On Thursday 23 May the UK will hold an election, at least in theory to decide the country’s representatives at the next European Parliament. We say “in theory”, because this is surely the strangest election Britain has ever held: most of the parties contesting the election never expected to do so and have no constructive policies to put forward, most of the candidates do not expect ever to take their seat in the parliament even if they win, and most of the electorate is at best indifferent to the parliament and around half of them actively wants nothing at all to do with it.
It is certainly a strange atmosphere in which to hold a national poll, stranger even than the local authority elections in May 2016, when in the middle of the Referendum campaign which saw politicians from the same party on opposite sides and virulently attacking each other, the business of the Referendum was suspended for two weeks and implacable foes suddenly became “my honourable friend” and praised to the sky. Even at the time three years ago it sounded insincere, and since then animosities between members of the same party have only got worse.
And the response from voters will most probably be large-scale abstentions and refusal to vote. The turnout is likely to be low, which could lead to some very unexpected results, and drawing any conclusions about the national mood from the outcome will be hazardous, other than confirmation of the general ennui with Europe and a heartfelt wish that the whole question of Brexit would just go away.
That is a pity, because the election – unexpected and unwanted though it undoubtably is – does like any other national plebiscite provide an opportunity for the electorate to express its views. Indeed, because voters are not electing a government or even (if the UK does eventually leave the EU) a parliament with any authority in the UK, it offers a unique opportunity for voters to say what they really think.
And there are two areas where they might consider doing so. The first is the natural backward-looking one of reviewing the current state of politics and the actions of the various political parties since the last national poll in 2017, and the second is the more forward-looking one of expressing a view on where they wish the UK to be in say 10 years’ time.
On the first, both the major parties expect to fare badly and are braced for voter anger and lost votes. The Conservatives in particular fear the worst, and probably rightly so; if ever a party deserved the voters’ rejection in an election, it is the Tories. In the three years since the Referendum, they have combined an inability to execute their policies with a willingness to put party above national interest in a way that few commentators can recall.
Moreover, it is unclear what a vote for the Conservatives would actually mean, with different elements of the party espousing radically different, indeed diametrically opposite, views. The party has not even managed to produce a manifesto for the election and has no policies except to repeat Mrs May’s tired claim that “only she can achieve Brexit”.
It is in fact a slight surprise to us that the Conservatives are contesting these elections at all. They would have made a stronger political point, as well as saved a lot of money and embarrassment, by simply not putting up any candidates.
The Labour Party would normally be the beneficiary of Tory electoral woe, but face their own challenges of internal dissent, incoherent policies and ineffective leadership. Like the Conservatives, they are completely riven over the question of Europe, and the leadership stands almost as much accused of putting party interest before country. And as with the Conservatives, it is unclear what a vote for the party really means.
The pro-EU parties, of which at the last count there were at least three expected to field candidates in England (the Liberal Democrats, Change UK and the UK EU Party), with in Scotland and Wales the two nationalist parties adding their pro-EU voices as well, do not suffer from such confusion on where they stand. Instead, they suffer from insufficient differentiation, and they are likely to split the pro-EU vote between them, to the advantage of none of them.
One of the more depressing features of what passes as an election campaign for these elections has been the complete inability of any of the pro-EU parties to work with any of the others, either in fielding joint candidates (or allowing one party a clear run) or even on joint messaging. They are all likely to suffer from this failure.
Finally, there are two outright anti-EU parties, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party, the new party started only a month or two ago by Nigel Farage. Both have clear enough policies, but there the similarity ends: UKIP (in its umpteenth emanation) is a party ill at ease with itself and chaotic in its preparations, while Farage is once again showing that whatever else he is, he is a superb organiser of a one-issue protest campaign. Most commentators expect Farage’s party to perform well in the election; some indeed think he may outright win the most votes.
So much for reviewing the performance of the various parties. This is always a legitimate activity at any election and politicians who perform inadequately rightly deserve the electorate’s rejection. But as we mentioned above, this election also gives voters a chance to express their views on the direction the UK should be heading in.
Here there are in essence three options: revoking Article 50 and seeking to stay a member of the EU, seeking some sort of customs union, and leaving the EU completely, with or without a deal.
