The Brexit Party blinked

The Brexit Party blinked

The decision to withdraw candidates means many people cannot vote for a clean-break Brexit.

James Heartfield

Topics Brexit Politics UK

When the country voted, by 17.4million to 16.1million votes, to leave the European Union, it was a decisive blow for democracy in the face of a concerted establishment campaign to maintain the old order.

The issue of the referendum was clear. Should Britain be a democratic country that makes its own laws or should it have laws written in Brussels? The Leave vote was heterogeneous, drawing on disappointed supporters of both the Conservative and Labour parties. But there were also a great number of first-time voters with no party allegiance. The sentiment that drove the vote was a marked disaffection with the mainstream political machines.

The paradox of the referendum was that the people who opposed the Leave vote were still in charge of the government tasked with enacting it. The Conservative Party’s leadership campaign put Theresa May in charge. The 2017 election clarified very little because of the fundamentally dishonest approach of the mainstream parties. Both stood on a commitment to honour the vote but the representatives they stood were significantly opposed to seeing that through, as became clear.

May had campaigned for a Remain vote and only reluctantly accepted the outcome of the referendum. She told allies that she hoped to mitigate the worst effects of the decision taken by the people in the referendum, which means she wanted to neuter Brexit.

The Withdrawal Agreement that May negotiated was rightly called Brexit in Name Only – BRINO. It left Britain outside of the decision-making mechanisms of the European Union but still subject to European Union law.

The establishment campaign for Remain regrouped and has made a concerted effort to undo the decision to leave and undermine the support for it. The government pursued a policy of delay, hoping the Leave sentiment would dissipate.

They were helped by the relative lack of organisation in the Leave camp. The UK Independence Party was destabilised by the decision. If Mrs May was intent on leaving, as she said publicly, then their fox had been shot. Labour and Conservative Leave voters, too, were disarmed by the government’s stated position that we would leave.

Without sustained pressure from Leavers, the elite recovered confidence that it would manage to derail the Brexit decision behind closed doors. The Westminster parliament turned into a forum for picking Brexit apart. Roland Rudd’s People’s Vote campaign organised large demonstrations of the middle classes, pained by the unexpected impact of the masses on British political life. That gave May the confidence to push ahead with her BRINO Withdrawal Agreement.

When it became clear that the negotiations were still meandering on, and that the March 2019 deadline would be replaced by an extension to 31 October, it seemed as if the Remain campaign had succeeded in slowly winding down the mood for leaving and would drag things out indefinitely.

With the deadline approaching, key figures in the Leave.EU campaign – Richard Tice and Nigel Farage – set up the Brexit Party to contest the European elections in May 2019. The organisation was thrown together very quickly but succeeded in winning the largest number of British seats in the European Parliament. It was a remarkable turnaround that revived the Leave campaign by giving it the organisational focus of the Euro-elections. The support for the new Brexit Party came from disaffected Tory and Labour voters.

The impact of the European elections overturned all previous expectations. The Conservative Party was decimated. Labour’s prevarication on Brexit was exposed as significant numbers of Labour supporters shifted to support the Brexit Party, while their urban middle-class vote switched to the Lib Dems.

The challenge was clear. A Westminster parliament that squandered Brexit was in danger of being swept aside by rebellious voters at the next election. The team at the Brexit Party headquarters set about recruiting 650 prospective parliamentary candidates to stand.

The impact on the parties was marked. The Labour Party was being squeezed on both sides. Tragically, for both its electoral position and its soul, Labour pitched more determinedly into the Remain camp. The Tories went the other way. May was persuaded to stand down. Boris Johnson, who had played a leading part in the official Leave campaign, overwhelmingly won the vote among Tory party members, bruised by the betrayal of Brexit. Though the Tory Remain MPs made life difficult for Johnson, his core team was determined to embrace the Brexit rebellion.

Over the summer, Johnson pitched hard in the direction of the Brexit Party’s policy, slowly squeezing its support. He reopened negotiations with the EU and even threatened the possibility of No Deal. To emphasise his sincerity, he ordered the civil service to prepare to leave on 31 October. This was an elite campaign led by ministers and (reluctant) civil servants, and so once again Brexit was taken off the streets and put into the corridors of power.

