May was a month of election highs and lows. The local elections early in the month saw the first of two bruising protest votes meted out to both Conservative and Labour parties, with Lib Dems, Greens, and a few independents triumphing. The European Parliamentary elections saw much the same outcome, but with one key difference: the addition of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
The vote on 23rd May was divisive from the outset: regarded angrily by Brexiteers “the election that should never have been”, and Remainers as a perfect opportunity to register equal amounts of discontent about leaving the EU. Both would agree that the UK’s handling of the negotiations have been parlous, with damaging effects for the country in political, economic and strategic terms.
The key messages in the run-up to the vote was thus the ability of the Brexit Party to galvanise simmering Brexiteer resentment at ongoing delays in Parliament and the inability of Conservatives and Labour to put a clear platform forward on whether/when/if/how to ‘Brexit’ at all. Labour tied itself in procedural knots, while the Tories failed to campaign on substance. While the Brexit Party moved from the margins into the centre, displacing Conservative and Labour mid-ground heartland, the Lib Dems were left to hoover up discontented Remainers thanks to a straight-forward and impressively colourful ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ campaign. While the Greens benefited from Remainer discontent, the other newcomer, Change UK, simply didn’t get off the ground in time. From the vantage point of early June, the movement now appears to have withered on the vine, and the Brexit Party itself dealt a surprising loss in the 6 June Peterborough by-election.
Party and Regional Outcomes
The Brexit Party scored 31.6% of the vote share from a standing start, giving them 29 MEPs, while the Lib Dems pushed impressively into second place with 20.3%, an increase of 13.4% since the 2014 EP elections. This knocked Labour into third place with 14.1% of the vote, representing a serious drop of 11.3% since 2014. The Greens followed in fourth, with a not insignificant 12.09%, a bump up of 4.23%, leaving the Conservative party trailing with 9.09% representing a precipitous drop of 14.84%.
In Scotland the SNP strengthened their position with a 37.9% overall share and a robust gain of nearly 9 points. With a total of three seats, the SNP have half of Scotland’s six MEPs. However, wins here came at the expense of others, namely the collapse of support for the Scottish Labour Party. In an area recently dominated by Labour, the SLP lost a massive 16.6% of its vote share, leaving it in fifth place and just one point above the Scottish Greens with 9.3% overall. The Brexit Party and Lib Dems gained one seat apiece, with the Scottish Conservatives representing the strongest regional performance of the night, albeit an undistinguished low of 11.7% and 4th place. The story reversed in Wales with Plaid Cymru returning only 1 MEP. Results in Northern Ireland saw an even spread with Sinn Féin, the DUP, the Alliance Party getting one 1 MEP apiece, with the Ulster Unionist Party were unable to return any candidates.
Apart from Scotland, London was the only UK region where the Brexit Party did not come top of the leaderboard. Traditional LAbour strongholds gave way to a Lib Dem takeover bid producing 27.2% to Labour’s 23.9% of the vote share, a drop for Labour of 12.8% from 2014. The Lib Dems emerged with three London seats (up from zero), Labour retained two, the Brexit Party gained two new seats, the Conservatives lost two, while the Greens managed to retain their one seat. UKIP’s loss of its seat means that its leader, Gerard Batten no longer has a seat in the European Parliament. Unsurprisingly, Change UK’s best result came in London, taking 5.3% of the vote, but behind the Conservatives on 7.9% (down from 22.5%) and further still from the Greens.
Brexit by Numbers
Dividing the sum total into Leave and Remain categories is a tricky and imprecise business. It requires excluding both Labour and the Conservatives due to their indefinite Brexit stance as parties and the ambiguous nature of their electoral base. The Brexit Party, combined with UKIP produced a vote share of 34.9%, taking 29 of the UK’s 73 seats in the European Parliament (39.7%). Remainer-oriented parties including the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin equate to 40.39%, taking 28 seats (38.3%). In broad terms, the Remainer aggregate edged out Leaver total in percentage terms, while Leaver numbers in total produced very slightly more MEPs.