It is hard to see how, given the last three years, it could now be in the UK’s overall long-term interest to revoke Article 50 and try to stay a member of the EU. In 2016, ongoing membership was of course a legitimate option and – full disclosure – it was the outcome we would have favoured. But three years later, we think too much has changed, both in the UK and in the EU-27. There would be too high a level of distrust, on both sides, and the EU would rightly be concerned that the UK’s heart would not be in its membership.
As a result the country would probably find its membership very much second rate and on sufferance, with its concerns “listened to” but then ignored, its ability to push its views very limited, its chances of a senior commissioner reduced, its budget rebate under threat and the pressure on the UK to end its opt-outs (eg from the euro, from Shengen) increasing. And – quite apart from ensuring that the issue of leaving will remain a running sore – the damage done to trust in politics in the UK would be significant.
Nor on a closer look is the position of associate member, whether like Norway or in a customs union, much more attractive. This would have all the disadvantages of the lack of closure that revoking Article 50 has, plus mean that the UK would have no voice in the rules the country would have to obey and no ability to agree independent trade agreements. In addition, none of the various schemes being discussed cover services, which is the main sector that the UK needs clarity on.
This is a second-class status that would surely satisfy no-one. And the Brexiteers would have the ready-made answer to any complaints that any problems were “still all Brussels’ fault and if the UK had only followed our advice and fully left …”
Which leaves outright departure. Due to the failure of the government to secure a better agreement with the EU, this would imply either considerable short term pain (leaving without a deal) or ongoing aggravation and servitude (Mrs May’s deal). The choice is not an attractive one, but there are some commentators who think that, counter-intuitively, the UK has a better chance of negotiating a long term (ie permanent) agreement with the EU if it leaves without a deal or a transition period than if it leaves with one.
The challenge with May’s deal is that it is (much) more comfortable for the EU than the UK, which means that while the UK will be keen to exit from the transition, the EU would be motivated to stall. Indeed, fears that the transition could be never-ending are not without justification, as the EU would have nothing much to lose from stalling and nothing material to gain from concluding the long-term agreement the UK seeks.
In a paradoxical way, the EU-27 negotiators have been so successful in steering the deal with the UK to their advantage that they now risk not consummating it, as Mrs May’s line that “no deal is better than a bad deal” – unlikely though this sounded in 2016 when she first made the claim – might even in 2019, with the full nature of the deal on offer now known, prove correct.
On the other hand, were the UK to leave with no deal, it would create a dynamic where (apart from immediately allowing the UK to negotiate its own trade agreements with third countries) the EU, and specifically Ireland, would also be in a position where a long-term deal gives them something positive, so they would also be incentivised to negotiate seriously.
It is analysis such as this that leads many to argue that in the very long run the UK is more likely to have a prosperous future as a country if it is autonomous rather than subservient, and that one might as well start the difficult road to that end-point sooner rather than later. Indeed, that in a nutshell is Nigel Farage’s proposal. And so far, none of the more established parties has been able to counter it successfully or put forward a more optimistic scenario, which may be one reason for Farage and his party’s current polling figures.
And so, the elections that nobody wanted and that on the surface serve no useful purpose may turn out to have rather more meaning to them. On the one hand it is never a bad thing for politicians to feel the electorate’s dismay at their failures, and on the other, the absence of short-run consequences from the election does allow a longer perspective. There may be some point in Britons voting on 23 May after all.
 There is a precedent for this: none of the main parties contest elections in Northern Ireland, because they prefer not to put up candidates to being on the ballot paper and receiving pointedly low levels of support. As all cricketers know, “Did not bat, 0” is no disgrace, whereas “Out, 0” is the epitome of failure!
 As a major new report from NIESR sets out in some detail. They conclude that “While [a] customs union arrangement is seen as being as frictionless a trade relationship as is possible without the UK being in the single market, it would nevertheless involve significant non-tariff barriers that would hinder trade, particularly in services. That would be a material economic burden in view of the importance of services trade to the UK economy.” See https://www.niesr.ac.uk/publications/economic-impact-united-kingdom-customs-union-deal-european-union, issued 8 May 2019.
 Again, there is precedent for this, as the EU’s treatment of Turkish North Cyprus shows. 15 years after accepting the EU’s promise of negotiations and best endeavours to end the division on the island if they allowed Greek Cyprus to join the EU, the North Cypriots are still waiting for Brussels to keep its word.