The Brexit Party was under pressure. But its hope was that if Johnson failed to leave by the new deadline, then voters would see through his rhetoric and blame him for stalling once again. But Johnson effectively shifted the blame for the delay on to the stalling parliament. The unstated meaning of Boris’s slogan ‘Get Brexit done’ is ‘Get Brexit out of the way’, so that we can get back to business as usual.

The new Withdrawal Agreement that Johnson struck with the EU was different from Theresa May’s, but how much was open to question. Nigel Farage argued that it was really Brexit in Name Only, like May’s. I agree with him. The Brexit Party argued for a ‘clean-break Brexit’ – that is, to leave without a deal and trade under WTO terms.

The net effect of both the new Withdrawal Agreement and the renewed Conservative campaign to own Brexit was that, once again, the popular movement for democracy would be contained and power concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite.

The pressure on the Brexit Party to sustain the campaign was considerable. Many of the supporters they had recruited over the summer – including prospective parliamentary candidates – were drifting back to Boris’s more Brexity Conservative Party. Worse, the Conservatives claimed the Brexit Party were jeopardising the very thing it said it wanted – Brexit – because it would split the Leave vote, letting the Remain parties win a majority. Johnson’s polling numbers continued to recover while the Brexit Party’s were squeezed.

It was under this pressure that the Brexit Party had to look at its options for the coming General Election and decided not to contest Conservative-held seats but only Labour and Lib Dem seats. The rationale for doing so is that the Conservative Party’s stated policy is to leave while both the Lib Dems and Labour are for Remain, whether through revoking Article 50 or a second referendum.

The decision to pull back and fight fewer seats is a practical response to less favourable polling numbers. But the decision not to contest the Conservative Party effectively means that there is no national option to vote for a ‘clean-break Brexit’. The case against the new Withdrawal Agreement – the difference between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party – is no longer clearly expressed in the election.

The decision has caused some heartache among Brexit Party supporters and candidates who were called upon to stand down. It has also led many to gloat at the Brexit Party’s retreat. Those blaming Nigel Farage are not really taking into account his more than 20 years fighting for Britain to leave the EU.

Overall, the main lesson of the three-and-a-half years since the referendum is that the establishment parties were always determined to undo what was in effect a challenge to their authority. The Conservative leadership has done so by embracing Brexit in order to neuter it. Labour and the Lib Dems have set their faces against it.

What is left in the election are lots of rebel candidates who want to fight for democracy. Brexit Party candidates – like Pete Wiltshire in Wakefield, James Woudhuysen in Carshalton and Wallington, Catherine Cui in Poplar and Limehouse, Paddy Hannam in South Islington, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in East Ham, Michelle Dewberry in Hull, and many more – are still raising the flag for Brexit. There are former Brexit Party candidates, too, who have chosen to stand as independent Brexiteers, like Caroline Coram in Sleaford and South Wykeham and Paulette Furse in Sevenoaks. And there are other independents, like the Lexiteers’ champion, George Galloway, in West Bromwich East.

The referendum vote was a significant moment in the revival of democratic politics in Britain. Now, the old parties are trying to claw their way back to power. It is always harder to fight on the back foot, but in the end the problem that the Leave vote highlighted has not gone away. Political parties that aim to rule behind the backs of the people will be exposed again and again. Every vote for democracy we win today will count in the future.

James Heartfield is co-author of The Blood Stained Poppy, published by Zero Books. Order a copy here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Jerry Owen

19th November 2019 at 9:14 am

Nigel Farage despite my huge respect for him ( and I have seen him speak .. a great orator ) has set leaving the EU back many years. He had the golden opportunity to break the old mold, did he forget TBP won .. yes won the euro elections !
Forget the polls and Farage no doubt looked at them, we all know that probably TBP would gain another 3-4 per cent above their poll rankings in an election due to the fact that many would not be honest with a pollster about their voting intentions.
Farage has two weaknesses, one is that he is naive and two I suspect he is tired.
He buckled to Johnson who let’s be honest is a dreadful politician a dreadful orator, a dreadful bore and out of touch with public sentiment. This is the man who will be next PM , how we have sunk to elect such poverty.
Farage should have stood everywhere, and yes if that ended up with corbyn as PM then so be it. Personally Corbyn as PM is the stuff of nightmares and gulags but to open peoples eyes up to the reality of where we are, where our defunct self serving political system is needs that huge shock, and Corbyn’s labour would be one seismic shock. Farage had the best opportunity I have ever witnessed to smash the old two party system apart and he bottled it.
Now its politics as usual Johnson is happy the tories are happy and why not it’s business as usual.
Farage squandered the hopes of millions, this was about more than Brexit, now it’s not even about Brexit , a real tragedy.

