Somewhere in the world there must be a more dismal occasion than midnight at a velodrome in south Wales, but few spring to mind. On Thursday night, the great, the good and the tragic gathered at the Newport bicycle arena for the vote-count in the Newport West byelection, the first contest out of the box since we’d entered deep Brexit trauma.
Vote counts and announcements are strange affairs in the UK. They don’t start till 10.30 at night, and they end with the announcement of the results, with every candidate from the Tory to the Monster Raving Loony Party, as late as four in the morning.
Consequently, everyone is zombified, staggering around after weeks of canvassing. This is often at a town hall near a pub, but his one was at some velodrome that Gordon Brown had built to stop the kids stabbing each other. The Monster Raving Loony Party hadn’t even made an appearance. But everyone else had.
Newport West was tipped into play by the death of a popular Labour member, so there was a lot of interest in whether any small party could knock a hole in a 5000-vote majority. Contenders included an “Abolish the Welsh Assembly” party, a revived Social Democratic Party and a somewhat revived UKIP, sniffing blood in the water. Labour had a phalanx of people in red rossettes, the poor old Tories were sagging a bit, the Lib-Dem candidate hadn’t turned up (“he had a prior engagement”), and the remainder were family of the sort of people who decide to run for minor parties in a first-past-the-post system, there to support them in their delusion.
“Who are you?” I asked a bright-faced young woman in a rosette that looked like a surrealist flower arrangement.
“I’m Renew,” she said.
“We want a second referendum, a change in the way government does-“
“So why not just join the Lib-Dems?”
“Because we want to renew politics,” she said, as if the reference was obscure. Somewhere behind us, Neil Hamilton, UKIP candidate, an ex-Tory chancer and carpetbagger was talking to the BBC, about “all the Soros money flooding into this byelection”. Whatever the opposite of renewal is…
Leaving aside the Soros barb, there are a lot of “metropolitan” groups springing up; Renew, Advance and the rebadged “Independent Group” now known as Change UK — a group of professional, ex-major party politicians promising to do everything to “break down the divide” between people and politics (short of submitting to byelections).
That has less to do with UK politics per se than with European elections, which run on multi-member electorates, quotas and low turnouts, and which will serve as a staging point for the fight over the form of Brexit — or not-Brexit — over the next couple of years. The plan has been for the UK to leave the EU on either April 12 or May 22, both dates that would remove the need for European parliament elections in the UK.
The elections would happen if PM Theresa May seeks and gets a long, flexible extension — six to 21 months — to sort out a new arrangement. She has a better chance of getting that now that she has entered talks with Labour, something Europe had wanted her to do more than a year ago. But the “euphoria” of that announcement has dimmed quickly as, after three days of negotiations, it has become clear to Labour that May and her dwindling government were making no new offer on Brexit. They were simply insisting on the old one and explaining to Labour how great it was.
Labour wants a full customs union and single market, together with guarantees on workers rights, environmental standards. Plus a second referendum, which the Tories loath (so does Corbyn as a left Leaver, but the party is now very pro-second referendum and he has no choice. Funny old world.)
From that impasse politics goes in all directions. If May and Co give away a second referendum, it is said that up to 15 ministers would quit, and the party would be in open revolt against May. They’d vote up a rules change on party leadership in the 1922 Committee (the backbenchers) to spill the leadership, something they currently cant do until December. In anticipation of that, Labour has insisted that any deal made with May, would have to be cemented in with a parliamentary vote, time-stamped so as to be not easily overturned — a “Boris-proof Brexit” as it is being called.
For a while there was a theory going around that whole reach out to Labour was a cunning plan to give hard Brexiteers a cover to back May’s deal. That was a sign that we’d reached the “Baldrick” stage of politics, in which the level of chaos and desperation was so high that people were now searching for hidden order.
So now, with 72 hours until the EU meets, and five days until the next crash-out date, we go ahead with no plan, no alternative plan, and no firm idea of how the Commons will address this.
At the Newport velodrome, things wound up quickly. The announcement was held, the candidates crowded the stage, no one was in a dumb costume (in 2017 Theresa May was duly re-elected as the member for Maidenhead — ! — whilst standing next to a giant gumboot). Labour was returned on a reduced majority.
“Whats that all about then?” I said to a surprisingly normal-looking man. Pointing to his “Abolish the Welsh Assembly” badge.
“Oh look… Richard [Suchorzewski, the candidate] lives near me. I… he could do with a hand.” He smiled broadly. “I really don’t know… I’m not very political…”
Such sentiments have a summer-before-the-war quality to them; a Britain where even politics is not political. Such will not survive the week, I think.We are entering the velodrome, and no one will come out unscathed.
Guy Rundle is reporting on Brexit on the ground in the UK. Read the rest of his coverage here.