“If you’re going through hell, keep going”. So said Sir Winston Churchill during the dark days of the 2nd World War. Last night’s second place result for the Brexit Party in the Peterborough by-election makes this clear in a broad sense but more importantly, it makes it clear in a very specific sense. Since the Brexit Party’s sensational victory in last month’s EU parliamentary elections (that were never supposed to occur in the first place), top party officials have claimed that if the current minority government dose not secure a genuine Brexit by the end of October, the Brexit Party will contest the next general election by fielding a candidate in every constituency in Britain.
So far so good…but the implied inverse of this statement means that if the current minority government does in fact achieve Brexit by the 31st of October (and due to the survival instinct of the Tories it just might do so against the odds), then the Brexit Party will cease to exist.
In an election for the mother of all Parliaments, the one Parliament in the world that that is surely not going anywhere, people naturally want to vote for something that is going to be around past October. To put it another way, if one was a keen driver who only had months to live, one might buy an unreliable 40 year old Ferrari that when it decides to run – it runs brilliantly. But if one had the rest of a long life to look forward to, one might instead opt for a more robust Mercedes-Benz or Porsche.
And thus, the problem in Peterborough. When it comes to sending MEPs to an EU parliament that Britain is supposed to be out of in a matter of months, it is easy to vote according to one’s conscience. As the conscience of England and Wales (with the exception of London) is Brexit, it is clear why the Brexit party won last month. But in an election to the House of Commons, for all the hundreds of problems associated with the Labour Party, the people of Peterborough decided to vote for a party that has survived both world worlds, just about survived Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and may even survive Jeremy Corbyn.
Making matters worse, because Labour is a party of ‘remain in all but name’, Labour’s victory is actually a victory for Theresa May and other members of her party who want any excuse they can find to compliment Labour’s ‘remain in all but name’ with the Conservative’s parallel version of ‘Brexit in name only’. Therefore, Peterborough’s effect is not about right and left but is instead about short term rhetoric leading voters to make a decision based on long term thinking that will be greatly damaging to Brexit’s short term health if rapid action is not taken by The Brexit Party.
There can be only two conclusions drawn from the results of Peterborough. As there will be further by -elections to come on the road to a general election, The Brexit Party must confirm that no matter what happens on the 31st of October, it will continue to be a force in politics and field candidates in the next general election.
Such a position is still consistent with the singular goal of delivering Brexit because whilst it has been a long road to leaving the Brussels prison, exiting the EU is in fact “not the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning”. Once Britain has slipped from EU bondage, there will be many trade deals to sign with the wider world. As Nigel Farage proved after his cordial meeting with the US President, it is The Brexit Party leader and his colleagues from the world of business who are best placed to achieve such trading deals.
Therefore, The Brexit Party must make it clear that after Peterborough, it is in it for the long haul. The Brexit Party can and must exist even if someone like Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab extricates Britain from the EU so that the Tories do not go the way of the t-rex and dodo. After that, further betrayals from the Tories and Labour will be inevitably forthcoming and it is The Brexit Party that will have a role to play in making sure that Brexit is both achieved and that it works the way it is supposed to do.
The second conclusion drawn from Peterborough is that whilst the Brexit Party fielded an extraordinarily gifted group of MEPs, in traditional first past the post House of Commons by-elections, larger than life personalities can help to push a new party over the edge when faced with the machine like political organisation of the old parties.
Mike Greene is by all means a good man, a decent man and someone who loves Peterborough very much. But in hindsight, as Labour ended up winning, it would have been better to go with an experienced candidate of the George Galloway mould whose pro-working class credentials would have been unimpeachable and whose pro-Brexit credentials would have been equally unimpeachable.
The two takeaways therefore are that The Brexit Party must focus more on winning the next general election than on pressuring a dishonest Tory party to deliver Brexit by October. Secondly, The Brexit Party ought to field candidates who not only can carry forward the Brexit Party’s message but who can stand on their own two feet in a hard fought election.