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What can we learn from the Brexit party’s narrow defeat in Peterborough? Our panel responds

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07.06.2019

Rafael Behr: The Conservatives will see an ominous portend in the Peterborough result

Peterborough was a more delectable prize for Nigel Farage than any of the European parliament seats his Brexit party won last month. Missing the target will hurt. In the culture of British elections, the MEP poll is traditionally a forum of protest where Europe is not only the most salient issue but, by definition, the only issue. The bar to get into Westminster is set higher – and Farage has a record of failing to clear it. He has run unsuccessfully as a Ukip candidate seven times. That taught him caution, and the decision not to put his own name on the ballot for Peterborough proved sensible. Farage got to slink out of the count through a back door before the result was declared.

Labour is celebrating the result as a vindication of its campaign emphasis on local bread-and-butter themes; a reminder that voters have more on their minds than Brexit. It is also a reminder that party machinery matters. Labour had the institutional memory (logged in databases) of where its voters were, plus the activist base to get them out. The Brexit party is still a largely virtual enterprise and, even with a locally sourced candidate, its engagement in the material wellbeing of Cambridgeshire is obviously recent, superficial and cynical.

But it is hard to say that Labour comes out of the whole episode with honour. The seat was vacant because its previous incumbent went to jail. Its newly elected MP, Lisa Forbes, was forced to apologise for having “liked” and commented approvingly on antisemitic material on Facebook. Its vote share dropped by 17%. But that is a statistical quibble when the Tories, Labour’s longstanding competitor in Peterborough, were crushed. They will see an ominous portend in Peterborough: the Brexit party splitting Conservative and hardline Eurosceptic votes, handing Labour the seat.

Identifying the problem doesn’t bring a solution any closer and the unavailability of solutions doesn’t diminish the seductive lure of the mythical, Midas-touch leader – the candidate who might woo voters away from both Jeremy Corbyn and Farage. The person currently mesmerising his party with that fantasy is Boris Johnson, and for that reason he might well be the only Tory MP looking on the result from Peterborough this morning with........

© The Guardian