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Brexit Wreaks Havoc on Main U.K. Parties in EU Elections

Published 27/05/2019, 02:01
© Bloomberg. Theresa May on May 24. Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Brexit wrought more havoc on Britain’s main political parties in European Parliament elections, with both Conservatives and Labour scoring their worst results in decades as voters opted for politicians with clear pro- and anti-European Union messages.

With nearly all the vote counts complete, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which wants the U.K. to leave the EU without a deal, was in first place, with 32% of the vote. In second place, with 20%, were the Liberal Democrats, who want to stay in the bloc. Labour, which is split about what to do, was third on 14%. The anti-Brexit Greens were on 12%.

In fifth place were Theresa May’s Conservatives on 9%, a catastrophic result for the party of government. Their previous worst result in a European election was 26%.

May finally gave in to pressure from her party and announced Friday that she would quit as prime minister. Had she not done so, this result would surely have sealed her fate.

“Yes, we knew it was coming but still a painful result,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt -- one of those running to replace May -- said on Twitter. “Existential risk to our party unless we now come together and get Brexit done.”

Crushing Rebuke

Boris Johnson, the current favorite to win the leadership, agreed with Hunt’s diagnosis. “The voters are delivering a crushing rebuke to the government -- in fact, to both major parties,” he wrote in his column for the Telegraph newspaper.

“I cannot find it in my heart to blame them,” Johnson wrote. “They gave us one chief task: To deliver Brexit. They have so far given us almost three years to do it. We have flagrantly failed to carry out their instructions. We have missed deadline after deadline, broken promise after promise.”

But there’s little sign that the elections will break the deadlock in Parliament. Conservatives who rejected May’s deal because it stayed too close to the EU -- such as Johnson -- will argue that support for the Brexit Party shows the public agrees with them. Other colleagues will look at the loss of votes to the Lib Dems and come to the opposite conclusion.

With the race to succeed May underway, many of the candidates are seeking to appeal to Conservative activists, who are largely pro-Brexit, by announcing their support for a no-deal divorce. Two Cabinet members who aren’t running, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Justice Secretary David Gauke, warned against this course. “It would not just challenge me, but many of our colleagues,” Hammond told the BBC.

The election didn’t offer a clear result as a proxy referendum. Parties backing Brexit claimed 44% of the vote. Parties clearly opposing Brexit had 40%. Between the two was Labour, which officially supports leaving but staying close to the EU, but many of its supporters and leading figures are calling for a second referendum.

Labour’s splits were exposed as the results came in. Members of Parliament who represent pro-EU seats, such as foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry, argued that the party needs to move to supporting a second Brexit referendum. Her colleague Caroline Flint, who represents a pro-Leave seat, said the opposite. Even if leader Jeremy Corbyn were to conclude he had to help the government get Brexit delivered, he would struggle to get enough of his MPs to support it.

Corbyn issued a statement repeating his calls either for an election -- his preference -- or a referendum. In the past, his office has been clear that he only wants a referendum if the Brexit deal is one that he doesn’t support.

‘Clear Lesson’

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable said his party’s result had shown the advantages of a picking a side. “There is a clear lesson for Labour in tonight’s results: Get off the fence,” he said in an emailed statement. “In trying to please everybody they have pleased nobody.”

Farage, too, was delighted, and demanded his Brexit Party have a role in the U.K.’s negotiations with the EU.

“We want to be part of that negotiating team, we want to take responsibility for what’s happening, we’re ready to, so I hope the government is listening,” Farage said in a speech after he was re-elected as an MEP. “If we don’t leave on Oct. 31 the scores we’ve seen for the Brexit Party will be repeated in a general election, and we are getting ready for it.”

Whoever May’s successor is, they’re unlikely to find either working with Farage or a general election to be a tempting offer.

(Updates with latest results from second paragraph.)

© Bloomberg. Theresa May on May 24. Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

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