Has the UK ever held a more inconsequential—and yet momentous—election as the 2019 European Parliament vote?
After all, the only reason Britain voted at all was because of the Government’s inability to deliver Brexit at the end of March. And as recently as last week, Theresa May’s plan was to pass her Withdrawal Agreement this summer, negating the need for Britain’s newly elected Members of the European Parliament to take up their seats.
Yet before the results were even announced, this European election helped trigger Theresa May’s resignation as Prime Minister. In the end, a combination of fear among Conservatives over their anticipated wipeout at the polls, and anger at her latest proposal to seek a Brexit compromise deal in Parliament, led to a decisive loss of confidence among Mrs. May’s Cabinet and backbench Members of Parliament.
Neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party, both ostensibly committed to leaving the EU, wanted this election to take place, and both ran subdued campaigns to hide their own internal splits over Europe. This left the field open for the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats to sweep up the pro- and anti- Brexit vote, winning more than 31% and 20% respectively, and confirming Europe as the core dividing line in British politics today.
The Conservatives finished in fifth place, behind the Greens on 9%, the party’s worst performance in a national election in nearly 200 years. Labour fared little better, coming in third overall with less than 15% of the vote, a worrying performance for an Opposition party hoping to form the next government. Senior Labour figures were quick to blame the party’s equivocal stance on Brexit, and in the hours that followed both the leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell inched closer to supporting a second Brexit referendum.
The election before the election before the election?
In truth, these were a mixed set of results which gave each side of the Brexit debate enough to justify their existing positions. Using some convoluted mathematics the People’s Vote campaign were quick to point out that the ‘anti-Brexit’ vote, made up of the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party won more than 40%, versus the combined 35% won by the Brexit Party and UKIP. Yet this does not take account of the fact that a third of SNP supporters are pro-Brexit but still voted the party because of their support for Scottish independence.
On Friday morning, before any European results were announced, Theresa May all but acknowledged these enduring splits cutting across British politics as she announced that a second election would shortly take place to determine her successor as Prime Minister. She will remain in post until the end of July while an internal party contest takes place, and already 10 Conservative MPs have entered the race.
This will leave just three months to resolve the Brexit impasse. While a new leader more committed to Brexit and prepared to threaten a ‘no-deal’ exit would likely re-energise the negotiations, these will likely have to be paused while new leaders in the European Commission are put in place following the EU elections. Indeed, the outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already said he expects a further extension to the current Brexit deadline of 31 October, and a three-month technical extension is being actively discussed.
It also remains to be seen how any new British Prime Minister can overcome the current splits in Parliament and within each of the two main parties and achieve consensus over Europe. Although there is no requirement for the new PM to go to the polls until 2022, the prospect of an early general election, possibly as soon as this Autumn or next Spring, is now far more likely.
So, although Britain’s 2019 European Parliament election was never meant to happen, it has already triggered at least one election, and could end up having a decisive impact on British politics for years to come.