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For the past three and-a-half years, campaigners distraught at the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union have been fighting to stop Brexit. But with Boris Johnson on course to win a majority in Thursday’s election, it’s a fight they are poised to lose.
“This is the end of Remain,” said Anand Menon, Director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe program based at King’s College, London. “Even if the Tories get a majority of one, then Brexit will happen.”
Johnson Returns to Key Brexit Message as Polls Put Him Ahead
Ever since the 2016 referendum’s narrow 52%-48% decision to leave the EU, the subject of Brexit has dominated British politics and divided society down the middle. Even those who have devoted their working lives full-time to efforts to overturn the result are depressed and angry at the way their side has failed to make headway.
The Liberal Democrats, the only mainstream party committed to canceling Brexit, have been unable to galvanize the half of U.K. voters who wanted to stay in the EU. The main organization campaigning for another referendum has imploded, while opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has equivocated, pledging only to stay “neutral” in the second plebiscite he wants to hold.
In contrast, Johnson -- who led the Brexit campaign before becoming prime minister -- has largely headed off the threat that Nigel Farage’s hard-liners would split the Leave vote. Johnson is now gaining support from Brexit-backing voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands. Polls show the Conservative leader is set to win a majority on Dec. 12 that will allow him to push Brexit through parliament, shaping Britain’s political future for decades.
If these predictions are accurate, it won’t just be because a large number of voters backed Brexit or, fed up with three years of turmoil, were receptive to Johnson’s promise to get it done. Johnson’s success in completing Brexit will owe as much to his opponents’ disarray as to his own strategy.
Today, more voters say they want to remain in the EU than leave. But “remain” supporters couldn’t agree on a unified plan -- whether to simply cancel Brexit or put the question to voters again. The remain side failed to forge a functional cross-party alliance.
The plight of the Liberal Democrats, the smaller of Britain’s two main opposition parties, is symptomatic of this wider failure.
Jo Swinson’s election as leader in July was a high point for pro-Europeans. The party was on a roll: By May, the Lib Dems had beaten both Labour and Conservatives in the elections to the European Parliament and had piled on council seats in the U.K.’s local government votes.
Swinson, then 38, was the first millennial to lead any of the U.K.’s major political parties. Within three months, she overhauled the party’s policy on Brexit. Instead of pursuing a second referendum and giving voters the option of staying in, as her predecessor had promised, she vowed to cancel the divorce altogether. That shift would help the party to differentiate itself from Labour, which had come around to backing another plebiscite on EU membership.
The Liberal Democrats launched their campaign in October, claiming they could sweep to power and end the Brexit nightmare. Swinson’s face was emblazoned on the party’s election bus and she presented herself as a candidate to be prime minister -- a bold claim for a party with just 20 Members of Parliament.
But her presidential campaign flubbed. As one poll showed, the more voters saw of Swinson, the less they liked her. Her marquee promise to revoke Brexit proved unpopular with voters who saw it as undemocratic. In particular, the pledge didn’t go down well in southwest England, a region where the party hoped to regain lost ground but that had largely voted to leave the EU.
There is some evidence, though, that the Liberal Democrats may gain support in the parts of the U.K. that voted to stay in the bloc. Take St. Albans, a cathedral city north of London where, in less pro-European times, King John of France was once held prisoner. The district hasn’t returned a Liberal MP for more than a century -- but 11 out of the 20 voters Bloomberg spoke to there said they planned to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Daisy Cooper.
Labour supporter Luca Spiri, 27, said he will vote for Cooper “tactically” to oust the local Tory MP, Anne Main. Tim Fleming, the 47-year-old finance chief for a local company, said he has shifted his allegiance to the Liberal Democrats from the Tories “predominantly because of Brexit.” Bellamy Wilkinson, 68, will also lend Cooper her vote because Britain’s departure from the EU “is an appalling mess and I don’t approve of it.”
“People are horrified,” Cooper said in an interview. “We’re attracting support from across the political spectrum.”
Unfortunately for Swinson, St. Albans may be the exception rather than the rule. The most widely-anticipated poll of the campaign showed the party is on track to lose three seats nationally and gain four, including St. Albans -- a net gain of just one seat from the 2017 election.
We’re seeing a “classic third-party squeeze,” said Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “Betting the farm on Remain in this election is really high stakes, and if it comes off badly for the Lib Dems, it’s going to pose some pretty fundamental questions about what are they for.”
Swinson’s struggles, though, are as nothing to the personal feuding and infighting that crippled the People’s Vote, the main umbrella group campaigning for a second referendum on EU membership.
Formed in April 2018, the group had managed to rally, by its own estimate, more than a million people to march in favor of another plebiscite. It attracted the support of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat lawmakers, as well as celebrities such as former England soccer captain Gary Lineker and Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart.
But tensions at the campaign had been simmering for a year. At root was a disagreement over strategy. On one side was Roland Rudd, the then chair of Open Britain, the main source of funding for People’s Vote; on the other, the group’s communications and campaign chiefs, Tom Baldwin and James McGrory.
The latter argued that to get a fresh referendum, they needed the support of a broad range of MPs, even some Tories who had supported Brexit. Rudd wanted the campaign to be more focused on stopping Brexit and was reluctant to back Labour MPs.
On Oct. 27, two days before MPs approved the early election, Rudd emailed campaign staff to tell them Baldwin and McGrory would be leaving their positions. The putsch backfired. Most of the group’s staff, who stayed loyal to the men who had been fired, walked out en masse -- leaving the main group seeking to overturn the 2016 referendum result in tatters.
“We will never know the impact 40 hard-working professional staff could have had on the general election campaign if they had been allowed to do their jobs,” McGrory said in an interview. “But it would have at least allowed the People’s Vote campaign -- the largest political movement in this country this century -- to have played a significant role in the air, ground and digital war, rather than the shambles it has been.” Rudd did not respond to a request for comment.
The biggest obstacle of all to aborting Brexit has been the Labour Party’s reluctance to come out in favor of remaining. That is because Labour is split on the issue. As Johnson has found to his benefit, many voters in areas that traditionally supported Labour also backed Brexit.
The Labour party is at least committed to a holding another referendum on the terms of the country’s divorce from the EU. If that happens, key Corbyn lieutenants including Diane Abbott, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry -- his spokesmen for home affairs, Brexit and foreign affairs respectively -- have all said they would campaign for remain.
On the Fence
But Corbyn, long suspicious of the EU as a capitalists’ club, has refused to follow. When pressed in a BBC question-and-answer show on Nov. 22 how he would campaign in the second referendum his party was calling for, he finally stated his position: He would stay neutral.
That may have disappointed Europhiles, but Corbyn’s refusal to enter into any electoral pact with the Lib Dems may hurt their position even further. The anti-Brexit vote may splinter as a result of Labour’s refusal to give pro-EU candidates a clear run in seats where they could beat Johnson’s Conservatives.
Complicating voters’ calculations even further, a plethora of anti-Brexit tactical voting websites don’t always agree on who is best to vote for.
The last hope for those wanting to stay in the EU is that Johnson’s near 10-point lead in the polls fails to translate into a majority. A hung parliament is still a possibility. If that happens, Corbyn would likely need the Lib Dems or the Scottish National Party to prop up a Labour-led government. Both the SNP and the Lib Dems are unambiguously pro-European.
According to Menon, a Labour minority government is now the only way to stop Brexit. “I don’t see any way Corbyn wins a majority,” he said. “The path to remain is a rocky one.”
(Corrects name of Rudd’s lobby group in 20th paragraph in story first published Dec. 9.)
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