A silly season story or a realistic proposition? Gossip for the Westminster village or an exciting prospect with real appeal to the public? Just, how should we react to the official announcement of the creation of a new anti-Brexit party?
The lead protagonist behind this story is James Chapman. Chapman’s career has spanned a stint at the Daily Mail as well as working with big Conservative beasts George Osborne at the Treasury and David Davis at DExU. Not someone who would be considered a ‘Remoaner’, since leaving Davis, Chapman’s formerly privately held views on Europe are being aired for all to see. In a series of tweets and a frank interview with GQ Chapman has been forthright in expressing his opposition to Brexit. Describing it as “the biggest calamity since World War 2”, he called for the creation of a new political party to stop Brexit.
Seemingly without irony, he has suggested that party should be called ‘The Democrats’ and seek to reverse Brexit without a second referendum. Chuka Umunna, Nicky Morgan and Vince Cable were cited as politicians who could be recruited to form the bedrock of this new party, with Liz Kendall a possible leader. His increasingly erratic behaviour has worried his friends but his call for a new party is not an entirely new idea.
There has been consistent chatter about a new centrist party or a re-alignment for some years. Throughout the 1980s there were regular calls for an alliance of parties working together to oppose Margaret Thatcher. A new centrist anti-Brexit party with similar names to those mentioned above was also openly discussed before the 2017 election. This was given further credence by the creation of a new cross-party APPG on Brexit. But under what conditions could new party really hope to succeed?
Is there a demand for a stop-Brexit party?
The obvious place to begin is to ask whether there is a demand to stop Brexit? A poll conducted by YouGov prior to the General Election found just 22% of the public supported trying to overturn the referendum result.
Assessing the electoral performances of the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party provides further insight. They took different views to Brexit at the General Election and enjoyed quite different results.
At the heart of the Liberal Democrats campaign was a pledge to hold a new referendum on the terms of the negotiated deal. This referendum would offer voters an opportunity to reject the deal in 2019 and remain in the European Union. This pledge had limited impact with the voters with the party gaining 7.4% of the vote, a drop in its vote share from the 2015 General Election. Campaign effectiveness aside, it is reasonable to assume then, that this message of a way to wreck Brexit – fell on deaf ears.
In contrast, Labour’s position was more ambiguous. Their manifesto was clear on accepting the referendum result, but left open room for interpretation on major areas of negotiation. Evidence from the British Election Study highlighted Labour benefited from their ambivalent Brexit position, creating traction with Remain voters who accept the result, whilst also speaking to Leave voters who want to see that result delivered.
The proposed policy position of ‘The Democrats’ is more hardline than either approaches. But, if the Liberal Democrats struggled to gain support for their position, there is little evidence an even more overtly pro-EU position would be popular.
The electoral problem
Electorally our first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for a new party to break through in Westminster (Just ask UKIP, the Women’s Equality Party, or the Greens). The return of the dominance of two-party politics only enhances this problem. Nevertheless, political parties can influence the agenda without ever scoring electoral success.
Take UKIP. The popularity of their message on the EU and immigration created a vehicle for like-minded politicians and voters. In order to pre-empt an exodus of both these groups, Cameron was pressured into calling a referendum he would rather have avoided. In many ways, job done for them. Victims of their own success, their electoral appeal has nose-dived as they are no longer seen as necessary to deliver Brexit.
Who is the voice?
To create cut-through a new party would need powerful and charismatic characters, possibly drawn from parliament. Think Macron in France, or again closer to home with UKIP. Nigel Farage was a one-man rhetoric-machine capable of turning in compelling media performances and quotes.
On this front, the cupboard looks bare. Nicky Morgan, immediately quashed speculation she could be involved. Anna Soubry said she would be willing to resign if a ‘hard Brexit’ was pursued, but that this time has not yet come to pass. Liz Kendall is yet to comment on Chapman's suggestion.
Labour have experienced divisions over Brexit, most notably over the amendment on the Single Market proposed by Chuka Umunna. This does not appear to have created an overwhelming desire to explore this option. Labour MPs remain highly sceptical of a new party, and there is no sign of this attitude abating anytime soon.
Will it succeed?
As we have said often of late, politics is more volatile now than at any time in our collective memory. However, the chances of a new party designed to stop Brexit succeeding or in fact any centre party succeeding appear remote.
Electorally it is hard for a new party to succeed. There is no indication leading politicians are interested. And to flourish, both would need to be driven by an electorate, which current polling suggests is far from convinced.
Over time these criteria may change. There is no guarantee Brexit negotiations will be successful. The more grave the outlook and the impact, the more voters and their representatives may feel moved to change their minds. Until they do, we think this speculation – catalysed by one man's twitter feed - is the wishful thinking of Westminster Village insiders set upon intrigue, hardline "remoaners" and remains far from a practical reality.