A week is a long time in politics, and never has this been more accurate than in the week since the Peterborough by-election. In the morning that the result was announced Remainers were first to pounce on it as a disaster for Nigel Farage and for Brexit itself.
Sir Vince Cable argued that ‘if the Brexit Party were going to win a parliament seat anywhere, Peterborough was their big opportunity’ and the unelected Lord-cum-failed-Labour-MEP-candidate, Andrew Adonis, claimed that the failure to elect Mike Greene showed ‘a determination to stop Brexit’.
But all is not lost. The defeat was not as calamitous as the Remainers would have liked us to believe. It has become clear that Labour’s local database, their somewhat controversial utilisation of postal votes, their ambiguity over the European issue and the surprising hold-up of the Tory vote enabled Labour to hold the mother of all marginal seat.
The Brexit Party can take serious lessons in this defeat. They have learnt that a manifesto is needed to retain the 8% of voters who were lost from the EU Election to the by-election, and they have learnt they will need to play catch up on the established parties to gather statistics on local voting patterns that will help them get the vote out.
But if somebody was to say an 8-week old party, without a manifesto knocked the governing party into third place, seriously challenged the opposition, and influenced the direction of the Conservative Party’s leadership contest then this could easily be considered as at least a political tremor.
Peterborough should also serve as a huge warning sign to the Tories and Labour. The Brexit Party claimed that Peterborough was 201st on their target list and on the basis of Dr Hanretty’s estimates Peterborough ranks 131st in Leave-voting seats and 267th in backing the Brexit Party this May.
This was no Clacton, this was not even a Rochester and Strood. This was Peterborough which is politically its own beast. Despite this for much of the by-election it was a nail-biting affair and to think there are 200-seats where the Brexit Party anticipate doing better than they did last week. If that doesn’t send fear into the Tory and Labour central office, then I don’t know what will.
But what does this mean for the Brexit project? Andrew Adonis’ claim that Peterborough shows a desire to bring a halt to Brexit was not only preposterous but objectively false. In a head-to-head, parties who favour leaving the EU (Brexit Party, Tories and UKIP) recorded 52% of the vote, whereas those indisputably Remain parties of the Greens and Liberal Democrats could only muster 15%.
Of course, the ever-equivocal Labour Party do not take a side, but if we logically conclude that, as in 2016, a third of Labour voters were Brexiteers then Peterborough’s leave vote tallies at 61%. This is identical to 2016, and therefore, to put it simply, nothing has changed. If the Tories continue to make a pig’s ear of Brexit, then there is room for the Brexit Party to contest and be successful in a general election.
The Brexit Party’s influence on the Tory leadership contest may also prove to be extremely important as to whether or not Brexit is delivered. With Theresa May as leader the Brexit Party topped the EU Elections and since the Tory leadership contest has begun they have topped three polls consecutively. However, in the aftermath of the first ballot it appears that a Brexiteer may be crowned leader of the Conservative Party, in the form of Boris Johnson.
A ComRes poll has shown the Tories could command a majority of support in the country, with Johnson at the helm, on 37%, and the Brexit Party’s support would fall to around 14%. If the British political landscape has two parties who are hell-bent on delivering on the democratic wishes of the people by the 31st of October, then we would be one step closer to Britain leaving the European Union.
However, if by some remarkable situation Boris Johnson does not become the next leader of the Conservative Party and subsequently Prime Minister then the Brexit Party are expected to grow their lead in the polls as the largest party. Given a general election is the only way to deliver Brexit the polls do look quite kindly to Johnson and Farage.
In the near future Britain can potentially expect a third by-election of 2019 in Brecon and Radnorshire. Historically, this is a humdinger between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, but the EU Elections suggest that this is going to be a second referendum in rural Wales with the Brexit Party topping the poll and opening up an eight-point lead over the Liberal Democrats.
The recent YouGov poll alongside ElectoralCalculus predictions could see the seat being a three-way race between the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and the Brexit Party. Whilst the pro-Remain vote would clearly take feet in the Liberal Democrats, the question is how much of the pro-Brexit vote will be split between the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party, like in Peterborough.
The future of the Brexit Party depends on the future of their rivals. If Corbyn buckles and Labour openly back a second referendum, then the Brexit Party will take hold in the Labour heartlands of the north of England, the Midlands and south Wales.
If the Tories fail to elect a Brexiteer then the Brexit Party will maintain control of leave-voting Conservative seats in the English shires and coastal towns as they did in the EU Elections.
The longer the mainstream parties kick the can down the road, the more likely it is that two-party politics will be broken. The Brexit Party’s success demonstrates a clear message; deliver Brexit or stand aside and enter the political wilderness.
*written on Thursday 13th of June 2019