Richard North, 28/05/2019  

Going back thirty years, politics to me was trade politics and I was actively engaged in what quickly became known as the Salmonella in eggs scare. But one of the hardest things to take was the torrent of ill-informed media coverage which had little to do with the reality of what was going on.

As the headlines poured out their misinformation, it got to the point where I could not bear to look at the papers or watch television. I had to switch off from the media completely until things calmed down – such was their degree of disconnect.

Right now, I get the same feeling with the coverage of the Euro-elections – the media has just become noise, lacking coherence or intelligence, failing in its most basic of functions of providing reliable information or reasoned analysis. The only sensible thing to do if one wants to stay in touch with reality is to shut it out.

One of the most fundamental defects in the reportage is the failure to evaluate the results in the context of what in fact is a low-turnout, low-interest election. Not least, with the results fully in, we're seeing the Farage Party gain 29 seats with a total vote of 5,248,533 as opposed to the referendum result which had 17,410,742 voting leave.

If we can assume that those who voted for Farage also voted "leave" in the referendum, that only means that 30 percent of the referendum's leave voters actually voted for Farage. On no grounds and under no circumstances, therefore, can Farage be taken to represent the totality of leavers. All he can claim is a minority interest, amounting to less than a third.

As for the overheated predictions that Farage is now a serious contender in the forthcoming general election, if we just look at the 2017 election, where no party gained an overall majority, the Conservatives with the highest number of votes, still took 13,636,684 votes. On that basis, to win the next election, the Farage Party would have to double its vote and then some.

Yet, experience of the Farage-led Ukip indicates that, whatever they might gain in the Euro-elections, they will take only a fraction in the general. Thus, while Ukip gained 4,376,635 in the 2014 Euro-elections, a year later in the general it recorded a mere 3,881,099 votes – reduction on the previous vote against a much higher turnout.

And yet, there are those who are suggesting that the election could be different this time, although they are somewhat at risk of wanting it both ways. The very essence of the support for Farage was that it was a protest vote in an election which didn't matter, where people were prepared to take a risk-free punt.

In a general election, however, it gets serious. People know that they are electing a government and are thus less inclined to take risks. Thus, time after time, where we see outliers in peripheral elections, the electorate tend to focus on the parties most likely to be able to form a government.

Then, as I pointed out last night, while Farage has done well, his achievement falls considerably short of spectacular. As the natural heir to the Ukip vote, he has to be measured against the 2014 baseline, where the party he then led took 24 seats. This time round, he's taken 29, a gain of a mere five seats.

Considering the amount of free publicity he's been getting, against the backdrop of a collapse in the Tory vote and a serious contraction in Labour, this is no great achievement, considering that his two rivals have shed 25 seats between them. By contrast, the pro-EU Lib-Dems have picked up 15 more seats, the Greens have taken another four and the SNP have added one to the two they already had.

Thus, measured in terms of gains, the party unequivocally in favour of a no-deal Brexit has gained five seats, as opposed to the pro-EU parties which have taken 20 of the seats shed by the Tories and Labour.

Now that the full results are in, we can also tot up the votes for the parties which have unequivocally declared their positions. On that basis, we can discount the ambiguity of Labour and the Tories in the throes of a leadership contest.

On the "leave" side, we have the Farage Party and Ukip taking 5.8 million votes, ranged against the Lib-Dems, the Greens, the SNP and Change UK. Collectively supporting EU membership, they took 6.6 million votes. That's a bigger margin than we saw in the 2016 referendum.

What this says is that the UK results of the Euro-elections can't be taken as a re-run of the referendum. There is a valid and entirely credible argument for declaring that the pro-EU sentiment came out ahead. And, once again, one has to state that there is no clear (or any) mandate for a no-deal Brexit.

There is then the third pillar which points us away from any specific mandate – the turnout, compared with the votes cast. With Farage taking 31.6 percent of the votes cast, from a corrected turnout of 36.9 percent, that means that only 11.6 percent of the electorate could be bothered to give him their votes.

This is not the start of a great revolution that Farage would have us believe. He doesn't even represent the majority of leavers, and has absolutely no claim to speak for the nation. Apart from not having an absolute majority of the votes cast, the low turnout – increased by a mere 1.8 percent – destroys the legitimacy of any claim to universal representation.

Yet, for all that, there is a distinct possibility that the Farage "victory" will cast a shadow over the Tory leadership contest. We know that Boris the turd-giver has already committed to a no-deal Brexit – in the absence of a renegotiated settlement (which he won't get) – but the danger is that some of the more "moderate" candidates may misread the signs and also opt for a hard line exit.

This, according to The Times, already seems to be happening, after Dominic Raab has stated that the Tories' disastrous performance meant that the party needed to show "unflinching resolve" to "get on and leave the EU" even without a deal.

But, if there is one clear message to be drawn from the Euro-elections, it is not how much support Farage has, but how little – alongside the evidence that "no deal" is the minority view. After all, Farage could not have made his position more clear, giving supporters of a no-deal Brexit the opportunity to express their views, yet less than 12 percent of the electorate took that opportunity.

On the other hand, while Corbyn seems to be drifting towards a second referendum – already favoured by the Lib-Dems - it cannot be said that the election just past demonstrates unequivocal support for this course of action.

In an attempt to divine some sense out of the situation, Lord Ashcroft has commissioned a poll which indicated that nearly two thirds (64 percent) of 2016 Leave voters backed the Farage Party. And therein lies the rub. Two thirds may say they support Farage, but two-thirds didn't vote for his party.

What comes over most clearly though is that the Farage Party was used as a receptacle for the protest vote, with 84 percent of self-declared supporters saying they wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the UK government's current negotiating position.

Interestingly, only two thirds (67 percent) of Farage's supporters said the best outcome from the Brexit process would be for the UK to leave the EU without a deal. A further 23 percent wanted to leave with a deal different from the one negotiated by Theresa May, although theirs was not the no-deal path. Thus, the actual support for the Farage policy may not be just under 12 percent of the electorate but closer to seven percent.

As to the general election, of the Tories who switched to Farage, only 52 percent say they will stay put. Currently, a third intend to go back home. That, however, is before the outcome of the leadership contest is known. And although the Conservative "brand" is highly toxic, a new leader could transform the party's image.

Needless to say, the hubris of Farage knows no bounds, as he rashly capitalises on his slender success to stake out a position for the general election. But, as the Financial Times points out, a general election could sorely test the party, including its ability to be a united force. Its newly elected MEPs are both left and right wing - such as ex-Communist Claire Fox and Richard Tice, a property developer and ex-Tory.

So far, Farage's Party has prospered by deliberately having no manifesto, thereby avoiding internal disputes over policy issues. This, though, is the fatal error made by Vote Leave, which has been one of the main contributors to the Brexit impasse. Once Farage attempts to create policy, the cracks between the disparate factions in his party will begin to show.

Finding a policy on taxation and public spending, for example, that can unite Ms Fox and Mr Tice could be "tricky", says the FT. On past form, within months – if not weeks – Farage's Party will be riven with dissent, erupting into public squabbles and resignations of some of the more prominent MEPs.

That leaves room for some of the more sensible Tory leadership candidates – possibly Jeremy Hunt – to put the case for Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement. Certainly, anyone with sense will realise that if we leave on 31 October without a deal, there will be 30 months before the general election for the public to experience the effects.

It is a given that the party will by then be unelectable. As Hunt rightly says, a push for no-deal would be political suicide. Farage, as a promoter of the no-deal pathway, will share the opprobrium. He will be the least of the Tories' problems. But, in the meantime, we have to get past the media noise and wait for people's brains to start working again.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few