What is fevered activity between minor parties in Europe, becomes equally fevered factional activity within the Tory Party.
400 million eligible voters across Europe will send 720 representatives to Brussels this June in the European Parliament elections. With far-right parties on the rise in Europe, advancing up the polls, occupying ministerial roles in coalition governments, and shaping the policies of the mainstream right, including adopting more anti-immigration positions, Eurosceptic populists could be on track for big gains. What will it mean for the EU if the traditional centre-left and centre-right that built it, are swamped by smaller, radical fringe parties, who will have influence over EU decision-making for the next five years?
And what would it mean for Britain? Our first-past-the-post voting (FPTP) system means it is more difficult for small new parties to make an impact, unlike the likes of the Netherlands, which finally succumbed to a long ascent by the far-right Party for Freedom in November. Instead, the battle in Britain is more about controlling the big parties, specifically the Tories, which are facing takeover bids by various hard-right nationalist factions. No doubt Britain’s Eurosceptic hardliners will be emboldened if anti-EU European populists manage to make significant gains in June.
And the polls don’t look pretty, predicting a right-wing surge.
A recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) forecasts the 2024 European Parliament elections will see a major shift to the right in many countries, with the hard nationalist right picking up nearly a quarter of seats, and centre-left and green parties losing votes and seats. The forecast shows that these anti-European populists are likely to top the polls in nine member states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia) and come second or third in a further nine countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden).
Hungary’s Viktor Orban has confirmed that his Fidesz party MEPs “are ready and will join” the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, led by his Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni. After UK Conservatives left, the group has been dominated by Polish nationalists. If the two factions joined forces it could become the “strongest faction in the European Parliament,” as Gergely Gulyás Hungary’s minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, recently said.
On February 7, France’s far-right politician Marion Marechal, granddaughter of National Front (renamed National Rally in 2018) founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and niece of its current leader Marine Le Pen, announced that Nicolas Bay, the party’s sole member of the European Parliament, will sit with the Eurosceptic ECR group. Polls show that the group is threatening to overtake French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe in size, with Meloni’s MEPs expected to swell in number.
What impact a far-right infiltration on the European Parliament would have on EU decision-making is the subject of concerned speculation. The ECFR.EU surmises that while the parliament is not the most significant EU institution when it comes to foreign policy, the way in which the political groups align after the elections, and the impact that these elections have on national debates in member states, will have significant implications for the European Commission’s and Council’s ability to make foreign policy choices.
The most notable will be implementing the next phase of the European Green Deal.
“We’re going to see a really significant shift to the right,” said Simon Hix, a professor of comparative politics at the European University Institute.
Hix predicts that the far-right Identity & Democracy (ID) grouping in the European Parliament, home to the German extreme-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the French far-right National Rally (RN) party, will gain 40 seats in June, toppling the Liberals from their third-place spot. He also forecasts the 67-members of the ECR group, will gain 18 seats, surpassing the Greens and the Liberals to be the fourth largest group in Parliament.
The far-right are no doubt rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of having influence over policies most important to them, most notably immigration and climate laws.
Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant Freedom Party’s unexpected win in the Netherlands galvanised the leaders of far-right parties from across Europe. Meeting in Italy in December, they vowed to reshape the EU after the European Parliament elections. They pledged to toughen the bloc’s approach to immigration and soften its climate policies, as a means of protecting industry and jobs. (Tactics which are of course being implemented in Britain by our own government.)
“Our objective is for (us) to become at least the third-largest (group in the EU parliament), after the centre-right and the socialists, and to be decisive,” said Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who hosted the meeting.
An ‘ungovernable’ EU
Warnings have been made that if these far-right parties perform as well as in the Dutch vote last year, as the opinion polls predict, and as the parties threaten, the European Union could become ungovernable.
Stéphane Séjourné, leader of the centrist Renew Europe group, said: “With the rise of populists almost everywhere in Europe of the extreme right, we risk having an ungovernable Europe.”
Renew, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group formed a coalition five years ago. The three groups have 420 seats in parliament. They agreed broad policy outlines and divide up top EU jobs. However, recent far-right wins have sent a warning to mainstream parties, including President Macron’s party in France, which makes up a quarter of Renew. Macron trails far-right leader Marine Le Pen by 8 – 10 percentage points. The risk is that it could be “very difficult to form a majority,” Séjourné warned.
The European Parliament has always prevented far-right members from holding influential positions on Parliament. However, as Politico reports, key players are explicitly plotting to divide the main groups by dragging the centre-right aways from the Liberals and Socialists. Marco Zanni, leader of the Identity and Democracy (ID), a Eurosceptic far-right group of the European Parliament, and a politician from Italy’s right-wing populist party, League, said it’s a tactic that has already worked in recent months.
