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This must be one of the strangest election races in British history. The United Kingdom, which is officially leaving the European Union, is taking part in this week’s elections to the European Parliament, and the 73 successful candidates may not have enough time to take their seats before their country exits the bloc. Voter turnout, which is usually very low in European elections in Britain, is expected to be very high this week.
Stranger still, the party that is likely to win the lion’s share of the votes is only six weeks old and loathes everything the European Parliament stands for. That would be the Brexit Party, founded by Britain’s best-known euroskeptic politician, Nigel Farage.
The reason for Britain’s apparently pointless participation in this Europe-wide poll is simple: The U.K. is still a member of the EU, and if it doesn’t take part, the legality of the new parliament could be open to challenge. Also, for Britain’s pro- and anti-EU parties, the election is a way of testing the current level of support for Brexit.
Nevertheless, this is a very costly exercise. The poll will set British taxpayers back by more than 100 million pounds ($128 million). Isn’t this a terrific waste of public money?
“It is a waste of money. Yes. Spending 100 million is a waste,” admitted Lance Forman, a businessman and Brexit Party candidate. “But 39 billion pounds, which is what we’d pay the EU if we left under Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, is a much bigger waste which this election could help us avoid.”
The new party believes that Britain should quit the bloc without an exit deal under World Trade Organization terms, and that by showing British lawmakers and the EU negotiators in Brussels that a majority of Brits support such a move, it can end the Brexit stalemate and speed the U.K.’s departure.
The Brexit Party is controversial. Wildly popular with Brexiteers, founder Farage is profoundly disliked by many Remainers; indeed, one of them threw a banana and salted caramel milkshake at him this week. More seriously, the European Parliament has just launched an investigation into claims that as a member of the Parliament, he failed to declare more than a half-million dollars’ worth of expenses paid for by a businessman with Russian links. Farage has not denied the claim but dismissed the investigation as a smear designed to dent his popularity.
That popularity has soared. Opinion polls suggest that his new party is attracting more support than all the overtly pro-European parties combined, and it is appealing to people of different political persuasions.
“I’m a communist, and I’m going to vote for the Brexit Party in these elections,” Jill Rubell told Marketplace. “They want a clean Brexit, and they’re very clear that we should leave with no deal. That’s what I support,” she said.
Conservative voter Bradley Miller feels the same.
“I’m voting for the Brexit Party. I’m not voting Conservative this time because they’re liars and everything they’ve said is rubbish,” he said. “They haven’t delivered Brexit.”
Exploiting a widespread sense of disillusionment, the Brexit Party has staged a series of upbeat rallies around the U.K., pumping out this patriotic message: “We believe in Britain! Our great country deserves better!”
At one recent rally in the West Midlands town of Willenhall, the new party’s chairman, property tycoon Richard Tice, tapped into the feeling of anger and grievance among Brexiteers.
“We have been humiliated, utterly humiliated as a nation. It’s an outrage and a disgrace. Incompetent leadership! Incapable negotiators!” he declared.
Before the rally, in a brief interview with Marketplace, Farage pledged to combat the forces that were, in his words, “trying to frustrate the will of the people” as expressed in the referendum on EU membership in 2016.
“We’ve been willfully betrayed by our political class,” Farage said. “And I founded the Brexit Party to fight back against that. Victory in these elections would put a WTO Brexit back on the table.”
Farage was given a rapturous reception by the 1,000-strong audience in Willenhall.
“I think he’s an exceptional man,” said Ray Nock, a former Conservative politician. “And he’s the right man at the right time to save this country and deliver Brexit. I’m confident he will deliver Brexit.”
Independent analysts say the European election result could turn the heat up on the Conservative government, especially since the scramble to replace Theresa May as Conservative party leader is already underway and likely to become official next month.
“If the Brexit Party wins a convincing victory in the European elections,” said Dominic Walsh of the Open Europe think tank, “there will be huge pressure on the leadership contenders to cleave in that direction and come out in favor of a no-deal Brexit. The Conservatives will be desperate to win back some of the voters they have lost to the Brexit Party.”
But the British Parliament has declared itself against such a policy, and the government, which doesn’t have an overall majority, would struggle to muster sufficient votes to push it through.
For ex-Conservative supporters of the Brexit Party, there is another sobering thought: A really crushing defeat for the Conservatives in the European elections could conceivably mark the beginning of the disintegration of that party and in time usher into power a hard left Labour government with a program of sweeping nationalization and higher taxes.
Britain’s participation in this week’s election could be costly in more ways than one.
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