Brexit weekly briefing: panic as Farage polls highest for EU elections

Jon Henley


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Having wreaked havoc on the local elections, Brexit looks set to do the same on the European elections: the latest polling for the Observer puts Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on 34% – more than Labour (21%) and the Tories (a catastrophic 11%) combined.

The news sparked near-panic in Britain’s two biggest parties, while the former Ukip leader insisted a win for his month-old party on 23 May would force MPs to reconsider the idea of leaving the EU without a deal, which they have already rejected.

Amid growing doubts about how long she can survive, Theresa May rebuffed the latest calls for her to step down, saying talks with Labour would resume this week and changes to the political declaration – likely to include a customs arrangement, workers’ rights and environmental protections – would then be taken to the EU.

The EU has long said it is more than willing to consider such changes – which would affect the accompanying non-binding text on future relations but not the withdrawal agreement itself – to help get Brexit over the line, and May has hinted MPs could possibly vote again on her Brexit deal before the European elections.

But would her deal get through parliament at the fourth time of asking? Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said any cross-party deal would fail to win majority support in parliament if it did not include a confirmatory vote because up to 150 Labour MPs would not back it.

Labour, which launched its EU election campaign last week with Jeremy Corbyn continuing to resist pressure to declare the party for remain, is deeply split on holding a second referendum. Corbyn, the party leader, opposes it; others, including deputy leader Tom Watson, insist one would be needed for any deal to pass.

The problem for May, who is currently opposed to a second vote, is that even if she did offer the option of another referendum in order to win over Labour MPs to her deal, she would almost certainly lose the support of many Conservatives in parliament. Not for the first time during the Brexit process, she is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What next

The Tories are forecast to take a battering of historic proportions in the European elections, with some polls suggesting up to 60% of supporters may choose to back the Brexit party, and few see the prime minister lasting long beyond that. She also faces another stormy meeting with the 1922 Committee this week.

There are persistent rumours that she is coming under cabinet pressure to abandon cross-party talks and instead gamble everything on a last-gasp parliamentary agreement through another series of indicative votes after the European poll.

But even if the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has described a second referendum as “a betrayal”, more and more observers feel this is where we may now end up, with the choice possibly being between no deal and no Brexit.

“Leaving with a deal is dead: the numbers aren’t there for May’s deal, and the EU won’t negotiate a new one even with a new Tory leader,” said the former chancellor, George Osborne. But, he added, there was also no Commons majority for no deal – so the only way forward, for both camps, may be a second referendum.

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The Observer’s editorial says neither of the main parties has done enough to challenge Nigel Farage’s malign message, and it will soon be too late:

It’s not too late to challenge the untruths of the Farage brand of politics. But both parties are on the brink of the ultimate capitulation: delivering Brexit, in the naive hope it will make the Farage threat go away. But he stands poised with a betrayal narrative regardless of what happens next: whether politicians hold a confirmatory referendum; whether we get a soft Brexit that leaves Britain a rule taker; or whether there is a hard Brexit that acutely widens regional inequalities. By swallowing the Farage message that Brexit can help fix Britain, Corbyn and May are as much agents of his success as the man himself.

Mujtaba Rahman reckons Tory members clearly prefer leadership hopefuls keen to crash out of the EU – but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen:

Being prepared to leave without a deal is a virility test in the Tory leadership stakes. An election to choose May’s successor will happen at some point this year. The contenders know that opinion polls show three out of four Tory party members, who make the final choice, back no deal. So they nod and wink in that direction, ignoring the parliamentary arithmetic: there is no Commons majority for such an exit … If Prime Minister Johnson or Raab proposed leaving without an agreement, MPs would find a way to prevent a crash-out. So a no-deal PM might have no option but to call an election to try to win a mandate for such a departure. The bottom line is: a general election is far more likely than no deal. On the EU side, another extension is still more likely than no deal – especially if a new prime minister is in place and a general election or referendum look likely. The EU won’t want to be blamed for no deal. So don’t believe the headlines or noise from cabinet or Westminster. Despite the political bluster, no deal is still the least likely of all Brexit outcomes.

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