“What has been done on immigration, what has been done on some files on the Green Deal is the result of this pressure that we put on the centre-right to shift the position and to make this contract with the left less concrete and less institutional,” he said.
Britain’s exit from the EU on January 31, 2020, meant that the 73 UK MEPs had to vacate their seats. Without any representation in EU decision-making, and with a FPTP voting system that favours the main parties, the hard-right’s battle in Britain is predominantly aimed at controlling the ruling party. What is fevered activity between minor parties in Europe, becomes equally fevered factional activity within the Tory Party.
Discontent with the current leadership and fearful of an impending trouncing in the forthcoming election, a slew of Conservative factions has appeared, looking to rally right-wing MPs ahead of this year’s vote. The policies put forward by these rebel factions share similarities with those sought by the far-right in Europe.
More than a quarter of Tory MPs are aligned to one or more internal movements. These key groups include long-standing factions like the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), which became a household name during the Brexit years with its own demands for exiting the EU.
But new Tory rebel groups have popped up. The New Conservatives comprise of 25 Tory backbenchers, predominantly from so-called “Red Wall” seats that the party won from Labour in recent elections. The group caused controversy with its call to end the temporary visa scheme for care workers and cap the number of refugees who can settle in Britain.
The New Conservatives’ precursor is the Northern Research Group, led by former party chairman Jake Berry. The group was also born from 2019 election victories in the Red Wall, promising to focus on the interests of the towns and cities that make up the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse.’
The new kid on the block is the Popular Conservative (PopCons), launched by Liz Truss. A bit like the former PM herself, the group’s name is comical given the unpopularity of UK Conservatives. Truss addressed the audience at the group’s launch event in London this week, where she took aim at the ‘spread of wokery’, with the hope of appealing to ‘secret Conservatives.’ She spoke alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson, who recently quit as deputy Tory deputy chairman over the Rwanda Bill.
The group aims to put pressure on Rishi Sunak to cut taxes, and, like the far-right in Europe which blames the EU’s alleged policy weaknesses on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), leave the ECHR and to adopt hardline policies on immigration.
“Popular conservatism is about restoring this balance and returning power to Parliament while taking it away from quangos and a judiciary that has become more political,” Rees-Mogg told the launch event.
If the Conservatives lose the general election, which the polls widely suggest, and especially if the result is catastrophic, which the polls also suggest, a post-Sunak bitterly fought battle between the party’s right and centre is likely to emerge. As the final choice would be made by members, who tend to be further to the right than the parliamentary party, it is possible they would choose, as they did with Liz Truss, a hard-right leader.
Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch are seen as the frontrunners to succeed Rishi Sunak from the party’s populist right. Penny Mordaunt is regarded as a contender from the centrist wing. Then there’s the possibility of Nigel Farage taking the Tory helm, the man, who, alongside two Tory MPs, former chancellors Kwasi Kwarteng and Nadhim Zahawi, met with French far-right politician Eric Zemmour this week. The leader of the far-right Reconquête Party, is behind a Brexit-style ‘Frexit.’ In a post on X following his meeting with Farage, Zemmour wrote: “We talked about Brexit and its consequences, the tyranny of Brussels against our farmers and the other challenges to our European civilization.”
If downbeat Conservative Party members look to the hard-right as an alternative to the centre-right, the party could tilt even further to the populist right, and the type of populism embraced by European hard-right leaders such as Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán.
In essence, what could happen in the European Parliamentary elections in June, if the far-right manage to snatch votes and seats, as the pollsters predict, could be mirrored in Britain to some extent, where right-wing Tories, in the face of defeat, will be looking to regroup for revenge.
Hold onto your seats, we’re in for a wild ride.
Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press lectures bishops on morality, yes really!
Tensions between bishops in the House of Lords and the Tories have flared in recent years, predominantly around the issue of migration. Following their clash over the Illegal Migration Bill, a former senior advisor to the bishops described their relationship with government ministers as “really toxic” and “unfixable.”
Naturally, the Rwanda bill-backing Tory media is not on the side of the bishops.
‘Bishops must realise that blocking the smuggling gangs is a genuine act of compassion,’ was the bizarre headline in the Sun on Sunday.
The article objects to the bishops’ condemnation of the government’s controversial Rwanda legislation claiming, ‘Bishops must examine their own consciences over migration.’
Murdoch’s Sun lecturing bishops on morality? The newspaper, which is persistently swamped by colossal controversies, including being blacklisted in Liverpool after its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. The tabloid in which hundreds of celebrities have brought cases of phone hacking forward, and which has paid out millions to settle costs? The newspaper which faced serious questions over its reporting and ethical standards over the Huw Edwards scandal?
