When the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip go to the polls on Thursday, whoever they elect seems certain to be a better MP than Boris Johnson.
The by-election’s victor is unlikely to be Richard Hewison, founder of the Rejoin EU Party. But the man stood as its candidate for mayor of London in 2021 and in two subsequent parliamentary by-elections says what matters more to him is keeping pressure on the major parties to shift in a pro-EU direction.
He said: “It’s one by-election. If you think you’re going to change the government with one by-election, you are badly mistaken. The best thing you can do in a by-election is show the government what you really believe in. That’s the best way you can shape politics.”
Uxbridge is widely anticipated to be a competitive race. Although Johnson was comfortably returned with sizeable majorities when he stood there – most recently 7,210 in 2019 – a JL Partners poll recently predicted that Labour could win the seat with 41% to the Conservatives’ 33%.
Every vote for Rejoin EU seems likely to dent Labour’s hopes of a win that would be hugely symbolic, but Hewison sees a large part of his mission as guiding Keir Starmer in an openly pro-Europe direction.
He rejects the notion that EU rejoiners should support Labour in the hopes that Starmer might change course in the long term, saying: “That leaves us in a state where as a society, we’re asked to vote for someone saying the opposite of what we believe based on the assumption they are lying. That’s a horrific state for politics to be in.”
Rejoin EU, named with almost droll simplicity, sees itself in many ways as the reverse UK Independence Party.
When David Cameron announced his intention in January 2013 to offer an in-out referendum on the EU, UKIP, then led by Nigel Farage, was breaking into double digits, riding on a wave of populist resentment channelled towards the European Union.
Fast-forward to the 2015 general election, and UKIP soared into third place by popular vote, getting more crosses at the ballot box than the Lib Dems and SNP combined. Although it only ended up with one seat, the dent its insurgency caused to Britain’s political ecosystem is widely seen as a key facilitator of Brexit.
It took UKIP many years to achieve the level of notoriety that allowed it to wield such influence. And while Britain’s departure from the EU is a recent memory, Rejoin EU hopes to deploy similar tactics to bring the UK back into the bloc.
Although it is yet to gain any electoral traction, it has persistently fielded candidates in by-elections up and down the country since its founding in 2020. If it was the pressure of haemorrhaging support to UKIP that forced the Conservatives towards the Brexit referendum, the Rejoin EU Party aims to use these elections to consolidate a show of support for its own central argument.
As a single-issue party, people of the left and right have been welcomed into the Rejoin EU fold.
Former Conservative MEP Brendan Donnelly has served as party leader since July 2023.
He was elected to the European Parliament as a Conservative in 1994 but left the party over the growing Euroscepticism in its ranks.
Donnelly is also keen to invoke the idea of the Rejoin EU Party as a ‘reverse UKIP’ and sees pursuing single-issue conviction politics as the best way of advancing the party’s argument.
“We’re sometimes accused of encouraging people to waste their votes,” he said. “I can’t think of any worse way of wasting your vote than casting it for a person with whom you radically disagree in the hope they might change it when they get into power.”
While rejoining the EU is far from the top of any of the major parties’ agendas, opinion polling suggests the view is increasingly popular with the British public.
One Omnisis poll from June 2023 even suggested that as many as 50% of Brits favour renewing EU membership.
Donnelly said: “Nobody is willing to say Brexit has been a great success, because it manifestly isn’t. But people haven’t yet come to the view in large numbers that rejoining the EU in the short term is the logical next step.
“But there’s no doubt that opinion is shifting. Who knows where it’s going to be in a year’s time?”