Marvin Jones

26th November 2019 at 12:13 pm

I posted a comment that was almost identical to yours. I agree that Farage should have put Johnson
in a situation where he would have had to join forces, and with a bit of logic and intellectual scheming, the two could have cleanse the house of these traitors and cowards who cannot survive unless they are attached to the udders of Europe. Like the cowards that this country has produced since the war ended, people have stopped realising that insisting that we were adamant about WTO, we would virtually have got any deal we wanted. So much like Farage could have got with Johnson and the threat to demise in politics to the top job.

david Oxley

19th November 2019 at 9:00 am

I agree with James article, and would point out that Spiked supporters have thought all along, the Brexit Party is an unlikely alliance of differing views built by Farage and Tice and was always been conflicted between some radical elements like Claire Fox and many of its supporters and the ‘Tory lite’.
The More radical policies like Abolish the House of Lords or supporting Free Speech have a strong appeal to Brexit supporters but the leadership of the BP were always likely to slide and it now looks like Brexit itself is being morphed into Canada+.
However, Abolishing the House of Lords is still on the policy sheet, Brexit is still the aim of the Brexit Party and that puts it ahead of any other Party in this General Election and we should still campaign, support and vote for the BP.
In 2017 I held my nose and voted for the Tories to deliver Brexit I will do the same in this Election and vote for the Brexit Candidate and campaign with those fighting for a more radical set of Policies, like Paul Thomas and Inaya Folarin Iman, who still support a clean Break Brexit.
This is not perfect, the BP supports some of the policies we can get behind and some we are less happy with, but there is still enough there to allow discussion and debate on what kind of democratic society we want to build, the voters are still angry about the political establishment and their inability to deliver what we voted for.
Do not underestimate the ability of the voters to see that Farage sucking up to the Tories as a sell out, they want Brexit and will continue to demand that.
Sometimes in life if you want to do a tough job you need an ugly tool and once it’s done cast it aside. The BP is that ugly tool today and Farage may think he’s King of the Hill but if he falters we will need to fight again for Brexit and democracy.

Mike Ellwood

18th November 2019 at 10:33 pm

Slightly off-topic, but some goodish news for a change. For once the spoilt children of the LibDems and the SNP didn’t get their way in court:

Of course, they won’t leave it there. They”’ try again with their pals in the Supreme Court.

Cue more Baroness Hale sycophancy in the Remedia.

Steve Roberts

18th November 2019 at 7:04 pm

Mostly a good chronological and political description of the story so far. But” Every vote for democracy we win today will count in the future” seems far too ambiguous.
And while it is true ” Political parties that aim to rule behind the backs of the people will be exposed again ” that exposure is not enough, the level of self exposure of a ruling elite has never been so overt and profound, what is more important is how democrats respond to the gauntlet that has being laid down to all citizens, they have made it clear they will stop at nothing to ensure the will of the people is not the deciding factor in society.
Heartfield makes clear the Labour Party is entirely conflicted, permanently so, it will continue to exist but its historical role in society is over, its social base destroyed whatever happens in the GE.
He also points to the conflicts within the Conservative party, but as has mostly being the case previously they tend to be more pragmatic, more able to adapt, after all they are the ultimate party of the status quo, to conserve , the clue is in the name, hence, as described, the arrival of Johnson and attempt to take on the Brexit mantle.
Heartfield is too kind here regards TBP i think, remember we are discussing the organisation itself and its purpose as opposed to some very good individuals within it, some of whom are named, and there are others.
The obliteration of the CUP in the EU elections showed the way forward, that’s when the democratic surge from the referendum came to the fore again, there was hope and belief aplenty, the number of leave constituencies nationally offered a real chance to change politics for good, the people were ready if TBP was not, despite its assertions.
I believe it is not the lower poll showings that made TBP make the huge decisions it has, that can be passed off as tactical, though extremely antidemocratic and dictatorial, TBP saying it knows better than the electorate, that it would “deal” with one set of antidemocratic forces LP.LD’s etc in the GE, and then miraculously “deal” with the other reamin antidemocrats, the CUP afterwards, holding their feet to the brexit fire etc.
No i think that TBP leadership has refused to contemplate the possible electoral oblivion of the CUP, remember while tory leavers were bleeding back to the CUP, if Farage had at that time said unequivocally that there would never be any pact with a party trying to force a remain treaty through the HOC he could have stopped that bleeding, either way that was not for him to decide by writing off all those constituencies, it was for the electorate to decide as TBP had promised to stand everywhere.
TBP had a historical opportunity to change politics for good, it has reneged on that, it has betrayed the brave electorate from the referendum and EU elections.
There was no question of splitting the “leave” vote, the CUP, LP, LD are all remainer parties, TBP should have given the electorate the chance to put democracy truly on the map again with the social force of the people ready to do so, instead they have enacted strategy that will save the CUP.
That should disturb all democrats, giving a remainer party an effective free hand to build a parliamentary majority when its ambition is to remain in some form or another while at the same time TBP primarily targetting a relatively small number of LP held seats, for it is likely a small amount that will receive the resources necessary,it is machine politics playing with people, exactly the sort of thing that people voted for a change from in the referendum, a change from the status quo, not an accommodation to it.

amanda hunter

19th November 2019 at 1:51 am

As an ex-PCC of the Brexit Party, I agree with your analysis. I will continue to lend the Party my support, as it remains the only party advocating a clean-break Brexit, but will also continue to voice my criticisms of the Party for the political misjudgements and mistakes it has made, most importantly the failure to capitalize on and build upon the initial surge of enthusiasm and spirit of hope its launch engendered.

To have succeeded in doing so would have meant abandoning the ways of the established political parties and building an active grassroots support base across the country to galvanise wider support, and strengthen and give voice to the nascent democratic movement that was beginning to emerge.

Instead of involving PPCs and supporters more directly in its activities and decisions, it adopted the top-down approach favoured by the established political parties, controlling everything from above with very little dialogue with the people trying to build and strengthen support for the party on the ground. This stiflled initiative and killed off initial enthusiasm and momentum.

A second lost opportunity was the failure to capitalize on anti-establishment feeling and differentiate the Party from the incumbent political class. Instead of attacking the Supreme Court, for example, for its anti-democratic interference in political matters, the Party attacked Johnson and Dominic Cummings personally.

The Brexit Party had the potential to bring about significant change to our political system, but by following the course it did, and by standing down half its candidates at the eleventh hour, it severely diminished that potential.

One hopes that lessons will be learnt and that the Party succeeds in rebuilding and strengthening its support base. Involving its supporters and the wider public in an open debate about the meaning of democracy and the kind of democratic society we aspire to live in post-Brexit, would be a good place to start. If that opportunity is not grasped, we will need to build a new vehicle to deliver the fundamental political and economic change our country needs.

In the meantime, we have an election, and if we want Brexit to happen, we have only one choice, and that is to vote for Brexit Party candidates where we can, or pro-Brexit independents where none are standing.

James Knight

18th November 2019 at 4:37 pm

3 years spent “negotiating” the divorce settlement the EU wanted rather than a clean break with a straightforward trade deal. Laughable that they point to the “political declaration” as evidence Brexit is on track, we don’t need or want a “political” declaration. The point of Brexit was to escape the “political” union. They haven’t even bothered to disguise they are concocting another EU treaty rather than Brexit.

So now Brexit lies discredited and the establishment will continue to grind people down with fatigue so that we have Johnson saying “Get Brexit Done” like it is the washing up.

Marvin Jones

26th November 2019 at 12:19 pm

You are so correct. Without a WTO Brexit, we have succumbed to the enemy, they have won, simply because Brino is the first rung of the ladder to going back as full members, and eternal captivity.

