Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
The European election results have overturned politics here in the UK. In some respects, nothing has changed. The country was split down the middle by the 2016 Brexit referendum, and these elections show that we are still split. It’s hard to draw the conclusion from these results that huge numbers of people across the country have fundamentally changed their minds on Brexit. What does seem to be happening is an increasing polarisation of our politics – and a move away from the two mainstream parties.
European elections are not a general election, and can often be poor predictors of Westminster performance. UKIP topped the poll in 2014, but failed to win a single seat in the 2015 election. Turnout is far lower and the electoral system for European elections is different. The public are sophisticated enough to understand that it’s easier to use these polls to send a ‘message’. But political messages ought to be heard by our politicians, not ignored.
The question is – what was the message? There was a huge fragmentation, mirroring in some ways the political fragmentation seen right across Europe, but arguably in an even more extreme fashion.
In fact, across Europe the so-called populists did somewhat less well than many had predicted. Yes, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally topped the French poll, as did Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy. And the centrist EPP and S&D groups lost their joint majority in the European Parliament for the first time ever. But the National Rally’s predecessor actually won a slightly higher vote share in the 2014 elections in France, while in Italy, the centre-left PD pushed the Five Star movement into third place.
The clear winner of the British elections was the Brexit Party, which went from nowhere at the start of the year, to winning just shy of a third of the vote share. This result could have been even higher if turnout in leave areas had matched those of the remain heartlands. The Brexit Party won 29 MEPs, roughly double that of the next biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, which secured 16.
The Conservative Party was pushed into fifth place, with a disastrous result of just nine per cent of the votes. They managed, however, to return four MEPs, avoiding the total wipe-out some had expected. But Labour’s result was also atrocious – coming third overall, securing no MEP in Scotland, and losing to the Brexit Party and Plaid in Wales. In fact, the Brexit Party came in first in 19 out of 22 council areas in Wales, an important reminder that Brexit support is not constrained to England. They even returned an MEP in Scotland, often caricatured as an exclusively Remain region. In Northern Ireland the UUP lost their seat, which was taken by the Alliance.
The obvious message from these elections is that the electorate is divided and in an increasingly bitter fashion. If these exact results were replicated in Westminster elections (and that’s a big if) it would lead to a hung Parliament, with the Brexit Party by far the biggest bloc but short of a majority.
Opinion polls of general election voter intentions point to a very divided Commons, with a path to power for a Jeremy Corbyn Government propped up by the SNP and perhaps the Liberal Democrats. If there’s a General Election before Brexit is secured, David Cameron’s much derided warning of a coalition of chaos could come true.
There’s an open question now about how Westminster will respond to these elections. In Greece the jump in support for the opposition New Democracy has led to a new general election. That’s unlikely to happen here. But both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats are soon to choose a new leader. Meanwhile, Labour is having increasingly public rows about whether or not to shift direction on Brexit.
The second referendum campaign are desperate to see these results as the revanchism of Remain. It’s pretty hard to sustain that argument. I spent hours on Sunday night sitting next to Tom Baldwin and other spokespeople for the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign in the Sky News studio. They had pages and pages of carefully pre-scripted Lines To Take for their on-air spin.
My favourite dubious interpretation is their argument that if you add together the vote share of the Libs, Labour, Greens, Change UK, SNP and Plaid, you get a larger result than the pro-Brexit parties. But this only works if you count Labour as a pro-Remain party. The fatal flaw in that is that Alastair Campbell himself declared that he voted Lib Dem because he didn’t like think Labour was unambiguously pushing a referendum re-run.
Say you were waking up this morning in Paris, Brussels or Berlin. You would have been preoccupied by your own domestic results yesterday and the implications for the power balance in the European institutions, and the read across into national politics. Perhaps you might start to turn to Britain today. Would you really look at the incredible success of Nigel Farage and think – “Ah, yes. If Britain just had a second referendum, we could all live happily ever after as EU members”?
Ken Clarke summed it up recently when he argued that there was now no chance of Britain being a stable member of the EU. No wonder Nathalie Loiseau – until recently French Europe Minister, and now an MEP for Emmanuel Macron’s party – expressed doubts that a second Brexit referendum would reach a different conclusion from the first. She suggested that it would be better for Britain to just leave. I expect more and more European capitals will come to a similar view.