European elections 2019: the post-mortem begins

Labour and Tories face calls to ditch compromise Brexit after unashamedly pro and anti-Brexit parties draw supporters

Nigel Farage Brexit Party
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The UK’s two main parties have begun a soul-searching post-mortem into their respective Brexit strategies after a disastrous showing at last week’s European parliamentary elections.

As expected, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party surged to first place winning over 32% of the vote and 28 MEPs – more than any other political party in Europe. The resurgent Lib Dems, whose unashamedly pro-Remain “Bollocks to Brexit” campaign message helped them secure 20.9% of the vote, came in second ahead of Labour and the Greens, who enjoyed their best result ever in a European election as part of a wider “green wave” which swept the EU.

By contrast, the results make grim reading for the Conservatives who suffered their worst national election result in almost 200 years, stumbling to a lowly fifth place with less than 10% of the vote.

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The party of government failed to finish top in a single one of the 300-plus local authority areas across Britain, prompting Foreign Secretary and leadership contender Jeremy Hunt to claim the Tories face an “existential crisis”.

Labour fared little better despite being the natural party of opposition facing an outgoing Tory leader and hugely unpopular and divided government which has been in power in one form or another for nearly a decade.

“The obvious conclusion from these results is the two main parties have been punished for trying to seek compromises over Brexit” says Politico’s Jack Blanchard. “With the enforced departure of Theresa May it looks all but certain that the Tory party will now adopt a much harder position on Brexit, probably under a new leader committed to leaving the EU on 31 October with or without a deal.”

Tory leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson has already promised to leave the EU on 31 October regardless of whether a deal has been agreed, warning that the party risks being “dismissed from office” unless it delivers Brexit.

The big question, says Blanchard, “is whether Labour may yet follow suit by shifting its own position firmly in the opposite direction, and becoming an unequivocal party of Remain.”

In a sign the Labour leadership could be moving towards supporting a second referendum, Jeremy Corbyn issued a statement on Monday claiming that “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.”

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It follows calls from deputy Labour leader Tom Watson and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry for Labour to ditch its compromise position and back Remain in a second referendum.

However, “any handbrake turn on Labour’s Brexit policy is likely to meet with resistance in the shadow cabinet” says The Guardian.

MPs in Leave supporting seats and pro-Brexit voices have repeatedly urged the leadership not to bow to pressure and adopt a pro-Remain stance that could cost it later on down the line at the next general election.

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The shadow cabinet office minister, Jon Trickett, a close ally of Corbyn, pointed to results in Labour areas where the Brexit party had gained votes, including his own seat.

What do the results say about the wider state of the nation?

While the Brexit Party will claim its victory shows there is a majority in the UK for no deal, the success of the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP means “those who have been clearly pushing the case for another referendum in order to slam the brakes on Brexit have, this morning, a new confidence, a vigour with which they will keep making their case”, says BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

“Unhelpfully — and all-too predictably — the combined vote shares of the unequivocally Leave and Remain parties were almost identical at around 35% apiece” says Blanchard, adding that the results “leave Britain looking more divided than ever, and no closer to solving the intractable Brexit impasse”.

“It’s best read as approximating a draw,” the BBC’s polling expert John Curtice said, when asked if Leave or Remain had come out on top. “This election has demonstrated just how polarised the public are on this. We are a deeply divided country, and that’s one of the reasons this Brexit impasse is going to be very, very difficult to resolve.”

“If there was one overriding message from voters in last night’s European election it was that when it comes to Brexit a fudge won’t do,” writes Oliver Wright in The Times.

If you add up the prospective hard Brexit and second referendum vote share, that leaves just 23% of the electorate supporting the Tories and Labour and their various versions of Brexit compromise.

“With votes shifting en masse to parties which either favoured a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum to reverse Brexit, the prospect of a Westminster compromise looked more remote than ever,” says the Financial Times.

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