Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.
The usual clash of two major parties obscures the complex distribution of public opinion; so did the binary referendum of 2016. Now the EU elections may go some way to revealing it. Not the whole way, for the d’Hondt system of party lists means that the political parties effectively control who stands for election, a major abuse that cries out for reform. But these elections may still reveal that voter opinion is arranged across fifty shades of grey.
What this evening’s results are likely to show is that the views of voters are not concentrated into just two blocs, as the passionate debate suggests, but arranged along a spectrum. Some shades are committed to Brexit (articulated by the Brexit Party, UKIP, the DUP), about a third of the voters or a little more. In another corner of the field are the Brino parties (Labour and Conservative), again with a confused third of the votes between them, although a shrinking number. Elsewhere on the spectrum are the Remain parties (the Lib Dems, Greens, Change UK), with a little under a third.
Despite the spectacular rise of the Brexit Party since 29 March, voter opinion has changed a bit, but not much. Voters’ views have evidently been formed over a long period, by reflection on experience. Each of the three groups has tried to shift that distribution by argument, but with only partial success. Brexiteers have pointed to the growing acquisition of the competences of a state by the EU (a European army; the Report of the Five Presidents, the judicial activism of the CJEU); but the British are reluctant to think about politics in abstract terms.
The architects of Brino have warned of cliff edges, crashing out, and shortages of medicines, but not effectively: too many business leaders protest that they could export and import well enough on WTO terms, and British opinion is more open to being conned than threatened.
Remainers urge that liberal democracy is at stake and that fanatics will take over the government unless the UK remains in the EU, but this collides with Cockney scepticism (‘come on, sunshine: pull the other one’).
Instead, many voters tend to respond to circumstances rather than to abstract argument; they ‘face facts’. One ‘fact’ that had its effect was the failure of the government to take the UK out of the EU on 29 March as Theresa May had repeatedly promised. But this produced a shift of voting intention from the Brino parties to the Brexit Party more than a principled conversion of Remainers to Leavers. The transfer seems hardly enough to deliver Nigel Farage a majority at Westminster in 2022. In the absence before that date of a general election, which the Brino parties will naturally postpone to the last moment, the impasse continues. Opinion in the Commons and the electorate is still split three ways. It may remain in that condition indefinitely, with the UK half in, half out.
Or the impasse may be resolved. But this could only happen if a new Prime Minister were willing to cut the Gordian knot. He or she might once again seek to run out the clock, as Theresa May might have done before 29 March. The Commons, now effectively led by Oliver Letwin and Yvette Cooper, might then seek to legislate to prevent what Remainers and Brino enthusiasts unite in calling a No Deal Brexit; but a Prime Minister might advise the Queen not to consent to legislation to that end (there are recent precedents in the Commonwealth).
Or a Prime Minister might, in the autumn, ask the Queen to prorogue Parliament until the day after exit is legally due on 31 October. Since Parliament currently passes almost no legislation, its temporary absence would hardly be missed. The same principle applies: if you’re in a fix, do something original.
Either step would produce a constitutional crisis the like of which has not been seen since 1783, when George III chose William Pitt the younger as Prime Minister and supported him in office despite defeat after defeat in the Commons. Over time, he won parliamentary support. In 2019 an innovatory Prime Minister would similarly be lauded by some as well as denounced by others, but may, like Pitt after 1789, soon be hailed as ‘the saviour of the nation’. If Theresa May could hold on to office despite record defeats, why not her successor?
But let us say that the new Prime Minister, like the last, shies away from decisive action. In that event, another clock will run down, and a general election in 2022 will be finally unavoidable. In that election, the most divided party will lose (voters respond to ‘facts’). If a Corbyn government takes office, even in a hung parliament, the effects could be dramatic. The idealism of youthful new voters, who do not remember the 1970s, could be forcefully reminded of the economic facts of life: taxation, inflation, high interest rates, unemployment, debt. These things, not calls from politicians to ‘move on’, really would turn voters’ attention away from Brexit.
Voters would very probably react to these ‘facts’ with a major shift of opinion, as was last seen in 1979. They will not have read the writings of Karl Marx, or the speeches of Jean Monnet, but they will learn lessons from events. By 2022, the Conservative party will have clearly identified itself as a Brexit party, dispensing with the services of those seniors who may be described as its social democrat tendency (Michael Heseltine, John Major, Nicholas Soames). To deliver the country from another five years of Marxist rule, the logic of events may be inescapable: the Conservative Party will do a deal with the Brexit Party. In the general election of 2027, Farage’s hour may at last arrive.
Unless, of course, Jeremy Corbyn does something original, and legislates to change the constitution in ways that even the Speaker could not imagine. He might.