But according to the Sun, it’s the bishops who are the bad guys, those who have ‘consistently voted against almost everything the government has pushed through in recent years.’
The article is in reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent warning in a debate on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration Bill) in the House of Lords.
The Bill, “obscure[s] the truth that all people, asylum-seekers included, are of great value. We can, as a nation, do better,” said Archbishop Welby.
But for the Sun, the comments are evidence that Justin Welby and ‘Tory-bashing bishops in the Lords trying to ‘sabotage the best chance of stopping the small boats.’ And that the Home Secretary James Cleverley is ‘spot on’ when he points out there is “nothing honourable or righteous” in “allowing murderous people smuggler to ply their trade.”
Though it’s not just Cleverley and the Sun gunning for the Church. Former home secretaries Suella Braverman and Priti Patel have both accused British churches of supporting ‘bogus’ asylum claims.
Speaking in the Sunday Telegraph, following the well-documented case of suspected Clapham attacker Abdul Ezedi, who reportedly had two claims for British asylum turned down before he claimed his adopted Christianity left him vulnerable to persecution, Braverman said that during her time in Cabinet she had “became aware of churches around the country facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims.”
Braverman, who was sacked in November after she was accused of stoking community tensions in her allegations about Metropolitan Polic, continued: “Attend mass once a week for a few months, befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo, you’ll be signed off by a member of clergy that you’re now a God-fearing Christian who will face certain persecution if removed to your Islamic country of origin. It has to stop.”
Nigel Farage joined the clergy-criticising rumpus, condemning the Church of England after a paper entitled “Supporting Asylum Seekers – Guidance for Church of England Clergy”, showed vicars have received advice on how to mount personal campaigns in the event of asylum claims being refused. The anti-immigration Express naturally jumped on the story, publishing an ‘exclusive’ on Farage leading ‘new criticism of the Church of England after an official document revealed details of its role aiding asylum applications.’
At least the newspaper admits it was ‘new’ criticism of the Church, as clergyman have been in the firing line of the Right for some time now, claiming, incredulously, that the Church has gone woke!
Perhaps their beef really lies in the fact that just 6 percent of Anglican clergy voted Conservative in 2019, none in the Church of Scotland, and none in the Church in Wales. It will be interesting to see how many church leaders vote Tory in 2024.
No doubt, the right-wing media will be sent into a clergy-bashing tailspin.
Smear of the Week – Sunak stoops to new low, suggesting Starmer is a ‘terrorist sympathiser’
An interview intended to boost his public image through some ‘blokey bants’ with Piers Morgan, did not go well for the Prime Minister. It backfired in fact, spectacularly. Not only did the PM cause outrage by making a ‘depraved’ £1,000 bet with the TalkTV host over the Rwanda plan, but he suggested the Labour leader is a ‘terrorist sympathiser.’
It’s one thing for the Tory Party to spread vicious smears about Starmer’s legal career on social media, but the Prime Minister making such remarks on national television is something else.
Sunak spoke of how when Starmer was a lawyer, he represented the Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahir, now proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK.
“He supported them in resisting proscription elsewhere. That’s who he was on the side of. We’re busy trying to ban these people and he was busy trying to represent them,” he said.
In typical incendiary fashion and probably eyeing an opportunity to ensure the interview let off some fireworks, Morgan asked: “Do you think he’s a terrorist sympathiser?”
Sunak fell hook line and sinker to the tactic, replying: “The facts speak for themselves. There he was, he was their lawyer when they were trying to resist this, we’ve just proscribed them because we think that’s what they are. These things speak to people’s values.”
Somebody ought to take Sunak gently aside, and Piers Morgan too while they are about it, and explain that under our legal system, defending an accused person does not imply any view on their guilt or innocence. That is for the jury to decide. Everybody is entitled to be defended, although the way the Tories are heading, we might not be able to count on that forever.
Quite rightly, a spokesperson for Starmer described the remarks as “desperate nonsense.”
Sunak would have been better pulling Piers Morgan up about the deliberately provocative question. Or at least, not agreeing to it so directly.
This particularly vicious smear against Stamer, comes as no surprise though, as the Tories have been attacking his legal career even before he entered parliament. They have persistently thrown up personal attack ads, newspaper stories and negative briefings, all attempting to demean his record as director of
public prosecution and his time as a human rights barrister.
Such attacks have made no impression whatsoever, so why they think they will now, just goes to show exactly how desperate and bereft of ideas they, and their leader, have become.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch