EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

In 2014, Nigel Farage built the successful campaign of his (now former) UK Independence Party (UKIP) on spreading fear about migration. This year, Farage’s new group, the Brexit Party, is using three years of major parties’ indecisiveness and political stalemate to gain support in the campaign.

UKIP’s win in the 2014 European Parliament election in the United Kingdom took many by surprise. It had moderate success in previous European elections, but this time, the party, which has been pushing for Great Britain to leave the European Union since the 1990s, actually managed to win. The Labour party ended up second and the Conservatives, who were in power with the Liberal Democrats, third.

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, led a winning campaign based on demagogy, criticism of the EU, anti-immigration sentiments and right-wing populism, strengthening people’s fears and offering easy solutions to complex problems. The same tactics would later sweep most of Europe.

Two years after a monumental win, Farage could celebrate again when UKIP’s and Conservative Party Eurosceptics’ campaign filled with lies resulted in 51.89% majority of Britons voting to leave the EU in a non-binding referendum called by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

Farage would then slowly leave firstly UKIP’s leadership, and then the party, apparently because of its leanings towards the far-right. During the time, he remained a Member of the European Parliament, a post he had held since 1999. Then, in 2019, he co-founded the Brexit Party with other people close to UKIP.

Gloomy polls

The Brexit Party immediately reached top positions in opinion polls. And now, less than two weeks ahead of the European Parliament elections, which are due to be held on 23 May in Great Britain, it is leading the polls with 34 %, 18 % ahead of Labour, says poll done by YouGov/The Times. Labour (16 %) are closely followed by Liberal Democrats (15 %), the Greens (11 %) and Conservatives (10 %).

According to an analysis from Financial Times, the main source of the party’s voters are former supporters of Conservatives and UKIP. For the Conservative Party split between ’Remainers’, soft-leavers and hard-leavers, the EP elections could be the worst result for a ruling party in British history. At the same time, Labour’s support is also falling with people fleeing to parties which openly support UK staying in the EU and the second referendum.

This could have been seen in the early-May British local elections, where the Conservatives lost almost a quarter of seats and Labour almost managed to keep what they had before, while Liberal Democrats and the Greens celebrated big gains.

The reason behind this is simple: almost three years of uncertainty. Brexit has been postponed twice. There is a growing rift, borne out of general Brexit-fatigue, between “getting out of the EU already, regardless of which type of deal it entails” and staying in.

What would Farage’s win in the European elections mean? He has said it would “put a no-deal Brexit back on the table” and, consequently, he would demand being a part of the Brexit negotiations. True to form, this is unlikely to materialize; Brexit being a domestic matter, he will have no influence on Brexit from the European Parliament.

No compromise

Theresa May, her cabinet, as well as both major parties, unable to find a compromise, are to blame for the current situation. The Brexit process has been damaging and has taken longer than expected, in large part due to persistent obstruction efforts by Brexiteers amongst the Tories, emblematic of internal party divisions that Theresa May has been unsuccessful in mending.

The dangers of no-deal Brexit have been stressed out many times, even by the Bank of England, whose governor Mark Carney warned it “would be an economic shock”. At this point, when Brexit has been postponed twice and the UK has to take part in the European elections, it is understandable why the “get us out at any cost already” approach proposed notably by Farage and also some Conservative supporters of no-deal Brexit like Boris Johnson appeals to certain voters, especially since Farage omits mentioning the consequences of a no-deal Brexit.

In April, after May’s withdrawal agreement was rejected by the House of Commons for the third time, she agreed to negotiate with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. One month later, Corbyn broke the talks off, citing unability “to bridge important policy gaps” and “increasing weakness and instability” of May’s government as reasons. These talks could have started in January, when May’s withdrawal agreement was voted down in the Commons for the first time, which became the worst defeat of government’s proposal in the UK Parliamentary history.

Even though the European elections are now inevitable for Britain, many Conservatives still do not believe they are happening, according to the Guardian. Moreover, the party is not even going to publish an election manifesto – a set of policies the party plans to implement if it is elected. Recently, Labour’s ruling national executive committee declined to unequivocally support the second referendum, keeping it as the last option. At the same time, the Greens and Liberal Democrats have clear visions for the future Brexit. So does the Brexit Party. And that, as it looks, is what the British voters want after the long impasse. One way or another.

Ironically, it was Nigel Farage who got the UK to this Brexit mess, and it is him who is set to benefit from it greatly in the upcoming European elections, and maybe even in the following early general election that could actually give his new party any influence in the process.

This time, unlike 2014, he does not have to lie about immigration. He just has to downplay the effects of no-deal Brexit – or, more likely, pretend there are none as long as people “believe in making Great Britain great again” – and count on Brexit fatigue to propel him into power.

 

Jiří Lacina

 

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