Grieve is now out of formal politics; in the December election, he campaigned as an independent and lost. But during that campaign, Grieve said, he was surprised by how many people, including many he had never met before, volunteered to work for him. They told him that they were appalled by the prime minister’s vicious tactics, especially Johnson’s unprecedented decision, at one key moment, to suspend Parliament. They were angered by his “humbug,” especially the lies he told during the 2016 referendum campaign, when he promised that Brexit would bring a financial bonanza for the U.K. health service. It has not. And it will not.
Read: Brexit and the failure of journalism
Those activists are now politically homeless. They don’t belong in Johnson’s anti-European Tory Party, nor do they yet fit into a Labour Party that has now turned within itself to look for a new leader. The small Liberal Democratic Party has once again demonstrated that it cannot make a mark as a third party in the U.K.’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Equally forsaken are all of those who worked for the People’s Vote campaign, which got thousands of people onto the streets and calling for a referendum to approve the withdrawal agreement. A friend of mine had two sons working for that campaign. One has now gone to work for a charity in Africa. The other is unemployed.
For some, the emotions are even stronger: People feel that they have not just lost an election; they have lost their country. In Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago, I met Seb Dance, a British member of the European Parliament (MEP), who told me he wasn’t sure where he belonged anymore. “I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m European,” he said, “but I don’t know what it means to be ‘English.’” The new English-nationalist language of Johnson’s Tory Party didn’t just anger Dance; it made him feel alienated from his home. Jackie Jones, another British MEP from West Wales, has a German mother and a British father. Far more than a bureaucratic institution, the European Union is, for Jones, the definition of who she was. Since Brexit, she told me, “I’ve had a knot in my stomach the whole time.” She has to find a new job—and figure out where she belongs.
But if we have learned anything in recent years, it is that strong political emotions do not fade away. The Occupy movement flared and then seemed to fizzle out—until it re-emerged in the form of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and in the far-left surge that made Jeremy Corbyn leader of the British Labour Party. The anti-European Tories were a fringe group—until they took over their whole party. The kinds of people who marched for the People’s Vote, worked for Grieve, or became MEPs are now on the fringes, but they may re-emerge too. Perhaps the next Labour Party leader will find a way to galvanize them. Or perhaps they will end up somewhere else—as climate-change activists, for example, or in some role no one has even thought of yet.