What is it with the British? All over Europe, the message from the polls, local and national, has been of a major shift in voting pattern towards the populist anti-immigrant anti-EU right wing. But not in the United Kingdom, thank you very much. As if to underline one of the Brexit arguments, the British demonstrated to the rest of Europe on Thursday that they do things differently there. Extremism does not prosper.
It was a major triumph for the middle-of-the-road pro-EU Liberal Democrats, with more than 700 local council seats gained. It was a disastrous night for the British version of a populist anti-immigrant anti-EU right wing party, UKIP, which lost 134 – almost a wipe-out. It was an almost equally disastrous night for the ruling Conservative Party from a much higher starting point, down over 1,300. And Labour took a beating too though a lesser one, down 84.
Race and immigration were almost non-issues in the local campaigns. The Brexit result in 2016 saw a sharp rise in racially based hate crime, but overall, British race relations are still relatively healthy. UKIP played the Islamophobia card and it cost them many votes. At the bar of European public opinion, I think the British public deserve a standing ovation. They refused to be stampeded.
As I have explained elsewhere, the two major parties are preoccupied with stitching together a deal that is designed to satisfy everybody but which in fact satisfies almost nobody. Thursday's result was a decisive thumbs down. Should that cross-party deal ever arrive and be put to a public vote, the signs are it will be massively defeated.
Indeed that is precisely what we can expect to happen in two weeks time, when Britain holds its version of elections to the European Parliament. Anyone favouring a May-Corbyn deal, whether it exists by then or not, will be heavily punished. With the exception of UKIP, any party that is neither Labour nor Tory can expect to do well. The Greens, the Lib Dems, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the pro-Brexit Brexit party and the anti-Brexit Change UK party can order the champagne now. And the Conservatives face a meltdown such as few have seen in their lifetimes. And Labour? It should by now be 20 per cent ahead in the polls, not losing seats in council elections.
So where are we heading? Neither the local council nor the European Parliamentary elections will change the course of history, because the political facts haven't changed nor has the House of Commons arithmetic. The Tory and Labour leaderships have no choice but to press on with their negotiations, and an ambiguously worded proposal will eventually emerge. The House of Commons will do one or two things: despite official party policy on both sides, MPs will either defeat it, or pass it with a confirmatory referendum amendment attached. Either way it is dead.
With no prospect of any agreement at all, the European Union – led by the French – will then tell the British the game is up. At which point only one lever remains for the House of Commons to pull if leaving without a deal is to be averted. It will vote to revoke Britain's Article 50 notice of leaving. The question is whether either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn will survive the ensuing political bloodbath, and whether they should.