Ian Swanson: Party poopers or picks for protest vote – you decide

POLITICS across the UK feels as if it is moving quickly from mayhem to meltdown. After three years when parliament has been paralysed by the Brexit process and an unnecessary general election provided the numbers for an intractable stalemate on the way forward, both the main Westminster parties have been left humiliated by the results of the European elections and divided on what to do next.

Tuesday, 4th June 2019, 6:00 am
Lib Dem leadership candidate Jo Swinson remains tainted by the party's time in coalition with the Conservatives. Picture: Getty

The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats were the big winners in the May 23 European vote. And at least one opinion poll shows them ahead for a general election too – the Lib Dems on 24 per cent, the Brexit Party on 22 per cent with Labour and Conservatives tied on 19 per cent.

European elections have in the past been used as an easy protest vote and the outcome does not usually translate into similar results at any other level. But the two parties which have ­traditionally held power in the UK are currently both in unprecedented turmoil.

Labour is tearing itself apart over a second Brexit referendum and the Tories are indulging in a leadership contest to replace the Prime Minister. Pundits talk about both facing an “existential” threat.

But has it really got to the stage where the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems are set to become the dominant political forces?

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Sir Vince Cable is stepping down as Lib Dem leader on a high. The party suffered a huge loss of seats after it went into coalition with the Tories at Westminster in 2010 and even its role as standard-bearer for the Remain cause failed to revive its fortunes at the last general election. Just six weeks ago, the party was rated as low as six per cent in the polls, but it went on to win a tranche of seats in the English local elections last month and then increased its contingent of MEPs from one to 16.

But, at the moment, they remain an extremely small band in the ­Commons – but, although Jo Swinson, the favourite to take over from Sir Vince, has the positives of being a young woman, she is nevertheless tainted by the Lib Dems’ time in coalition with the ­Conservatives, having served as a junior minister.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was established only a few months before the European elections but it trumped all the rest, taking more than 30 per cent of the votes and winning 29 of the 73 UK seats. It has since made clear it has its sights set on Westminster and Holyrood as well.

Some commentators argue the party’s appeal has gone beyond the immediate issue of Brexit and is now about people’s disillusionment with the political system in general, a bitterness, anger and contempt that the parties, the media, the courts and the whole “political elite” are working against the interests of “the people”.

Here in Scotland, the SNP’s ­continued lead in the polls provides an element of stability and normality, but Scottish politics is also caught up in the meltdown.

Labour’s disastrous performance in the Euro elections was followed by the resignations of both Corbyn-supporting Lothian MSP Neil Findlay and Edinburgh Southern’s pro-Remain Daniel Johnson from the party’s frontbench at Holyrood.

What happens next? Neither of the big UK parties wants a general election and a no-deal Brexit is looming closer. Whatever the future holds, these are memorable and important times. The risk is that what they will produce is a historic mess.