LONDON - Britain’s Brexit referendum last year was meant to have ended debate about the perennial big question of the country’s relationship with Europe. But as British politicians started this week to campaign in earnest for next month’s parliamentary elections, EU membership remains a dominating issue and is adding to a shake-up of the country’s traditional party politics.
In dramatic fashion, the pro-EU former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair has re-entered the political arena, saying it would be understandable for the party faithful to consider tactical voting in the June general election in a bid to block hard-right Conservatives who want a sharp break from Europe from being elected.
While Blair, the longest-serving Labor Prime Minister in British history, avoided endorsing tactical voting openly, he argued Monday it is “not the time to fight a conventional partisan election.” Blair hinted he was considering making a parliamentary comeback and standing himself.
Voters, he says, should consider candidates' positions on Brexit, and cast their votes accordingly, backing any candidate regardless of party affiliation on that basis alone. He wants to tie Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s hands when she comes to negotiate an exit deal with the European bloc.
May announced last week a snap poll, flying in the face of previous promises not to call an early election.
Conservatives June 8 favorites
With Labor ranks in disarray over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left figure who has seen several rebellions against him by moderate Labor lawmakers, the Conservatives are odds-on favorites to win the June 8 election and to increase substantially their 17-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Some pollsters predict Labor could see their lowest tally since 1935 when the party secured just 154 seats in a 600-plus seat legislature, after an internecine war broke out in the party during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, with an eye to the success on Sunday in the first round of the French presidential elections of non-traditional contenders centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the Conservative May appears to be trying to shape a manifesto that will appeal to nationalists on the right of the political spectrum while not neglecting the middle ground of British politics.
Her policy chief, George Freeman, has spoken of an “insurgency against unaccountable elites,” sweeping across Western democracies. He has argued disdain for the establishment was behind last year’s Brexit vote and the election in the U.S. of Donald Trump.
The party’s manifesto is likely to see the Conservatives, traditionally pro-business, re-define what they think the relationship should be between big business and the state, and to present May as an anti-establishment candidate.
According to Rachel Sylvester, a columnist in The Times, the re-definition will build on May’s past calls for companies to show a greater sense of social duty and to act in the national interest.
Blair vs. Tories
Blair’s call Monday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and May’s moves to redefine how Conservatives view business, are reflections of the breakdown in traditional party politics sweeping Britain and the country's European neighbors.
Blair argues the Conservatives are presenting the upcoming election as about “strengthening the prime minister’s hand in the Brexit negotiation” with the Europeans.
He says they are trying to suggest a vote for the Conservatives is the same thing as a vote in the national interest. “We have to expose the fact that the mandate the Tories are asking for is not for an open negotiation in the interests of the country but for a ‘Brexit at any cost’ driven by the ideology of the right of the Tory party,” he argued.
Blair’s intervention has outraged hard-left Labor lawmakers, who compared it to the break with Labor by Ramsay MacDonald, a founding member of the party who formed a national government with the Conservatives in the 1930s. Mark Seddon, a Labor stalwart labeled it “one of the biggest acts of political treachery in recent memory,” arguing, the former Labor prime minister was “potentially condemning members of his own party to defeat at the General Election.”
Pro-Brexit politicians targeted
Blair is not alone in arguing Brexit should be the defining issue for voters in June. The pressure group Open Britain, whose half-million members cross party lines, has drawn up a hit-list of 20 prominent Brexit-supporting lawmakers who represent constituencies that voted to remain in the European Union in last June’s referendum. Most of the lawmakers are Conservatives, but the list includes some Labor MPs.
With the ultimate aim of limiting the number of proponents of a so-called hard Brexit in parliament, the group, along with two other pro-EU grassroots organizations, has also drawn up a list of 20 Labor, Liberal Democrat and Conservative lawmakers who have been strong advocates of a close relationship with the European economic bloc and says it will do its best to get them re-elected.