RACHEL JOHNSON: The inside story of Change UK's failure
PUBLISHED: 19:11 08 June 2019
RACHEL JOHNSON on the disappointment of a European election campaign that ended in a limbo-dance with UKIP...
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I have had REM's Losing My Religion on the brain ever since my party, Change UK, managed to win nul seats in the European parliament elections. It was a disappointing end to a campaign that began with tails up but ended with us and UKIP limbo-dancing to see who could go lower on the night.
My failure was seized on with glee by international and national media. Strangers sought me out on Instagram to tell me that I had been "humped" and "humiliated" by Ann Widdecombe, whose Brexit Party wiped the floor with the rest of the field.
The Spectator's blogger lost no time in noting that Change UK's percentage of the vote in the south west, where I was proud to serve as lead candidate in our slate of six, was 2.7%, as opposed to 3.4% across the board. "If Change UK was hoping that it's 'star' candidates would win it favour with the electorate and boost its appeal, it will be disappointed tonight," Steerpike reported.
I am still glad Change UK went for it. Don't forget that the Tiggers had been released into the wild only a few short months and when it morphed into Change UK to contest the European elections, it had been a party less than a fortnight. Then, as you will recall, the Tiggers were on 17% of the vote. If they had continued to claim that share under the impenetrable d'Hondt system of PR, they would have elected a number of Change UK candidates, rather than none.
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The problem is, we didn't. With hindsight it is easy to see what went wrong. The local elections intervened, the Lib Dems had a bounce, then everyone was cross at the idea of us splitting the Remain vote, and we were spanked in the polling booths across Britain.
On election day, I went out to dinner after canvassing and leafleting in Bristol. My host said that he had seen a poll in which Change UK were registering 0%. This seemed to amuse him. I drove down to the results in Poole on the Sunday safe in the knowledge that I would, unlike Annunziata Rees-Mogg, Claire Fox et al, be in no danger of spending even three months in Brussels, let alone five years.
We arrived in Poole in mid-afternoon and immediately headed out to the pub to start drowning our sorrows in local ales. The Poole Arms did us some Dorset crab, and then we went to the count, which was where - if we had any to begin with - we abandoned all hope after entering the Arts Centre. Bright blue Brexit piles mounted, while our slender sheaves of Change UK votes, in putty coloured wrappers, sat forlornly to one side. It was over. The bottle of Champagne on ice in the staff fridge hotel on the quay (the most overpriced motel in the south west - £140 for a tiny, hot box!) would be unpopped. But we still had to get through the declaration.
Sarah Wollaston MP said that as it was not going to be "our night" - talk about understatement - we didn't have to stay till the bitter end. "Pre-record a concession with a big smile on your face, and go back and have a stiff drink," was her advice.
From about 10pm the regional counts reported their votes and, yes, we were level pegging with UKIP. My husband had come along and sat with his Bluetooth headphones listening to the sages of psephology, John Curtice and Laura Kuenssberg, as I kept smiling, in case the cameras caught me glum-faced. I even hugged Ann Widdecombe.
When the results were declared Widdy whooped and threw open her arms and turned her face to the heavens in ecstasy. The blessed will of the people had given the rest of us a bloody nose! I hid behind the triumphant Green.
A narrative takes hold. The new party is a flop, says Twitter, or the Guardian's John Crace, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I hope not. Forget the Lib Dems, Bollocks to Brexit, these Change UK MPs showed balls of steel in trying to create a new centre ground party. Their mistake was thinking that if they built it, millions would come, even though there was no structure, organisation, or money, while the Lib Dems are battle-hardened vets of the ballot box with a fabled ground game. In the end, we got 600,000 votes. Not bad for a standing start, but then - the Brexit Party got 5 million. It was a failure, but I hope a heroic one. As Henry Porter just texted me. "Always the bravest thing is to fight a battle you expect to lose." Oh no that's got me going again. That's me in the corner… that's me in the spotlight… losing my election.
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