Britain Turns to Politics of Protest as Brexit Drift Persists

(Bloomberg) -- “The government is completely constipated with Brexit and it needs some treatment.” This was the professional medical opinion of Alex Armitage, a pediatrician who this week took time to join the mass climate change protest in central London with his young son.

The U.K. is in the grip of a political impasse that shows no prospect of easing. Theresa May’s government is failing to deliver Brexit, Parliament is deadlocked over the way forward, and the European Union’s 27 remaining nations have given the U.K. another six months to try to work it out.

Britain Turns to Politics of Protest as Brexit Drift Persists

As the drift continues, there are signs voters are growing ever more tired of mainstream political parties. Britain has seen a rise in fringe movements and an upsurge in street protests, culminating in this week’s campaign of civil disobedience over climate change that brought parts of London to a standstill.

“It feels like we’ve exhausted all of the vertical channels open to us, like talking to our MPs,” said Eve Merrall, 23, a student from Sheffield, northern England, protesting outside Parliament. “There’s a huge amount of dissatisfaction with our political system.”

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As of Thursday evening, police had carried out more than 460 arrests as activists refused to move, blocked roads and glued themselves to trains and buildings. Protesters were ignoring official demands to stop and planned to continue their campaign of disruption over the Easter holiday weekend.

“I am prepared to be arrested,” Teresa Belton, 66, from Norwich, eastern England, said as she stood by a roadblock at the end of Whitehall. “If it takes arrest to get some movement on this, it’s so desperately needed, then so be it.”

Next month, voters are scheduled to go to the polls twice, first in local government elections in England and Northern Ireland on May 2, and then in a set of European Parliament elections across the U.K. three weeks later.

Unwilling Participant

The government doesn’t even want to hold the EU poll, and is still trying to get a Brexit agreement ratified in the House of Commons by May 22 so it can be canceled. May and her euroskeptic Conservative Party colleagues are dismayed at the thought of sending a new cadre of representatives to the European Parliament three years after the U.K. voted to leave the bloc.

Britain Turns to Politics of Protest as Brexit Drift Persists

But -- as ever with Brexit -- time is running out yet progress appears to be slowing down. May opened cross-party talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to reach a compromise on the divorce terms that both main parties can vote for. The problem is May’s aides detect no sense of urgency from Corbyn’s team, and talks are paused for the Easter holiday.

The risk for May’s Tories is that they’re punished in the European elections by voters who are increasingly in the mood to register a protest. A heavy defeat could severely undermine the premier’s ability to make any more compromises on Brexit, potentially pushing British politics further into a spiral of disarray.

Polls this week suggest support is bleeding away from the two main parties as a new brand, fronted by an old euroskeptic campaigner -- Nigel Farage -- has surged ahead. A YouGov poll for The Times newspaper Thursday put his Brexit Party on 23 percent, Labour on 22 percent and the Tories on 17 percent.

Plunging Popularity

May’s failure to take the U.K. out of the EU as planned on March 29 -- and her need to delay the divorce twice -- has hit her ratings.

“Since mid-March, the Tory vote has been in free-fall,” John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said in an interview. “The story is simple: Not all, but the vast bulk of the drop is from people who voted to leave, and the party is being punished for not delivering.”

In the 2017 general election, these committed Brexit voters backed May’s Conservatives, largely because her party was seen as the most likely to follow through on the Brexit referendum result a year earlier. Still, she lost her majority in that election, and her subsequent inability to deliver Brexit has left many of these voters looking for an alternative.

They’ve found an obvious home in Farage’s Brexit Party. The former U.K. Independence Party leader is one of Britain’s most controversial politicians, making a career out of his campaign to pull the U.K. out of the EU.

Farage’s Pitch

Under Farage, UKIP won the popular vote in the last European elections in 2014, prompting former Prime Minister David Cameron to put an EU referendum at the center of his election offer the following year.

Now Farage is promising another “revolution” with his new party, and has already attracted a clutch of Tory defectors.

Britain Turns to Politics of Protest as Brexit Drift Persists

For pro-European voters, the options are less clear. A new party, Change UK, will take part in the EU elections but its policy platform is far less clear than Farage’s. It’s made up of 11 former Labour and Conservative members of Parliament who quit in February to form The Independent Group, in protest at the way major parties were operating.

Since then, the group has been actively calling for another referendum to settle the fate of Brexit, and about 3,700 people have registered an interest in standing for the party in the European elections.

Fragmented Support

But in the latest Times/YouGov poll, Change UK was on 8 percent, well short of The Brexit Party. In part that’s because others -- such as Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party -- are all seen as offering rival ways to prevent Brexit, including another referendum.

“The Remain vote has fragmented, and the hard Brexit vote has hardened,” Curtice said.

On March 23, London was brought to a halt by another protest. More than a million people crowded into the capital to demand a second referendum on Brexit -- a so-called People’s Vote -- according to the rally’s organizers.

Just six days later on March 29 -- the date Britain was originally scheduled to leave the EU -- Parliament Square was crammed with pro-Brexit campaigners calling on politicians to deliver the result of the first referendum.

Death Threats

At times, this divisive Brexit debate has turned nasty. Outspoken pro-EU politicians such as Change UK’s Anna Soubry, a former Conservative, have been publicly threatened by Brexit supporters, while pro-Leave politicians such as Tory Steve Baker have faced death threats.

The lingering bitterness is one reason why May and her team believe another referendum would be a disaster for the country, even as supporters of a second vote regard it as an obvious way to break the stalemate.

Back at the climate protest in London, Belton said British politics needs a radical shake-up.

“One can only hope the silver lining of the Brexit debacle is that out of the chaos something really good could arise -- new structures, new ways of working,” she said. “When everything’s going along in a stable way, nothing changes.”

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