April 28, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
Within hours of Theresa May’s announcement that she intended to call an election on June 8th, the offices of ‘Open Britain’, a lobby group put together out of the remnants of the Remain campaign from the EU Referendum, filled up with senior people. They were there to approve a budget of £350,000, which is the maximum that can be spent by a third-party organisation on an General Election, to try to influence the result in a certain way.
The aim is to avoid the House of Commons being packed with MPs hell-bent on a hard Brexit. So Open Britain aim to provide cash, activists, polling and focus group research targeted in marginal seats. They would help Labour and Lib-Dem candidates to beat Eurosceptic Conservatives in seats that mostly voted Remain. Remain-voting Conservative and Labour MPs would be helped to retain their seats.
Open Britain have a 550,000-strong mailing list which can be used to identify sympathetic supporters in these key areas and encourage them to vote tactically. Tactical voting is where a voter doesn’t vote necessarily for their favourite political party, but for the party most likely to achieve their aim in a particular constituency at a particular election. So, this means that a Labour voter in a Lib-Dem/Tory marginal would be encouraged to vote for the Lib-Dem so that the vote for the EU-phillic candidate isn’t split.
Roland Rudd, Chairman of Open Britain (and coindcidentally the brother of Remain-supporting Home Secretary Amber Rudd), said in the Times recently that “People in huge numbers and across political parties are motivated to stop a hard destructive Brexit. The electorate is more fluid than in the past. Clearly party allegiances haven’t died but I can’t remember any single issue that has had the potential to affect the result in so many constituencies.”
Sure enough, Open Britain have released a list of their top 20 target seats to challenge for and their top 20 incumbent seats to protect. The incumbent seats weren’t massively controversial, partly because, as suspected, all the incumbents voted remain. What brought all this to the nation’s attention were the target seats, which include five occupied by Conservative MPs who voted Remain. The argument that Open Britain gave for this is that, for instance, Sir Ed Davey, a former Liberal Democrat Minister, is running against James Berry, and whilst both voted Remain, Ed Davey is more pro-Europe.
That led in short order to five Conservative MPs ‘walking out of the cross-party campaign in disgust’. Nicky Morgan, Alistair Burt, Anna Soubry, Neil Carmichael and Dominic Grieve announced their departure. Morgan said that “As longstanding Conservative Party members and MPs, it is untenable for us to play any further role in an organisation such as Open Britain, which is advocating campaigning against Conservative MPs or candidates. I and we will not be doing so.”
Now, of course I am sure that no Conservative whip has leaned on these five MPs reminding them how Conservative MPs are banned from campaigning for members of other parties in elections.
In truth, what is happening IS what Rudd says. The electorate IS more fluid, and whilst party allegiances haven’t died, Brexit is an issue that is uniting politicians more than any. Nick Clegg recently spoke about how he had had far more conversations over the past year with politicians from other party than he ever did in five years as Deputy Prime Minister.
The trouble is that political party rules are not changing along with political realities. The attempt to form a ‘progessive pact’ between left-wing parties to encourage tactical voting and to get each party to get a ‘clean run’ against the Tories is foundering in particular on Labour Party rules that no Labour candidate can support anyone against another Labour candidate. This attempt to form a ‘Soft-Brexit pact’ is also likely to founder because political party allegiances come first.
At least, this is what is happening in public. As Baroness Jowell, a former Labour Minister but now freed from their rules has said: “This is a Brexit election and it is unusual because you have the power of a movement for Europe which transcends traditional party loyalties. I’m not saying that Labour people should vote Lib Dem but political tribalism alone does not best serve our national interest at this time.”