After Brexit, What Next for the Brexit Party?
The European Union has got itself into a mess over the procurement of anti-Covid vaccines. Its inability to act promptly, and the complicated political, diplomatic and legal processes required to salve the needs of the European Commission, 27 member states and domestic pharmaceutical interests, contrasts with the nimble response of the British government, and its vaccine task force by Kate Bingham.
For many Brexiteers, the vaccine debacle, and the failure of statecraft that it represents, is a core example of why they argued to leave the European Union – that Britain is better taking its own decisions, plotting its own route, and making alliances as it sees fit. Having ‘got Brexit done’ however, Boris Johnson is mistaken if he believes that some of the unruly political forces of the past decade will now go gently into the good night.
A whole host of pro-Brexit parties wait in the wings for any stumble or sign of weakness from the Prime Minister towards Brussels, sniffing the air for the big campaigning issue that would allow them to make their mark. Some, like the rejuvenated Social Democratic Party (SDP) enjoy a strong intellectual base, but without electoral progress risk remaining chiefs without Indians. Others, like Lawrence Fox’s Reclaim Party, or David Kurten’s Heritage Party, possess articulate leaders, but lack regional, never mind national presence. Having suffered a disastrous showing in the 2019 European parliament elections, the party for so long associated with Brexit, UKIP, is trying to re-establish itself after a characteristic period of internecine conflict. The arrival of social media controversialist Katie Hopkins to its ranks will bring renewed publicity, if not stability.
Perhaps the politician most associated with Brexit, and capable of appealing to both Conservative voters in the south of England and former Labour voters in red wall seats, is Nigel Farage. The Conservative party in particular observes Farage with a degree of nervousness. In 2019 the ex-UKIP leader was able to form the Brexit Party from scratch, and within a few months lead it to an astounding victory in the 2019 EU election. Its 5.2 million votes were 30% of those cast, more than Labour and Conservative combined, and won it 29 seats (the equal largest party in the Brussels parliament). The Conservatives were pushed down to 8.8%, a humiliation from which Theresa May’s premiership never recovered.
Farage has now turned the Brexit Party into Reform UK, and seeks to again break the political mould. Richard Tice, the party’s Chairman, is questioning the economic effects of lockdown, and is reportedly interesting in standing against Sadiq Khan as London Mayor. Whilst Khan’s lead in the polls appears unassailable, a strong showing could help Reform UK gain seats in the Greater London Assembly. There, Tice would relish questioning Khan, who tends to become distinctly prickly when challenged on his record. Elections to the Welsh assembly, where pro-Brexit parties have in the past done well, plus those in the English regions present further opportunities.
Success, however, is far from a given. Reform UK appears set to copy the Brexit Party’s unusual organising structure, of having paid up supporters, rather than full party members. Instead of one member one vote, registered supporters of the Brexit Party were asked to vote by email on potential policy options. As Reform UK develops, that may not be enough to keep committed activists happy. Whilst Farage is undoubtedly a big beast in political terms, he is a marmite politician (either loved or hated) and his parties have traditionally done far better in elections decided by versions of proportional representation (as London, Scotland and Wales will be) than first past the post. As the Covid vaccine is distributed across the country, Reform UK will be under pressure from lockdown sceptics to oppose ongoing restrictions, and press for the quickest possible return to normality. However, critics of lockdown have tended to overlook that however damaging to the economy, public support for it, in opinion poll data, has tended to be strong.
For now, though, optimism is the watchword. Consider Jonathan Bullock, former Brexit Party MEP for the East Midlands, who has warmly welcomed Reform UK stepping up its activity. He said: “It is clear with the two major parties supporting an extreme lockdown, costly green energy policies and wasteful schemes such as the HS2 rail project, that there is a need for a real opposition party in the U.K. which will also hold the Government to account on Brexit delivery and control of immigration.”
Brexit may be done. But the Brexit Party, in its new guise as Reform UK, may yet have some life in it.
Dr Paul Stott