European Elections: UK’s Ever More Fractured Politics

Kirsty Hughes | 27 May 2019

© 2017 SCER

Across the EU, the European Parliament election results are broadly reassuring. The populist far right in Hungary, Poland, France, Austria, Italy and the UK did well but not as well as some feared. Overall, the centre ground held. That the Parliament will no longer be so dominated by the two big centre-right and centre-left groups is good news – they will need to ally with the Liberals (including Macron’s party) and the Greens, and between them these four will have over two-thirds of the seats in the European Parliament.

The Scottish results make Scotland look rather mainstream European. Yes, a far right populist Brexit party took 14% of the vote. But that’s less than Le Pen’s 23% and similar to the eurosceptic AfD in Germany who got 11%. Pro-remain parties in Scotland took 62% of the vote while pro-Brexit parties (Brexit, Tories, UKip) took just over a quarter at 28%, and Labour’s fudged but certainly not pro-remain stance meant it crashed to fifth place, doing worse in Scotland than for the UK overall, while the Tories did slightly better (still abysmally).

Most of the pro-remain vote in Scotland went to the pro-independence SNP and Greens, but a quarter went to the LibDems and ChangeUK – unsurprising, as remain support has consistently cut across pro- or anti-indy lines in the last 3 years. For Scotland, four broadly pro-EU parties dominating the results maps, in fact, rather neatly onto the broader, mainstream EU picture (even while Change barely figured).

The same cannot be said for England and Wales where the Brexit party came first, the LibDems second in England, and Plaid Cymru second in Wales, a major breakthrough for the nationalists. The two main parties at Westminster were decimated – the Tories for their absurd and damaging Brexit stalemate, Labour for not opposing that. Northern Irish results once in will surely show again that it, like Scotland, is a remain area. The UK’s fractures since the 2016 are alive and kicking – and getting worse.

We will now see the extraordinary ‘democratic’ spectacle of a Tory party that just got 9% of the vote electing the UK’s new Prime Minister. And to get that tarnished Tory leader and PM crown, the candidates will surely talk up, even more than they have already, the fantasy delights of a no deal Brexit. This looks unstable and untenable even before factoring in Tory Brexit splits that have not disappeared. But in the face of its rout in the European elections, it will be a rash new Tory leader who will call an election unless Westminster forces it upon him or her.

Labour, meanwhile, will continue to call for a general election, as Corbyn continues to prevaricate on backing, or simply opposes, a second referendum with a remain option. But on this showing, not least in Scotland, Labour will not cover itself in glory in an election. It might come out ahead of the Tories but that’s not guaranteed . And with the Brexit party in the lead, the LibDems resurgent, and the SNP strengthening in polls in Scotland, Labour’s chances of leading even a minority government don’t look great.

The deep Brexit divides in England and Wales, and the voters’ rejection of the two main parties, sets up a major conundrum of how to overcome those divisions and get back to something akin to stable, rational and democratic government. Opinion polls show a remain majority in England and Wales, but it’s across a deep divide hardening around a people’s vote and a no deal Brexit. Meanwhile, the proponents of a ‘soft’ Brexit have surely been pushed, rightly, into irrelevance by these European results.

But the Brexit clock is still ticking and the choice remains Brexit or no Brexit. If it’s Brexit – then that’s May’s deal or an even more damaging, no deal Brexit. The EU’s leaders, faced with a Tory government still ruling despite winning just 9% of the vote and 28 Brexit party MEPs, will not be in a rush to extend Article 50 further at the end of October. Nor, given the broadly positive outcome of the European elections, will they be offering to renegotiate in any way the Withdrawal Agreement including its backstop for Northern Ireland. The EU27 might amend a few lines of the political declaration, if the new UK prime minister asks for it. But that will not help any foolhardy new Tory PM get May’s deal through Westminster at the fourth attempt.

Meanwhile, the no deal Tory Brexiters, perhaps including the new PM, will be fulminating about the delights of a cliff edge Brexit. The Commons may still be opposed to a no deal Brexit, but unless they can figure out, finally, what they are for, the end of October deadline will soon figure strongly.

This could yet all shift. The democratic illegitimacy of the new Tory PM, and the likely shift towards a no deal Brexit, may result in UK polls showing growing support for remain and a people’s vote. Labour, dragging Corbyn with them, might rally as a pro-remain, pro-people’s vote party. Or it could all divert into a general election – quite likely to solve nothing and that will have to be held before the end of October Article 50 deadline.

Scotland, having again shown itself to be a mainstream European country, will be watching this askance. Will a Brexit bounce start to feed into independence polls? Surely, the debate will intensify not least if the EU27 hold firm to the 31st October date – perhaps more likely as Merkel’s government wobbles, possibly even falls, given the dire European results for their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners. The SNP looks set fair for any early general election – and, as the third party at Westminster, unlike the Tories and Labour, the SNP still has the support of its voters.

In the EU as a whole, the centre has held – as it has in Scotland. But in England and Wales, the deep Brexit, political and social fractures have just become much worse. The centre has not perhaps cannot hold for the UK and where its fractured and fractious politics go next is unclear indeed. Whether and when Scotland may move to hold an independence referendum is an open question. But if Scotland chose independence, as a European country asking to stay in or re-join the EU, it would surely be part of the mainstream.

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Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.