25 April 2019

Change UK are the Remain party of Nigel Farage’s dreams


It’s been a pretty good few weeks for Nigel Farage. In the blink of an eye his Brexit Party have emerged as the frontrunners for these oddest of European parliamentary elections. That early momentum has been burnished by a slick, professional campaign launch featuring people from all walks of life, not simply some kind of Tory or Ukip tribute act.

And in Change UK, he could hardly have asked for more accommodating opponents.

First there’s the name. Vague, non-committal, not to do with Brexit, but above all different to ‘the Independent Group’, which the party started out with not so long ago. Remember, the vast majority of the public pay little attention to politics, so a crisp, clear platform is essential to get anywhere, especially when you’re a new party and especially at European elections where turnout is traditionally confined to about a third of the electorate.

Worse still they’ve changed from a name that actually means something, i.e. independence from the mainstream parties, to one which can mean anything you want. Pretty much all politicians promise change of some description – what would be the need for them otherwise?

On top of that, it’s not at all clear who is in charge. The former Tory MP Heidi Allen is the interim leader, but one often gets the impression that it’s Chuka Umunna who is really directing things. And at elections, where leaders are often a byword for parties, not really having one is a pretty big problem.

There could not be a starker contrast with Farage’s newly-minted Brexit Party. Whatever one’s thoughts on the man, his effectiveness as a political communicator cannot be in doubt. The Brexit Party is the Ronseal of political movements, you don’t need to know anything about it beyond its name to know exactly what it’s for.

That simplicity is also an asset in terms of who it can attract to the cause too – not just disgruntled Tories or ex-Kippers, but the likes of Claire Fox, a former communist who is quite clear how little she has in common with Farage, beyond the desire to see through the referendum result. That much has been made clear by Farage’s announcement that he will be going after the 5 million Labour voters who backed Leave.

Then there are the candidates. Bluntly, whoever else the Brexit Party had picked, Farage is by far its most significant calling card. Change UK’s ‘star’ MEP candidates, meanwhile? The former TV presenter Gavin Esler – big on #FBPE Twitter, not so much down the Dog ‘n’ Duck – and Rachel Johnson, whose selection seems more geared towards winding up brother Boris than any particular electoral strategy.

Just to add to the slightly farcical atmosphere, two of their candidates have already had to step aside – one for saying he would support Brexit if it got rid of Romanian pickpockets, another for tweeting about a “crazy black whore”. That’s on top of Angela Smith’s now infamous “funny tinge” comments, of course.

As well as failing to make a compelling case in its own right, CHUK’s biggest impact may have been to further fragment the broader Continuity Remain cause. Indeed, while Allen might call her party the “Remain alliance”, it is really more of a splinter group, whose presence is only likely to confuse voters in what is basically a single issue election.

This will also be an issue if there’s a general election in the near future. It’s difficult to see how Change UK has the faintest hope of holding on, let alone adding to its stock of MPs, without an electoral pact of some sort. The problem there is that their whole message is predicated around doing things in a whole new way – launching into an alliance with an established Westminster party, albeit a small one, somewhat negates that.

Of course, it was always unlikely CHUK would garner a huge wave of Remainer support. After all, its stated aim of a second referendum is already the policy of the Greens, the Lib Dems and the SNP. It’s also the sort-of-policy of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, whose pinhead-dancing on the subject Europe is almost impressive in its agility.  CHUK might claim it is filling a gap in the political landscape, but voters who want to stop Brexit already have a whole menu of options and a good number of MPs in their corner.

In contrats the No Deal Brexit that Farage and co are calling for now commands the support of only a handful of MPs – theirs is a genuinely populist anti-politics message (albeit one spearheaded by a professional politician who’s spent 20-odd years telling people he isn’t one).

None of this bodes well for Change UK’s long-term future. While Umunna might argue CHUK is about more than Brexit, the fact it’s not making waves on what should be its signature issue suggests a pretty fundamental problem for the wannabe insurgents.

Its performance in the upcoming elections may be taken with a pinch of salt, given the party’s only been around for a few months. Where it is likely to really come undone is at a general election, when the likes of Allen, Umunna, Chris Leslie and Anna Soubry face a monumental battle to hold onto their seats.

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John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX