The election diaries

4th July 2019

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Gavin Ward

The European elections have left me wondering whether to laugh or cry. The Brexit Party swept across Britain, all noise and beery bluster. That the party's policies fit neatly onto the back of a fag packet suits its leader Nigel Farage, and seemingly matters little to the 5.2m people (36.1% of the vote) who backed him. “We are now looking towards Westminster,“ is the warning on the party's website.

On June 1, the Brexit Party – which was only launched in April – was polling at 26%, ahead of Labour (22%), the Conservatives (17%) and the Lib Dems (16%). The party hasn't yet written a manifesto for a general election, but its main protagonists have form when it comes to climate scepticism.

Chief among them is Ann “there is no climate change, hasn't anybody looked out of the window recently?“ Widdecombe. Those were her words in 2009 – the year after she was one of only five MPs to vote against the Climate Change Bill as it passed through Parliament, and the year before she hit the Strictly dancefloor. In 2014, those famous five got back together for an anniversary. “I am proud to have been one of those five MPs and I wonder how many others would join us if the vote were happening now,“ she wrote at the time, in a piece for the Daily Express.

Five years on, perhaps we should start to wonder – and worry. Widdecombe is back in politics as a Brexit Party MEP. At the time of writing, the Electoral Calculus website puts the Brexit Party on course to win 249 seats, with Labour on 216 and the Conservatives just 54. Libs Dems would grab 51 and the SNP 56.

The Green Party would muster just one, despite polling as high as 11% in some surveys (the perils of first past the post). Still, it's a “really high number of people, one in 10 saying they will vote Green for Westminster“, suggested the party's co-leader Si√¢n Berry. “This success has been a long time coming.“ This is a moot point. Farage has depicted himself as the fox shouting his way into the Westminster hen house and the 'riches' that supposedly await us at the end of the Brexit tunnel. “This place I am hoping to get to is so marvellous that if I described it to you now you would go crazy with excitement,“ as the other 'Fantastic Mr Fox' said.

The Greens, meanwhile, are the ones with the cunning plan – one that has already seen their popularity jump from 3% to 11%, despite no-one knowing who the leader is. Berry co-leads the party with Jonathan Bartley; they stood on a joint platform to “become England and Wales's third party“. Britons love a plucky underdog, but perhaps the party's European election results will cause Berry and Bartley to adjust this target?

The Brexit Party's main protagonists have form when it comes to climate scepticism“

According to Press Association figures, the Greens won 12.1% of the vote in Great Britain in May's European elections, ahead of the Conservatives (9.1%). Their success wasn't just confined to these shores, though: Greens won 70 seats in the 751-seat European assembly, and in Germany their vote doubled to almost 20%, which could reportedly see the German Greens' co-leader Robert Habeck on the path to the chancellery.

Could Berry or Bartley make it into number 11? Stranger things have happened. So far there has been no flirting with Labour or the Lib Dems. It would be up to others to pursue the Greens in any progressive alliance – and they won't be easily wooed.

Buoyed by the 'Greta effect', the Greens are enjoying their power as potential kingmakers. Voters sent a signal that they want the environment at the heart of politics, according to Yannick Jadot, an MEP for the Europe √âcologie-Les Verts party (which surprised many in France by coming third). “The environment cannot just be a promise you make before elections,“ he told The Guardian.

It's a message that politicians should heed. Theresa May had a tepid attitude towards global warming before Michael Gove – expertly judging the shift in public opinion – convinced her to make a splash with the 25-year environment plan. The environment secretary has re-energised Defra, but so far there is little primary legislation to show for his efforts. And now his eyes are set on a much bigger prize: the leadership. Should he win*, Gove will find it hard to row back on the eco-brand he has created for himself. If he tries, the Greens will be waiting.

David Burrows is a freelance journalist.

*This feature was written before Michael Gove was eliminated from the Conservative leadership contest.


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