As moderates like Heidi Allen decide to quit parliament because of “utterly dehumanising” abuse amid the Brexit chaos and ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum seek to purge their respective parties, British politcs is in danger of becoming increasingly extreme.
There are a number of problems with holding a general election beyond the darker evenings, weather-related disruption and ironic clashes with the pantomime season.
One is that the UK is about to vote for MPs who could sit for five years and yet a single issue, Brexit, is likely to prove decisive. Within weeks, the UK could be out of the EU with a new crop of elected representatives who do not represent the opinions of those who elected them on the fundamentals of politics as usual, vital issues like the economy, taxation, law and order, the health service, climate change and education.
The first-past-the-post system also tends to hand victory to a party – or, perhaps in this case, coalition of parties – even though it gets less than 50 per cent of the vote. So it is possible that the majority of the country will vote for Remain/second referendum candidates, but get Brexit – or vice versa.
The fraught nature of the debate has been driving moderates out of both the Conservative and Labour parties. Some have become independents or joined the Liberal Democrats and others, like Heidi Allen, have decided to quit frontline politics altogether. The “heartbroken” Allen, who joined the Lib Dems this month after leaving the Tories in January, spoke of how she had become “exhausted” by “nastiness and intimidation” and the “utterly dehumanising” abuse she had received. No one should criticise her, but this is a victory for sinister, menacing thugs who are contemptuous for what should be the central theme of democracy: reasoned debate. Former Chancellor Philip Hammond has warned that the Conservatives have been “seized” by Vote Leave activists determined to purge the party of moderates. A general election presents them with the opportunity to do so.
Labour’s problems are slightly different but, as the failed attempt to deselect Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray and the aborted bid to oust deputy leader Tom Watson showed, it too is beset by those intent on an equally ideological purge.
Given the extent of the gridlock, an election may now be the only option – there’s only so long that Boris Johnson can be held captive and largely powerless in Number 10 as the leader of a minority government. Our hope – perhaps against hope – is that somehow enough moderate pragmatists will prevail to ensure that the Brexit question is settled in the most sensible way – a second referendum.