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UK electoral defeats on Europe

The results of last week’s elections to the European Parliament contradict the hold-the-stick-from-the-middle approach and present the next UK prime minister with a major dilemma, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 30 May 2019
Theresa May
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she announces her resignation outside 10 Downing street in central London on May 24, 2019 (Photo: AFP)

It was a humiliating defeat for both the British Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party in last week’s elections to the European Parliament.

In their worst showing in any EU elections, the Conservatives and Labour combined received less than 25 per cent of the vote, while the new Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage received 31.6 per cent, the Lib Dems 20.3 per cent and the Greens 12.1 per cent of the vote.

Labour, which lost 11.3 per cent of its vote compared to the 2014 elections, struggled to pick up votes in areas that voted heavily for exiting the EU in 2016, averaging fewer than one in ten votes in those areas.

The Conservatives, which lost 14.8 of its vote compared to the 2014 elections, performed badly in both remain and leave areas, but worst in cities where voters had strongly supported staying in the EU in the referendum.

In London, the Conservatives failed to win any seats for the first time in their history.

On the other hand, the new Brexit Party secured more than half the vote in areas where more than seven in 10 people backed leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, while the pro-remain parties like the Greens and the Lib Dems made big gains in pro-EU areas.

If these elections were, as portrayed by many, a proxy or rehearsal for a second referendum on leaving the EU, then the conclusion is that Britain remains profoundly polarised but that pro-EU parties have been making up for lost ground as they won most of the votes in the elections.

The pro-EU parties, the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Change UK, all backers of a second referendum, collectively gained the support of 40.4 per cent of the vote in England, Wales and Scotland.

The Brexit Party and UKIP, both pro-leaving the EU without a deal, won 34.9 per cent of the vote.

This picture represents a dilemma for both Conservatives and Labour. Their “hold-the-stick-from-the-middle” approach has cost them substantial votes from both sides of the divide, while parties that have taken a clear position on Brexit, either by rejecting or supporting it, have won the most votes.

One conclusion that can be drawn is that after three years of paralysis on Brexit, British voters do not want politicians who hide behind consensual rhetoric but instead want clarity and decisiveness.

It is no exaggeration to say that the results have put both major parties in an existential position.

The Conservatives have ousted former British prime minister Theresa May, and the race to replace her has started even before she formally leaves with clear divisions among the main contenders to replace her. Some are open to a no-deal Brexit, while others are strongly against it.

With such divisions within the party and regardless of who will replace May, there is a good chance that the UK will be heading towards an early general election. If the EU election result is anything to go by, the Conservatives and Labour could be annihilated.

The dilemma that May’s successor will have to face is which approach to take: unite and rule or divide and rule? It will be a tough call, especially in a country as polarised as the UK. The parties that did not stay on the fence and declared their political intentions made large gains, while the stay-on-the-fence parties were hit.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson could not hide his discontent at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to declare his unequivocal support for a second Brexit referendum.

 Watson said the party had lost “many hundreds of thousands” of potential votes in the EU elections because of its Brexit stance.

He argued that confusion over holding a second referendum on any deal had led to an “electoral catastrophe” after Labour came third in the elections and its share of the vote fell to 14 per cent.

Corbyn had attempted to appeal to both remain and leave voters in framing the Party’s Brexit policy, but he has come under increasing pressure from senior figures in the party to back a further referendum.

However, despite saying the party was “ready to support a public vote on any deal,” several senior figures were underwhelmed by Corbyn’s stand, describing the leadership’s position as lacking in clarity and not having enough support for a second referendum.

Mason Crace, a member of Momentum, the grassroots movement behind Corbyn’s rise, was less than impressed by the party’s result in the EU elections.

“The result does not show that we are about to win a general election. Our strategy has failed to win support both in the local elections and in the EU elections,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“I really think we need to take a clear side in the second referendum debate. We need to support it unambiguously or risk losing more votes to the Lib Dems and the Greens. Brexit is not an issue that is going to disappear soon. I think Brexit will dominate the political debate in the UK for the next five to 10 years, and the sooner we became clearer, the better,” he said.

The divisions and discontent in the ruling Conservative Party are even more severe than in Labour, and while some contenders to replace May understood the EU results and the gains by the Brexit Party as a clear message to deliver Brexit with a deal or without one, others were more cautious.

The foreign secretary and party leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt warned that the party would be committing “political suicide” if it tried to push through a no-deal Brexit. Hunt said the Conservatives would be “annihilated” and “face extinction” if there was a general election before delivering Brexit.

He wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that he had always believed that no deal was better than no Brexit, but warned that a prime minister advocating no deal would risk losing a confidence vote in parliament, leading to a general election.

“Trying to deliver no deal through a general election is not a solution; it is political suicide,” Hunt said. It would “probably put Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 by Christmas.” He pledged to negotiate a new agreement with the EU if he won the leadership contest.

In response, one of Hunt’s rivals, the former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, said the “political suicide” would be in not leaving the EU at the end of October.

The contenders to replace May can be branded as “unifiers” who are keen to deliver Brexit but with a deal with the EU, such as Hunt, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart.

Then there are “the dividers” who could split the party and the country with their support for a no-deal Brexit such as Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the former Commons leader and Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary.

Among the unifiers, Gove has begun his pitch by pledging to allow EU nationals in the UK to apply for citizenship free of charge. Another unifier is Stewart, who is promising a “listening exercise” on Brexit, declaring that he would not serve under rival Johnson because of his backing for a no-deal Brexit.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, another moderate, said May’s successor would need to be “brutally honest” about the “trade-offs” required to get a deal through parliament and warning against a no-deal Brexit.

Raab warned MPs that if he was elected, he would deliver Brexit with a deal or without a deal and that they would not be able to stop him carrying out a hard Brexit. Raab also ruled out a further delay, declaring that “I will not ask for an extension.”

“It’s very difficult for parliament now to legislate against a no deal, or in favour of a further extension, unless a resolute prime minister is willing to acquiesce in that, and I would not,” he said in an interview with the BBC.

Similar views were expressed by Johnson, who said that if he was elected party leader, he would be exiting the EU with or without a deal come 31 October.

So, the battle lines have been drawn up, and Conservative Party MPs and members will elect their new leader by July, with the decision having huge ramifications on the party and the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: UK electoral defeats on Europe 

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