The Brexit Party, launched by Nigel Farage, was beaten into second place by the incumbent Labour Party in a by-election – although its massive vote sends a fearsome message to Britain’s ruling Conservatives.
The result in Peterborough, a small city in eastern England, piles pressure on Conservative MPs to pick a charismatic hardliner in a party leadership contest now under way to replace Theresa May, who steps down on Friday.
It also shows the Labour opposition can still appeal to voters who want to leave the EU – strengthening party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s resistance to calls for a second Brexit referendum.
Labour’s Lisa Forbes scraped to victory with 10,484 votes, beating by just 683 the Brexit Party’s Mike Greene, who, with 9,801 votes, forced the Conservatives into third place.
The Brexit Party was publicly launched just eight weeks ago to press for a departure from the EU on 31 October without a formal withdrawal deal – which many economists say would be disastrous.
It swept to victory in European elections last month, forcing May to finally name the date of her departure and strengthening the hand of Brexiteers within her cabinet pressing for an exit from the EU with or without a deal.
Breakthrough despite failure
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, said: “The result is big enough to scare the Conservative Party about what the Brexit Party might do at a general election, so it is a breakthrough – it shows that their appeal isn’t simply limited to European Parliament elections.”
David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, said Farage will be ebullient, despite failing to win the seat.
“The real take-home from this is that it is the first example that we are pretty much living in a four-party system at the moment and that is the new status quo – and it also shows that the Brexit Party will harm the Conservatives much more than they will harm Labour.”
The poll was triggered in Peterborough – which has a rapidly growing population of European migrants and has been hit hard by government spending cuts – when the sitting Labour MP was removed following a conviction for lying about a speeding ticket.
Seen as the “mother of all marginals” for its history of swinging back and forth between Conservative and Labour representatives, Peterborough voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with many of the “leavers” natural Labour voters.
All eyes were on the city on Thursday to see what message a breakthrough by Farage would send.
‘No deal’ appeal
The result will cast a shadow over the Conservatives as candidates battle to take over as leader from May by the end of July, with populist frontrunners, including Boris Johnson basing their appeal on taking a hardline stance with Brussels.
Bale said: “The Brexit Party has done well enough to continue scaring the Conservative Party into electing someone who will at least promise a ‘no deal’ Brexit if they can’t get what they want – and it also probably strengthens the idea that they need to elect someone with the charisma to match Farage.”
Oliver Patel, a research associate at the University College London European Institute, said the vote merely confirmed what the Conservative leadership candidates already knew – that there is a solid constituency of support for a “no deal” Brexit.
“But what we have learnt from this by-election and the European elections is that although there is a chunk of people who want a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it is nowhere near a majority.
“So it would be dangerous for them to read too much into that as the new ‘will of the people’, which seems to be what the frontrunners are doing. After all, Labour still won.”
Jeffery added that the result does not change the underlying “chicken and egg situation” faced by the Conservatives, caused by May’s failure to secure support for her Brexit withdrawal deal within parliament.
Whoever becomes Conservative leader will be under pressure to hold a general election in order to secure a democratic mandate – which risks sabotaging any pledge to ensure Brexit takes place.
“The Peterborough result gives strength to the idea that you need to finish Brexit before you have a general election, but that doesn’t take away the problem that you can’t deliver a Brexit that is acceptable to some of the Conservative parliamentary party and most Conservative members without a radically different composition to the House of Commons,” said Jeffery.
Labour’s established campaigning infrastructure and experienced candidate – who came second in Peterborough in the 2015 general election – proved to be a key factor in last night’s win.
Party activists in the constituency later insisted that the result vindicated their emphasis on local bread and butter pledges to prioritise schools, housing and jobs in the city against the single-issue focus of the Brexit Party solely on quitting the EU.
“Labour still has some appeal to leave voters and it also is able to put boots on the ground in a way that other parties can’t because it has a much bigger membership,” said Bale.
The result could strengthen the hand of Corbyn whose position of “constructive ambiguity” towards Brexit – insisting that the party must appeal to all its supporters regardless of their position on exiting the EU – has divided his MPs.
“Peterborough will strengthen the arguments of those in the Labour Party that they have to appeal to both leave and remain voters,” said Bale.
“I’m not sure those arguments are very convincing – but I have no doubt that this result will be used to bolster them. Corbyn’s conversion to a second referendum is unlikely.”
However, Patel added that under the “constructive ambiguity” strategy, Labour remains in a “Catch 22” whereby whichever course it takes will alienate some core voters.
“They will be relieved this morning and will certainly spin it as a success. But whether it shows the strategy is working is another question.”