Nigel Farage Brexit Theresa May European Parliamentary election
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (Image: PA/Andrew Matthews)

In the mad May days of the European Middle Ages, the stories go, the passage from winter to summer would be marked by a week or so in which order was upended. Masters would wait on servants, the village fool would give the sermon, the congregation would make animal noises in place of hymns.

The fun died out with modernity — as did all fun — but it has been revived for a pacy weekend in the UK, with the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May and the rise of the Brexit Party in the UK’s European Parliament elections. Everything that’s happened in the past 96 hours gives ample proof that mad May lives again.

The fun started last Tuesday when Theresa May revealed her latest version of the UK EU Brexit bill, which has already been rejected three times by the House of Commons. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill had ten new and recycled provisions, including a limit to the northern Ireland “backstop” and a working conditions guarantee. But it also included a commitment to a parliamentary vote on a second, confirmatory referendum.

That was a bridge too far for May’s dwindling band of cabinet supporters. By Thursday, leader of the House of Commons (i.e. head of government business) Andrea Leadsom had come out against the deal and resigned — and that was it.

By this point May really had no support at all; she remained in place only because of Tory party rules about leadership changes. With the 1922 committee of backbenchers (named for the last year you could legally flog a servant) threatening to change the rules so as to remove her, it was all over.

On Friday, the day after the UK went to the European parliamentary polls, May announced her forthcoming resignation with a speech outside 10 Downing Street. She was dignified until the end, when she broke down talking about her service to “this country that I love”.

Forthcoming resignation? Yes, May remains as leader of the Conservative Party until June 7, at which point they’ll appoint an interim leader. And she’ll remain prime minister for some time after that, until the party’s election processes have delivered a new leader. Indeed, May will be going to Europe next week for further negotiations, a ghastly ghost process to add to the carnival.

What followed May’s resignation could not be described as an outpouring of generosity. Pundits were split on whether she was the second-worst or worst PM; post-war or of all time. There was no warmth from the left for someone who, as home secretary, had instituted a brutal regime against undocumented immigrants (which managed to sweep up thousands of black citizens who had arrived in the ’50s and ’60s but had never completed the citizenship process).

But that was as nothing for the right’s fury and contempt for someone who had failed to deliver the magic pudding offered in the lead up to the referendum — the trouble-free departure from the EU with countries falling over themselves to do trade deals with Great Britain.

May’s departure opened the gates for Tory runners and riders. Eight have so far nominated, with the front-runner being Boris Johnson, beloved of the shires. Michael Gove is in it, so too is Leadsom herself. They’re all leavers. Jeremy Hunt — former health minister, stealth-privatiser — is the most prominent remainer. Of course, all remainers are committing to leave.

The power-shift occurred at the same time as European Parliament elections, first in the UK (because of Thursday voting, with results withheld) then across Europe on the weekend — the results coming this morning our time. As expected, in the UK the big winner has been the new Brexit Party, put together by Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, the businessman behind “Brexit Means Brexit”.

The Brexit outfit was started up after UKIP, Farage’s old party, became a sewer of far-right racist and conspiracy theorists. Farage had been in and out of it after the 2016 referendum victory, but it was only when the party had hit 3% support that room for a new outfit emerged.

With slick graphics and slogans designed by top campaign houses, a lean command structure and the inexhaustible appetite of mainstream media to hear Farage, the new party prospered as the Tories foundered. Farage, who has learned a thing or two about post-politics, had further success when Claire Fox and other members of the ’80s ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Party joined up. The group is no longer recognisably left, but can be portrayed as such which has given the party a post-right appearance.

With the conservatives having created a vacuum, the Brexit Party has prospered. They look to have secured about 32% of the vote, and are on track for about 25 of the UK’s 73 seats. The Lib-Dems have come second with 20%, as remainers punished Labour for having a dogs Brexit of a remain-leave position. They’re on 15%, heading to 10 seats.

The Greens rose to 12% from 8%, and Labour fell from 26%. But it was the Conservatives who took the biggest hit — the party of UK government is down to 8% from 23%, and will struggle to get three seats. The EU elections aren’t a general election of course; they run on a proportional vote, and have long been a place to lodge a protest vote.

Even so, 8%! And barely a quarter of the vote going to the major parties. And the largest single party is one devoted to exiting the body in which it sits. Mad May indeed, as a political system of an earlier era lurches from one absurdity to the next.

Peter Fray

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