From Brussels With Love: the 2019 Conservative Leadership Contest
After four days of voting across the entire EU, in the second largest parliament (and democratic exercise in the world), the complete results of the European Parliament were available for all by the morning of 27th May. By the 31st, Prime Minister May was standing in front of Downing Street, conceding that her time had come. Brexit negotiations, Parliamentary impasse, internecine Tory strife from Cabinet to committees to backbenchers, strings of resignations and a divided, disaffected country registering its discontent in local and European elections had taken its toll. With a drop of 9.1% to 5th place, representing numerically the worst election results for the Conservative Party since 1832, the European election result was the final nail in the Prime Ministerial coffin. The 11+ Tory candidates vying for the leadership are now sorting themselves into three camps:
- Determined to reverse the local and European election results that saw disaffected Tory voters switch to Lib Dem or the Brexit party depending on local or Brexit issues, the “Let’s Out-Farage Farage” camp is replete with the anti-Brussels bombast of Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Ether McVey. Here, no-deal Britain is both a plausible end-point and a negotiating tactic.
- The “Better, Smarter Brexit Deal” folks are keen on renegotiating with Brussels, using new personnel, looking again at the Withdrawal Agreement (including the Irish backstop) but from a more moderate perspective, and include Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid. Here, hard rather than no-deal Brexit is the preferred option: back to the Canada+ category based on a free trade agreement with the EU. Those plumping for a managed exit rather than re-negotiation include Andrea Leadsom.
- The “Let’s Think Again” camp are far more pragmatic when it comes to the reality of re-opening negotiations with Brussels. Rory Stewart is clear on this point, and ensuring that Parliament is given more, rather than less choice to look again at a range of deals (Matt Hancock supports this view too), a different timetable and better quality discussion, all of which will please the Speaker of the House, John Bercow. Sam Gymiah meanwhile is the only candidate at this point to propose another referendum on the basis of Leave, Remain, May Deal, or No Deal.
European Council President Donald Tusk suggested that Brexit had acted as a ‘vaccine’ in thwarting various Eurosceptic dynamics across Europe in the form of both right and left-oriented populist parties, with the overall composition of the European Parliament largely unaffected. There’s quite a bit to unpick in this respect and I’ll explore the impact of the results across the EU in a subsequent blog.
At this point, the above three camps are equally determined to prevent a general election that could very well expose them to Brexit Party ravages or a Labour comeback, as illustrated in the Peterborough by-election results. While European Parliamentary results are not an ideal formula for gauging bottom-up issues in Britain, nor great predictors of general election outcomes, there are clear take-aways here. The sense of WHO now inhabits the centre-ground in terms of addressing Brexit issues has changed radically. Tories and Labour now sit on the margins, whilst the centre-ground is shared by the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems.
The Tory and Labour leadership alike need to swiftly agree their own position, preferably one that overlaps sufficiently to garner the necessary votes in the house for an actual deal to pass. In terms of local issues and regional needs however, as well as discretely British issues dis-connected from Brexit, the governing party and the official opposition must work hard to hold the centre, and fight against the perceived existential threat that the Brexit Party could pose at a general election. This means two-track thinking: Brexit, and all the other stuff ‘beyond Brexit’. Lisa Forbes’ Labour win – narrow though it was – in Peterborough suggests that seats can be held by appealing to voters for a ‘beyond Brexit’ perspective. In other words, push for a process to bring about a successful Brexit conclusion, but not to the utter exclusion of getting on with much-needed public policy.
If there’s one message we’ve learned since 2016, it’s that people are fed up with feeling excluded.
 With many thanks to Chris Logie for his assistance in providing electoral analysis.
 Complete numbers and stats can be found here : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/crjeqkdevwvt/the-uks-european-elections-2019