Is Farage right? Have the main political parties blown it for good?

28 May 2019, 01:08 | Updated: 28 May 2019, 06:30

Nigel Farage has done it again - gifted a victory in the EU elections by the Tories' failure to deliver Brexit.

His newborn Brexit Party may be just six weeks old, but it has managed to top the polls and secure 29 MEPs.

The former UKIP leader with a new team and a well-worn Brexit betrayal battle cry: Mr Farage was here to settle old scores with political rivals as he launched attacks on a political establishment "no longer fit for purpose".

I put it to him that he and his Brexit Party will be irrelevant if and when the Tories do deliver Brexit; he was having none of it.

"If the Tories deliver Brexit?" he asks, turning to his new MEPs and laughing.

"Is that the same as the 108 times Theresa May said we're leaving on 29 March with or without a deal? Did that happen? The truth of it is this, the Conservative Party are bitterly divided."

What this EU election showed is that voters are too, and the grand coalition politics of the two main parties, trying to accommodate a wide range of views, has been comprehensively rejected by the electorate - for now.

This was the worst performance in over 200 years for the Tories as they came in fifth behind the Greens.

And Labour didn't do that much better, coming in third behind the Lib Dems.

Between them, the "compromise parties" scraped 23% of the vote, as pro-hard Brexit parties clocked up 34% and anti-Brexit ones 39%.

So the Brexit Party in first place, the Lib Dems in second. A piece of history made. In a way, it is not particularly surprising.

The Brexit riddle is the great unsolved conundrum of our times, defining not just our political discourse but increasingly our political identities.

Because in truth party politics has been set aside as MPs and voters coalesce around Brexit lines rather than the old tribes.

As leading pollster Sir John Curtice observed back in January this year, ours is a country that is increasingly defined - and polarised - by Brexit identities rather than party ones.

Only one in 16 Britons - 6% of respondents - did not have a Brexit identity, while more than one in five polled said they did not have a party identity.

Mr Farage predicted back in January, when the Curtice polling first came out, that "if the Brexit ball gets dropped there is a chance for a new party, perhaps even a realignment of British politics".

And so it came to pass as Mrs May delayed Brexit not once, but twice, moving the exit date to 31 October. It gave Mr Farage the perfect platform from which to campaign in elections we were never meant to hold.

Polling released on Monday by Lord Ashcroft found that two-thirds of the Brexit Party votes came from those who voted Tory in the 2017 general election, while the biggest single chunk of Lib Dem support came from 2017 Labour voters (37%) and 24% coming from Tories.

The two main parties reacted swiftly on Monday as they digested their respective election bloodbaths.

For the ruling Conservative Party, the pressure to leave the EU without a deal stepped up, with deputy chairman of the eurosceptic ERG group Steve Baker telling me that Brexit must be delivered this year, whatever the consequences.

"Yes the government could collapse," he admitted when I asked him about the Remainer revolt on his own benches should a new PM push the country to no deal.

"But if it does collapse its because Tory MPs have failed to live up to their promises and responsibilities to the public."

And then on the Labour side, open warfare on the frontbench as shadow chancellor John McDonnell (and others) tried to drag Jeremy Corbyn to a more unequivocal pro second referendum position, telling Sky News that Labour's "only option now is to go back to the people in a referendum".

Both sides polarising, it is even harder to see how they can ever agree Theresa May's compromise plan. The Tories' only hope is that Labour MPs in Leave seats will be spooked enough by the Labour frontbench's apparent attempt to shift Labour to a pro-referendum position that they break ranks and finally support some form of Tory Brexit deal.

Another interesting nugget in the Lord Ashcroft polling is that only one in three 2017 Conservatives who switched to the Brexit party said they would come back to the Tories in the next general election. Just over half said they would stay with Mr Farage and his team.

It feeds into the point Mr Farage made to me at his valedictory press conference on Monday: the main political parties, having failed to live up to their Brexit pledge to the electorate in 2017, have blown it for good with their supporters. They won't be coming back. He genuinely believes this is a realignment of British politics.

But, his success still remains dependent on Brexit failure. Remember that in 2014, UKIP topped the EU poll - Mr Farage's "political earthquake" - only for the two main parties to pull in 80% of the popular vote in a general election in which they both promised to honour the results of the 2016 referendum.

Neither the Tories nor Labour will want to risk a general election with Brexit unresolved for fear of huge losses at the polls. But as the main parties move away from the middle ground to the extremities - the question of how to solve Brexit looms ever larger. As to the answer? The public might have to be asked again in a referendum.