THE poll card for the European elections in nine days’ time has arrived, and it resembles nothing so much as an invitation to the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
That’s because these elections have taken on a surreal, looking-glass air in which normal logic has gone out of the window and all sides are akin to the guests around the Mad Hatter’s table, living in preposterous worlds of their own.
Except there’s nothing comical about this. The mess of Brexit – and the Government’s reluctance about the country participating in these elections – is anti-democratic and threatens to further undermine the public’s faith in our political system.
There has never been a precedent for a Government putting up candidates for an election whilst, at the same time, telling voters that it hopes they will never take up their seats.
This amounts to treating one of the central pillars of Britain’s life – the right to vote in free and fair elections, according to individual conscience and conviction – as nothing more than another stage in the sorry saga of internal wrangling within a shattered Conservative Party.
Witness the Tory election leaflets which carry a link to a website that names and shames the party’s MPs who voted against Theresa May’s hopeless departure deal, rejected three times by the Commons.
This is not a campaign about getting MEPs elected so they can serve their constituents with diligence, as it should be. Instead, it is about score-settling, inviting people to turn out and vote Conservative not for the benefit of the country – whatever its future relations with the EU – but to stamp out internal dissent and shore up a doomed Prime Minister.
Here is a textbook example of what the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, warns against on this page today – the bile and bitterness into which our politics has sunk, creating discord and divisiveness.
The leaflets add that the Conservatives don’t want these elections, and voting for the party has effectively only one purpose – to demonstrate a desire for Brexit on Mrs May’s terms.
How cynical this is, how dismissive of the importance of all elections, and how blatant a slap in the face for the millions who vote conscientiously at every poll.
At a stroke, the Government has nullified its ability to criticise other countries around the world for abuses of political process by approaching this vote in so contemptuous a manner.
In an age when engagement with politics is falling, and there is concern about turnouts at elections at all levels, telling the electorate the European elections amount to nothing more than a protest vote one way or the other is not only anti-democratic, but it is also irresponsible on the Government’s part.
The degree of cynicism at work in its upper echelons was only underlined by last week’s announcement that Parliament will go into recess for a week immediately after the elections.
There is no good reason for this. It is simply a blatant attempt to prevent Mrs May being condemned by her own side in the Commons when, as is overwhelmingly likely, the Tories are humiliated by the poll results.
These European elections matter, and should be about far more than Mrs May and her dwindling band of supporters trying to prolong her term in office.
The fact is Britain does not know when, or on what terms, it will exit the EU, thanks to the almighty mess that the Prime Minister has made of the negotiations.
It is even conceivable that if it comes to a referendum to break the impasse at Westminster, a possibility acknowledged by all the major parties, Britain will reverse its decision on Brexit. In the interim, the country deserves – and needs – the best possible representation from its MEPs.
But instead of that, we have a governing party prepared to send as representatives people it doesn’t want to see take up seats, and a Brexit Party keen to elect MEPs simply in order to cause as much friction as possible.
Against such a backdrop, Britain’s MEPs – who could conceivably be in office much longer than Mrs May – will face the greatest difficulty in establishing good working relationships with their counterparts from other countries.
This can only serve to poison relations with the EU at a time when, whatever the outcome of Brexit, they need to be rebuilt. Yet this is what’s on offer at the ballot box next week in the name of an election – factional hatred and nihilism. Because of this, in all the long history of British democracy, this just might be the lowest point.