With results now in a clear trend has emerged in the UK from the EU elections – being clear about what you’re standing for means you get more votes. While not a surprising statement, it is one that seems to have eluded Britain’s biggest parties and they have suffered for it.
With Theresa May now standing down on June 7, and the future of Brexit uncertain, what do the results of this year’s election mean for the UK and for Europe?
Europe – ready or not, here they come
As the polls predicted, the clear winners from Thursday’s vote were the newly formed Brexit Party and the newly resurrected Liberal Democrats taking 31.6% and 20.3% of the vote respectively. The makeup of Britain’s 73 MEPs will therefore be (depending on Labour’s Brexit policy on any given day) almost evenly split between pro-Brexit and pro-Remain parties. The full split is as follows, where “B” is pro-Brexit, “R” is pro-Remain, and “?” refers to a potential compromise:
- B, Brexit Party – 29 (30.5%)
- R, Liberal Democrats – 16 (19.6%)
- R?, Labour – 10 (13.7%)
- R, Green – 7 (11.7%)
- B?, Conservatives – 4 (8.8%)
- R, SNP – 3 (3.5%)
- Others – 2 (3.5%)
- R, Sinn Féin – 1 (0.9%)
- B?, DUP – 1 (0.9%)
- R, ChangeUK – 0 (3.3%)
- B, UKIP – 0 (3.2%)
Pro-Brexit parties – 33.7%
Compromise parties – 22.5%
Anti-Brexit parties – 39.1%
With results in across Europe, the headlines have focused on the end of the 40-year dominance of the two main centrist political groups. To be clear, the Eurosceptic surge fell short of predictions, and the EPP and S&D will still wield massive influence, but it is the Liberal and Green parties that will now play kingmaker. The impact of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Italy’s Lega, and Farage’s Brexit Party et al. will be one of disruption from within Europe’s legislative heart – but their effectiveness remains to be seen.
Emotions and milkshakes abound
We’ve written twice now on how the EU Elections in the UK are seen as a chance to punish the Government of the day over policy, but this year’s felt different. There is little doubt there was an element of punishment involved, but this year was driven by emotion and hinged on a single issue: Brexit. Look no further than the number of milkshakes thrown on the campaign trail for signs that the hackles of Britain’s normally pragmatic voters are well and truly raised.
It maybe because we work in communications, but messaging appeared to be more important than ever. Clarity was the first metric of success, and it was the parties who took an unequivocal stance on Brexit that reaped the rewards. For The Brexit Party, the clue was in the name, for the Liberal Democrats, “Bollocks to Brexit” has echoes of the now infamous “Take Back Control” in terms of its elegant (if uncouth) simplicity.
Other parties were less effective, the most obvious casualty being Britain’s other new party, ChangeUK…or the Independence Party…or @ForChangeNow. For a party launched with such aplomb it has been a short-lived moment in the spotlight and it is unlikely they will play a major role in any future election.
The second metric of success was perceived honesty. We say perceived because, of course, there will discussion about the underlying intentions of many of UK’s new MEPs. While there are criticisms that can be laid at the feet of both Nigel Farage and Vince Cable, ambiguity is not one of them. They have both addressed the Brexit question with a passion and consistency that has been absent from most of their competitors. The Conservatives are descending into civil war as the Europe issue claims its fourth Tory PM, Labour Brexit policy changed almost daily as the party flirted with Remainers and Leavers alike, and even ChangeUK who were founded as a Remain party struggled to crystallize what their Brexit plan was until the last moment.
If there is a lesson to learn it is that Brexit remains an emotive and emotionally driven issue. It isn’t enough for politicians to make nuanced factual arguments; a clear passionate position is more important than ever.
What next for the UK?
While Thursday’s vote hinged on Brexit, the country’s political future will need to pivot, sooner or later, to the wider issues of state. The country is tired, and many voters feel trapped in an endless, unmoving debate, with no end in sight. Before anything can change though, things need to change, and that change is coming.
Theresa May’s premiership is now over, and many former loyal cabinet colleagues have announced their intention to replace her, including Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid. We are working on a separate article to outline in more detail the runners and riders for the UK’s top job (we’ll add the link once its live), but it is our assumption that their Brexit stance will be crystal clear and focused on an ultimate exit from the EU.
It will likely become quite clear, whether they admit it or not, that the deadlock facing Britain’s Parliament was not down to a failure of Theresa May’s MO. There are numerical impossibilities which prevent the House reaching a clear majority, and it is unlikely that even a new face across the table will cause the EU negotiating team to alter the deal already on offer. Where then will they turn?
Meanwhile Labour leadership has conceded that its Brexit position (or lack thereof) has failed. Tweets from the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, following the results being announced on Sunday have unequivocally called for a second referendum or a general election.
It could be that UK faces a General Election this year, but it would be a brave Conservative indeed who called a national vote in the wake of Nigel Farage’s electoral success. This, then, could be the largest impact of the EU Elections on Westminster. If a “Hard Brexiteer” is chosen as Prime Minister and forced into a GE to deliver a “Hard Brexit” could we see Farage enter the House of Commons as an MP? Current polling suggests his Brexit Party would win close to 50 seats. Could we see him enter a coalition government?
So, while the knives may be drawn, they are edged with apprehension, not anticipation.
There will be a lot of arithmetic done over the coming weeks by both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain pundits to show why the results of the EU election show a slight advantage for one side or another. The truth is, the vote share is finely balanced and this “proxy referendum” offered no clearer majority than 2016’s. The major parties have been caught in the crossfire, holding the central field between two clearly entrenched positions, and if anything, it is the fragmentation of our party system that has been the biggest casualty.
The future of British politics, despite yet another vote, remains uncertain. Whilst clarity appears to be key to securing electoral support it also runs the risk of entrenching positions, promoting division, and preventing compromise. It will be for the new Prime Minister to set Britain’s new course, alongside a European Parliament who must decide how to answer the emergence of similar entrenched divisions across the continent.