The EP election was widely seen as a second referendum in all but name in the UK, almost three years after the electorate voted to leave the European Union in the first place. But how much longer is the country to languish in Brexit purgatory? As support for the two main parties collapses and a new Conservative prime minister is due to be announced on 23 July, this has long since ceased to be a matter of a one-off protest vote.
Rightly or wrongly, Britain has often been regarded by political elites across Europe as a bastion of stability and good governance. Today, however, instability rules and this ‘new normal’ of tumultuous politics shows no sign of abating. In this era of fluidity and change, voters are prepared to quickly abandon their previous electoral choices.
In the European elections, the country’s two main parties saw an extraordinary collapse in their support. Whereas at the 2017 General Election the Conservatives and Labour had a combined vote share of 82.3 per cent, in the European elections this figure came to just 23.19 per cent with the Tories scoring a woeful 9.09 per cent. This Conservative result is the worst the party has suffered in any election in the modern era of universal suffrage.
Widely seen as a second referendum in all but name, the battle to interpret the results has seen both Leavers and Remainers adamant that they now have the upper hand in the country’s never-ending Brexit debate. The remarkable showing of the Brexit Party stole many of the headlines. Nigel Farage’s new start-up emerged as the clear winner with 31.6 per cent of the popular vote. They will be sending 29 MEPs to the Parliament, making the Brexit Party one of the largest national parties in the chamber.
Leavers vs Remainers
Remainers were keen to point out that the combined strength of the ‘hard Remain’ parties far outweighed those of their Brexit equivalents. Totalling up the number of votes for the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and Change UK gives a hard Remain vote of 40.39 per cent – considerably in excess of the combined vote of UKIP and the Brexit Party (34.9).
Whether you think of this a fair barometer or not, what was evident from the results is the dramatic collapse in support for some kind of compromise between the Leave/Remain divide; either in the form of Theresa May’s negotiated deal (the only deal currently on the table), or a softer form of exit akin to the Norway or Switzerland models.
The strong showing of the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party underscores the extent of the polarization between Leave and Remain in Britain. This will also impact UK national politics and cannot just be seen as a one-off protest vote in a European election. National opinion polls since the EP elections have seen a sharp fall in support for the two main parties. One YouGov poll showed the Liberal Democrats in first place and the Brexit Party in second.
A type of purgatory
The two main parties are now forced to pivot to their respective lefts and rights on the question of Europe. In principle, this should be straightforward for the Labour Party because the option of remaining in the EU is the default position and the easiest to execute politically given that their members and voters overwhelmingly support it. However, Jeremy Corbyn and his coterie of close advisors remain highly resistant to making such a move. It seems now without question that this is motivated by an unspoken euroscepticism.
For the Conservatives a set of more politically difficult choices now present themselves. The party’s members and voters are demanding the hardest possible break with the EU, including countenancing a chaotic ‘no deal’. The latter is not a legally or economically viable option for any serious government. Given the practical difficulties presented by the Irish border, May’s deal is the most radical rupture on offer.
As for the result of all this turbulence for the rest of Europe? Don’t expect Britain to leave the European Union any time soon. The only practical, tangible way of doing so – a soft Brexit in one form or another – has vanishingly little support in the country. So Britain will remain in the EU, but possibly in the form of an ‘exiting’ state that never finally leaves – a type of purgatory that might befit the polity’s historical attitude to European integration.
This article is published in association with Eurozine.
Eurozine describes itself as “a network of European cultural journals, linking up more than 80 partner journals as well as associated magazines and institutions from nearly all European countries.”