The European elections earthquake struck. Now the dust is settling—did anything actually change?

What lessons, if any, did this vote hold on the state of British politics?

May 29, 2019
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage gives a speech after the European Parliamentary elections count at the Guildhall in Southampton. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage gives a speech after the European Parliamentary elections count at the Guildhall in Southampton. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images

As political earthquakes go, this measured high on the scale. A party which didn’t exist a few months ago topped the poll with 31.6 per cent of the vote. The two “main parties” couldn’t even poll a quarter of all votes between them. The Liberal Democrats, all but defunct a few years ago, beat them both. Labour came third and, unbelievably, fifth, in its traditional heartlands of Wales and Scotland respectively, a result both calamitous and unprecedented. And the Conservative Party, the ruling party and so-called natural party of government, came fifth in a national poll for the first time in its history. The Tories were backed by just one in 11 voters nationwide. In numerous council areas they polled in sixth place, and in Liverpool, one of the country’s largest cities, which regularly returned Conservative MPs until the early 1990s, they gained 2 per cent of the vote and finished seventh—behind Labour, the Brexit Party, Lib Dems, Greens, and even Change UK and Ukip. This wasn’t a kicking. It was a liquidation.

But the result was no ordinary earthquake. We saw it coming for weeks. Then it came. And already, after just a few days, it is passing. What, if anything, does it all mean?

Certainly, we can only read a limited amount into a poll which attracted a turnout of just 37 per cent (albeit higher than in 2014), and in a general election or referendum more people would vote and many of them differently. But some lessons are entirely clear.

First: there is no mandate for no-deal. The only parties explicitly advocating that, Brexit and Ukip, polled 35 per cent nationwide. For several months the Tories have effectively abandoned no-deal as a policy, and it is inconceivable that the party’s voters last week were endorsing it.

Second: the results do not divide easily for either Leave or Remain. Certainly, if we assume that all Tory voters were in favour of Leave and Labour voters in favour of Remain, the results split 56-44 for Remain. But of course that will not be the case. Many loyal Tories would still want to Remain, given the chance, and a sizeable minority of Labour voters still back a form of Brexit. Those supporting explicitly pro-referendum parties—the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Change UK and Plaid Cymru—amounted to just over 40 per cent. Let’s all be honest: this result was effectively a draw. That means Remainers aren’t doing enough to win hearts and minds, and this needs to change immediately.

Third: compromise is dead. Views have hardened in both directions, and any middle-of-the-road vision of a soft Brexit has been dumped in the middle of a motorway. That “soft Brexit” most likely includes a form of Theresa May’s deal (which took us out of the single market and therefore in fact constituted a hard Brexit). Let us now end the revisionism that Remainers were not prepared to compromise. For at least two years compromise was all we tried. My organisation literally took the government to court to keep us in the single market. But the Brexiters didn’t want to know, and now it is too late.

Was the cause for Remain strengthened this week? Perhaps. There are more Remainers than Leavers in our new parliamentary delegation to Brussels, and more people will now come out publicly for a second referendum. The election also provided a key psychological milestone, helping to legitimise the democratic operation of the EU and normalise the prospect of staying in it. But on the other hand, the story all too many politicians and pundits have taken home is that the Brexit Party won and “Brexit must be delivered.” Remainers and Leavers both claim victory and both are correct.

And so the key test falls to Britain’s two alleged main parties. Existential fear will now, justifiably, have entered the bloodstream of both the Conservatives and Labour. They have both taken their electorates for granted and know their days as major political forces could be numbered in months or weeks.

On the Tory side, the take-away has been a potent mix of delusion and nihilism. The “pragmatists” are those seeking to change the Irish backstop even though the EU, which has all the leverage in the talks, has insisted every single day for 18 months that it will not. The hardliners are those who consider medicine shortages, martial law and a crashed economy to be a viable alternative. The story is unlikely to end happily for them in any circumstance.

For Labour, the leadership finally seems to have woken up to the political reality: Remainers are leaving in droves and hardline Leavers are not coming back. Northern MPs like Lisa Nandy and Caroline Flint argue valiantly that the party cannot abandon its Leave voters, but the truth is those Leave voters have abandoned Labour. These MPs also never explain why a referendum would constitute a betrayal but a customs union without voting rights would not. The evidence is clear: soft Leavers will continue to back the party whatever it does, and committed Brexiters have already gone elsewhere. Backing a second referendum is not just the right thing to do, but the only way Labour survives.

And yet. Movement in policy does not necessarily entail movement in Brexit itself. After the excitement of these elections dies down, where are we really left? May’s deal will still not pass through the Commons, no matter which prime minister is selling it. For all the Labour MPs who might now be tempted to back it, more Tories will have been scared away. And so to no-deal: that still meets overwhelming parliamentary opposition, and Speaker John Bercow has made plain that he will do anything in his power to let MPs block it if they wish to. And then a second referendum: there is still no sign that the two dozen Labour refuseniks have warmed to the idea. Many have indeed hardened their opposition. Politics may evolve fast over the coming months, but for now we remain in deadlock. The earthquake has come, and nothing has changed.