to the Conservatives in 2019, most of which are in the Midlands or the north of England. Reversing the bulk of these recent Tory victories is essential for a Labour win. Of these, only ultra-Leave Bassetlaw, Dudley North, and Great Grimsby have Tory majorities of over 10%.
Labour’s 17 SNP targets on this list matter because it is very difficult for Labour to govern even in coalition without making some sort of recovery in Scotland. As recently as 2010 the party banked the lion’s share of Westminster seats, winning 41 of 59, but was reduced to only one, Edinburgh South, in 2019.
Lib-Lab cooperation also would assist the opposition in Scottish and Welsh nationalist constituencies – important because they need to achieve a majority without being propped up by separatists.
Tantalising Tory targets on this list include ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford & Wood Green (majority: 1,262); environment secretary George Eustice at Camborne & Redruth (8,700); and most tempting of all, Johnson himself representing Uxbridge & Ruislip South (7,210), assuming he doesn’t conform to type and do the chicken run to stand in a safer Tory constituency.
Lib Dem targets are fewer and further between than Labour’s but 26 are Tory-held with one SNP constituency, Dunbartonshire East, where the Scottish nationalists defeated ex-Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson in 2019. Prominent Tory names on this list include Dominic Raab at Esher & Walton (majority: 2,743); former Westminster City Council leader Nickie Aiken in the Cities of London & Westminster constituency (3,953); and arch-Europhobe John Redwood’s Wokingham seat (7,383).
Obviously, a Lib-Lab truce means the Lib Dems passing on the two Labour seats where they face majorities of under 10%: Sheffield Hallam (712 majority) and Cambridge (9,639), arguably a price worth paying for the greater good.
May’s local election results for all Scottish and Welsh councils, English council constituencies last contested in 2018, and every councillor in all 32 London boroughs, will provide the opposition with much food for thought. But a great opportunity for a pro-Europe turn in British policy is surely too important for Britain’s main opposition parties to let slide for fear of working together, self-indulgent tribalism or petty partisanship.
Barnaby Towns is a former Tory special adviser and writes on British, European and American politics. Twitter: @barnaby_towns.