Despite their best attempts, the Tories and Labour are unable to move the conversation on from Brexit

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 20 May 2019 in Inside Politics

The European elections spell bad news for the UK's two biggest parties

Image credit: PA

Standing outside the Scottish Parliament, blinking in the bright spring sunshine, David Macdonald said it was “an honour to be the lead candidate for Change UK for election to the European Parliament for the Scotland electoral region”.

The party was “genuinely a force for good in British politics”, he said, “and all of their supporters, candidates and elected members have played an integral part in trying to reshape the way in which politics is done in this country for the better”.

So far, so good. The European elections are right around the corner, and this was pretty much what you’d expect from someone running for a party, formed earlier this year by a breakaway group of Labour and Tory MPs – initially called the Independent Group – in protest against their party’s support for leaving the EU.

But Macdonald was surrounded by Lib Dems.

Continuing somewhat awkwardly, he explained that he had changed his mind about standing for Change UK, because they “don’t stand much of a chance”.

He said: “After a great deal of reflection on the political landscape we are facing in Scotland at present, I have come to the point where I have realised that I must do what is best for the future of this country before anything else. If things continue as they are, the Remain vote will split in Scotland and put at risk the representation that supporters of remaining in the European Union so collectively desire.

“For that reason, I have decided to end my candidacy for Change UK effective immediately. I am now calling for those in favour of remaining in the European Union, including all supporters of Change UK in Scotland, to do what is best for our collective voice in Europe and to support the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the upcoming European election.”

Macdonald had only been announced as a candidate last month, and he had been number two on the party list until the top candidate, Joseph Russo, was forced to withdraw after screenshots of old social media posts emerged, appearing to show the candidate making offensive comments about black women and Catholics.

So Macdonald’s campaign lasted longer, at least. In fact, given he defected just a week before Thursday’s vote, he will still appear on the ballot for Change UK. He just doesn’t plan to vote for himself.

Change UK spokesperson, Chuka Umunna – who himself defected from Labour a couple of months earlier without standing in a by-election – was understandably disappointed, saying Macdonald had “let down his fellow candidates and activists”, before adding “we are focusing all our efforts on adding to the Remain vote in the UK and challenging the pro-Brexit Tory, Brexit and Labour parties.”

Clearly this is an election defined by Brexit. In fact, the UK wasn’t even supposed to have taken part, given it was the need for an extension to Article 50 which meant the elections have had to go ahead, at a cost of around £100m.

And for some it is reasonably straightforward, with the SNP, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Lib Dems all basing their campaign messaging around support for the European Union.

The question of which party offered the best vehicle for a Remain vote had already caused controversy, with Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson facing criticism from the SNP after claiming her party to be the “biggest, strongest, most consistent” anti-Brexit party.

But squabbling and the question of Scottish independence aside, the parties have taken similar approaches to the elections. For the SNP, the vote is an opportunity to “put Scotland’s determination, and our strength of feeling, beyond any doubt”.

Speaking in Glasgow, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said: “This European election is our chance to make Scotland’s voice heard loud and clear.

“Three years on from the EU referendum, we’re still no clearer as to what Brexit will look like – or whether it will even happen at all.

“That uncertainty is having a major impact on businesses, households and on EU nationals working and studying in Scotland. EU nationals should know – we’ve got your back.”

The Scottish Greens, meanwhile, approach the elections flush from winning the support of the Sunday Mail – the Record’s sister title splashed with a call to ‘Go Green’ at the polls – as well as the backing of Outlander star, Sam Heughan.

Patrick Harvie was predictably pleased about both, describing the vote as the “most important European election we’ve ever faced”, and adding that “it’s vital that we elect Scotland’s first Green MEP to work in tandem with our European neighbours and tackle the climate emergency”.

He said: “We know that a Green New Deal can create hundreds of thousands of jobs in Scotland and millions across the continent, transforming our economy. Across Europe, Greens are outpolling the far right, by offering hope over hate.”

And yet while the SNP and the Greens approached the election with some pretty familiar messaging, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this vote is taking place in a very different political world to the one inhabited by voters in 2014.

And it’s not just because the Lib Dems are polling high again, even if a recent YouGov survey put the party just one per cent behind Labour, with 15 per cent of the vote, followed by the Greens on 11 per cent.

The most stunning change, though, is represented by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party sitting at 34 per cent.

And while Farage has been making the most of another line of media appearances, most recently refusing to answer questions about his previous statements on the Andrew Marr Show, instead launching extended attacks on the BBC, it’s not difficult to see where the rise in Brexit Party support has come from.

Which leaves what are traditionally meant to be the two biggest parties in UK politics, in a story of relentless collapse. Labour support peaked in early April, while the Tories, starting from an even lower base, have seen UK-wide support fall for longer still.

Public opinion remains highly volatile, leaving the sense the result is certainly up for grabs, yet with another poll, conducted by Opinium on behalf of the Observer, showing higher support for the Brexit Party than for the Conservatives and Labour combined, the parties have been thrown into periods of introspection.

With Labour on 21 per cent, the Opinium poll was even more damning for the Conservatives, revealing support had collapsed to just 11 per cent.

For Jeremy Corbyn, the solution was to focus on domestic issues, such as the NHS and growing inequality, rather than Brexit.

As he put it, launching his party’s manifesto in Kent: “Some people seem to look at the issue the wrong way round – they seem to think the first question is leave or remain, as if that is an end in itself. I think they’re wrong. The first question is, what kind of society do we want to be?

“The real divide in our country is not how people voted in the EU referendum. The real divide is between the many and the few.”

He added: “We could allow ourselves to be defined only as ‘Remainers’ or ‘Leavers’, labels that meant nothing to us only a few years ago. But where would that take us? Who wants to live in a country stuck in this endless loop?”

The comments generated further consternation from Labour Europhiles, but at least Corbyn can take some comfort from the travails of his opposite number. Because there’s no doubt things look very, very bad for Theresa May, who continues to face calls to quit from inside her own party.

For their part, the Scottish Tories seemed to try and distance themselves from the UK campaign, releasing party’s leaflets which do not mention Theresa May, and only reference Brexit in connection to a second independence referendum. And looking south you can see why, with Sir Graham Brady leading calls for a timetable for the Prime Minister’s resignation – sometimes May’s decision to knight him can seem questionable – as other senior figures in the party seemed to go into hiding.

In fact, Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary and an apparent candidate to become his party’s next leader, appeared stumped when asked why people should vote Conservative, while admitting the Tories could be “crucified” at a general election if Brexit is not resolved.

Pushed for a reason, Hunt eventually came up with: “Because you believe in Conservative policies.”

Pressed further, he said: “Let me have another stab at it… Because we are not going to solve this problem by retreating to populist extremes.”

In truth, Hunt didn’t look totally convinced by that, and with Brexit continuing to loom over UK politics, casting all else into shadow, these look like very dark days for the UK’s two biggest parties.

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