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18th November 2019 at 4:32 pm

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steve moxon

18th November 2019 at 3:40 pm

The problem is that the electorate are not just disenfranchised re a proper BREXIT, but are disenfranchised re the whole elitist-separatist project, with all the major parties being ‘identity politics’ totalitarian (‘PC-‘fascist), and even the BP kow-towing to it.
Nigel Farage has made a 20-year-long blunder of building a single issue politics re the EU because he failed to see this is a symptom of a much wider disease, and that the only way to fight it is as a new political party with across-the-board policies to fight the Left elite.
The elite are never going to allow any meaningful proportional representation, so the only way is to build a new party to replace both Liebore and the Tawdries, and the elite hiding behind these fake ‘one nation’ parties can go off to the Glib Dems.
Farage, for all his good work against the EU, has been an obstacle to this, putting it back 10 to 20 years.

Stephen J

18th November 2019 at 1:52 pm

I reckon that he had no choice, where I did think he erred was not standing himself, he should have gone back to South Thanet where he had a majority with UKIP, despite the fact that it was stolen by the tories… We all know that he was the winner there.

But anyway, Brexit has not been the issue for a while now… Rather it is that the microscopic amount of democracy won by ordinary folk over the last couple of hundred years has just been removed by people who are currently very pleased with themselves.

There is plenty for an outfit like the Brexit Party to do, possibly with a new moniker, because we have just been sent back to the eighteenth century in psephological terms… well voting is just as meaningless anyway.

Michael Lynch

18th November 2019 at 11:38 am

He’s in an impossible situation. A chance for any type of Brexit could be lost if the Leave vote is split – that is the reality that Leavers face. The first past the post system is not representative democracy and it has to played like a game of chance. He’s just being canny and it should propel the Tories into a clear majority. The BP may even end up with a few seats which will make all the difference in Parliament. Let’s hope so anyway.

Marvin Jones

18th November 2019 at 11:21 am

The ultimate reality in British politics is, that full, total and all out Brexit does not exist. After forty odd years of bowing, scraping, worshipping and obeying our masters in Europe, we have been imprisoned in their rules, laws and structures forever. After three and a half years of ranting and screaming at TV screens and radios, and idiotic and naïve politicians, advisers and so called experts, because of the equal split of the two sides, I cannot ever see us leaving fully.

H McLean

18th November 2019 at 2:33 am

The best outcome for Brexit Britain would be if the Conservatives win as largest party but need an alliance with incoming Brexit Party MPs in order to form government. It would mean the Conservatives would be forced to enact a real Brexit, one with as few ties to the EU as possible.

Farage may have blundered spectacularly by refusing to stand against incumbent Tories but a coalition with a Boris-led government would offer him one last chance to redeem himself.

It’s a lot of ifs and buts and politics never fails to disappoint but there’s always a chance, even if it’s only a slim one.


18th November 2019 at 9:43 am

Essentially I agree with this analysis, but think that Farage and others who regard the establishment of some sort of functioning, responsive, democracy in this country as the priority have been placed in an impossible position. Being realistic, a Conservative government offers the only immediate hope for advancing that cause. Any initial step will almost certainly be a small and inadequate one, but it will be in the right direction. The alternative is a period (which given the powers granted to the anti-democrats by the Fixed Term Parliament could be as long as five years) of continued stalemate and even retrenchment. However, I am hopeful that the genie cannot now be stuffed back into the lamp. Even a government headed by the likes of Jo Swinson, Dominic Grieve, Hilary Benn, Ian Blackford and Caroline Lucas is scarcely going to be able to hold back the tide for ever, not – at least – without implementing measures that are so nakedly anti-democratic that even our mainstream media feels compelled to call them out.

Mike Ellwood

18th November 2019 at 1:06 pm

Agreed. (with H MCLEAN – 18th November 2019 at 2:33 am).

This article is a pretty fair assessment of the overall situation as I see it.

A couple of factors cross my mind:

What will be the ongoing role of the Brexit Party MEPs in the immediate & short-term future?

What’s going to happen about our not-yet-appointed Commissioner?

Jim Lawrie

18th November 2019 at 1:10 pm

The Conservatives with win an overall majority will set about the task of telling us what we really voted for. Ditto Labour. Or a coalition.
Nigel Farage knows this. His Party is unprepared, its membership uncommitted or excluded, and many of his candidates are repugnant. They have not even had a Party Conference. On their website they have something called The Brexit Club – £100 per month to join. To be a supporter is £25 per annum. They have no structure. One of their candidates lives in Australia.

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