“I’m in this because I want to address the causes of Brexit. I want to stop Brexit, fix Britain and reform the EU.” So says Gavin Esler who is next month likely to become one of the UK’s more unlikely elected politicians.
After a career spent grilling politicians for the BBC, Esler finds himself as the lead candidate for the new Change UK party in London at May’s European elections, just ahead of Donald Tusk’s former finance minister, Jan Rostowski. Barring a collapse in the new party’s fortunes, he will be elected.
The transformation from media personality to politician – he was unveiled at Change UK’s campaign launch last Tuesday – has been particularly rapid. The decision to run took “ten minutes”, Esler told me.
‘Two weeks ago, I got an email from the Independent group asking for candidates…it was obvious when Theresa May asked for more time that there would be European elections and within ten minutes I sent the form in.”
After a career in front of the camera, before quitting the BBC in 2017 to focus on his writing – he wrote five novels during his years at the BBC – Esler says he “never wanted to be a politician. I’ve had a happy career observing politics and politicians.”
But Brexit has “sucked all life out of British politics,” he said.
“The trigger was seeing May go to Brussels and ask EU leaders for more time…it was really quite humiliating for the country and her party. The obvious thing is that the government is incompetent, and Labour very badly led”.
The new party, formed by a group of eleven pro-EU defecting Labour and Conservative MPs, has branded itself as the ‘Remain alliance’ for the May polls. Most surveys put Change UK on between 8 and 10% – which should be enough to elect Esler and a handful of his colleagues.
No joint candidates with Grees or LibDems
However, it will not stand candidates on a joint ticket with other anti-Brexit parties such as the Greens and Liberal Democrats, risking the fragmentation of the pro-Remain vote.
Esler says the sheer pace of events – Change UK only recently finalised its registration with the Electoral Commission – made a formal alliance impossible.
There has been plenty of speculation that Change UK and the Liberal Democrats should merge to form a viable new centre party, but Esler is unconvinced.
“The Lib Dems’ record of fixing Britain during their time in the coalition (as part of David Cameron’s Conservative-led government) is not a good one.”
“We are on the same side and we want to stop this self-harm of Brexit, but the Lib Dems have not made a real impact in British politics since 1906,” he added.
Like Nigel Farage’s recently formed Brexit party, Change UK plans to be around far longer than just for the European elections.
“Fundamentally, politics in this country is broken. Brexiteers and Remainers agree on this,” said Esler.
“We don’t have a lot of detailed policy documents, but we appeal to the middle of this country. You have to make the right enemies in politics, and Farage, Arron Banks and others are attacking us, not the Lib Dems, so they see us as a threat.”
Second referendum is priority
But for all the long-term plans of breaking up the UK’s two-party system, the priority is to get a second referendum, and Esler is confident the momentum is building.
“I think before the end of the year we are going to get a People’s Vote or a general election but a People’s Vote is more likely.”
Esler said that he “probably wouldn’t have gone into politics” had the proposal by Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal on condition of a public vote on it been passed by UK lawmakers.
“We were sold this highly polished sports car and now we can’t get it to start because there’s nothing under the bonnet.”
As a party built on defecting MPs from Labour and the Conservatives, and with a number of former Liberal Democrats in its ranks, questions have already been asked about where Change UK MEPs would sit in the European Parliament.
“We honestly haven’t thought about it much,” Esler said. “It depends on how many we get elected, and who knows how well Macron does. They are an insurgent party like us,” he added.
Besides, for the moment, the most pressing concerns are domestic and that’s hardly a surprise: Without a second referendum, the UK is set to leave the EU at the end of October, curtailing Esler and his colleagues’ mandates in Brussels in the process.
“My priority is to get Brexit fixed, otherwise the rest doesn’t matter.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]