LONDON — The U.K.’s two main parties suffered major losses in the European Parliament election, as a polarized electorate swung behind the Brexit Party and the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats.
With ten of the U.K.’s 12 European electoral regions declared, the ruling Conservatives had lost 15 seats and taken just 9 percent of the popular vote, placing it fifth behind the Green Party.
But the opposition Labour Party also saw their vote crumble, losing eight seats and bleeding votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in pro-Leave areas, and to the Lib Dems in pro-Remain areas.
The Brexit Party, which was registered little more than three months ago, is the runaway winner, taking 28 seats so far, and leading in the popular vote with 32 percent. The Lib Dems, who support a second referendum and remaining in the EU, had been expected to make gains, but are set to exceed expectations. The party will finish in second place overall, having gained 14 seats and securing roughly 20 percent of the popular vote.
Coming days after the U.K.’s political crisis over Brexit finally forced the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May, the results tell a story of a country still deeply divided along lines drawn in the referendum three years ago and promises to force the two traditional main parties to either extreme of the Brexit debate.
Thirty-five percent of the electorate registered a vote for parties with an uncompromising hard Brexit stance — Farage’s party or his former outfit, UKIP. Another 35 percent voted for a national party backing a second referendum and remaining in the EU: the Lib Dems, the Greens, who took 12 percent, and new party Change UK, which took 3 percent.
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable hailed the party’s best-ever European night | Tolga Akmen/ AFP via Getty Images
Notwithstanding strong performances from nationalist parties — the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales, which back a second referendum but also draw support from Leave voters — U.K. polling expert John Curtice described the result as “a draw” between the forces of hard Brexit and Remain.
“We are a polarized country … and that’s one of the reasons why this Brexit impasse is going to be very difficult to resolve,” he told the BBC.
May’s Conservatives, who lost swathes of votes to the Brexit Party, were punished for her failed attempt to deliver a Brexit deal that many of her MPs and most of her party members regarded as a betrayal of the referendum, cleaving too close to EU rules and conceding control in exchange for keeping open the Irish border.
According to the BBC, the party failed to come top in any local authority area in the country — a result that would wipe them out if repeated in a general election.
Labour meanwhile, which has also sought a middle way on Brexit, was punished in Leave and Reman-voting areas alike. But the scale of Lib Dem gains in Labour strongholds could trigger a rethink of the party’s policy.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who saw his party beaten into second place by the Lib Dems on his home turf, the London borough of Islington, issued an overnight statement which hinted at a pivot toward an unequivocally pro-second referendum stance.
“These elections became a proxy second referendum,” he said. “With the Conservatives disintegrating and unable to govern, and parliament deadlocked, this issue will have to go back to the people, whether through a general election or a public vote. Labour will bring our divided country together so we can end austerity and tackle inequality.”
“Over the coming days we will have conversations across our party and movement, and reflect on these results on both sides of the Brexit divide,” Corbyn added.
Tories pushed to no deal
But for the Tories, now embarking on a leadership election, the Brexit Party’s triumph promises to push in the opposite direction — toward Brexit at all costs, with or without a deal. One of the favorites to win the keys to Downing Street, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, warned in his Telegraph column the morning after the results of a “permanent haemorrhage of Conservative support” if the party does not now deliver Brexit “properly.”
“We can and must deliver. No one sensible would aim exclusively for a no-deal outcome. No one responsible would take no-deal off the table,” he said.
The main winners of the night, the Brexit Party, have emulated and exceeded the winning performance of Farage’s former party UKIP in 2014.
The party’s poll rating has nose-dived since May’s government failed to break the parliamentary deadlock and deliver Brexit by the U.K.’s scheduled exit date of March 29. Since then, Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party, a single-issue group campaigning for Brexit to happen as soon as possible with or without a deal, has taken swathes of voters from the Tories.
Farage, who was returned as an MEP for the South East region, warned that unless the U.K. leaves on its new exit date of October 31, a European election wipeout for the Tories could become a national election wipeout, changing the face of U.K. politics.
“If we don’t leave on October 31,” a triumphant Farage said from the stage at the Southampton count, “then the scores you have seen for the Brexit Party today will be repeated in a general election. And we are getting ready for it.”
Labour had also been expected to have a difficult election, but the scale of their losses will put serious pressure on the Brexit stance of Corbyn and his team.
In a forthright intervention, the party’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, told the BBC that the party is facing “a kicking” and must now listen to its membership, which is overwhelmingly in favor of a second referendum.
Blaming the party’s poor performance on its equivocal Brexit stance, she said: “We were not clear about it, we were not clear on the one single thing that people wanted to hear … we should have said quite clearly that any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum, and that Remain would be on the ballot paper, and that Labour would campaign for Remain.”
“Over the coming days we will have conversations across our party and movement, and reflect on these results on both sides of the Brexit divide,” Corbyn said | Leon Neal/Getty Images
The main winners of the night, the Brexit Party, have emulated and exceeded the winning performance of Farage’s former party UKIP in 2014. However, under current leader Gerard Batten, UKIP has fallen behind, and looks unlikely to return any MEPs. Batten himself has lost his London seat.
Another new party, Change UK, founded by rebel Labour and Conservative MPs and which backs a second referendum, also had a disappointing night, taking only 3 percent of the popular vote and not earning a single seat.
Their interim leader Heidi Allen told the BBC that the party would have to work with like-minded allies in the future to maximize the Remain vote. In a hint that the party might yet merge into the Liberal Democrats, she said: “It’s the country that comes first, it’s not about the brand.”
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable hailed the party’s best-ever European night, but aimed his fire at Corbyn. “There is a clear lesson for Labour in tonight’s results: Get off the fence. In trying to please everybody, they have pleased nobody,” Cable said. “With a Tory leadership contest increasing the risk of a no-deal Brexit, Britain can no longer tolerate an opposition which ducks and dives on the biggest issue of the day.”
Turnout was estimated to be just below 37 percent, second highest for a European election, after 2004’s turnout of 38.5 percent.
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