Just under three years since the Brexit referendum that irrevocably changed British politics, another election is set to take place later this month that could fundamentally impact the political landscape, again.
On May 23, British citizens and European and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK will vote to select 73 candidates for the European Parliament; they will take up their seats in July for a five-year term.
It is a unique election in many ways: Even as late as April, this was the election that was never meant to happen in the UK, and some continue to hope that the MEPs elected may never have to take up their seats. Even after the delay of Brexit till October 31, post repeated failures by the UK government to get parliamentary backing, some retain the distant hope that Britain could still leave the EU before the end of June.
Indeed, the Conservative Party has been running a particularly understated campaign, with voters across many parts of the country reporting that they had received no flyers at all from the party. Some leaflets were lambasted by some of its own MPs because they emphasised putting pressure on local MPs to support the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Priti Patel, a former Cabinet Minister who is critical of the withdrawal agreement as it stands, labelled the campaign “desperate” and “appalling” and an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Theresa May’s critics.
Enthusiasm in Britain for European Parliamentary elections has traditionally not run high: In 2014, the turnout in the UK was just 36 per cent. However, with public feeling on Brexit high, it could be far higher this time round; around 49 per cent of respondents to a YouGov poll earlier this month said they were certain to vote, with only 13 per cent adamant that they would not.
However, it has not been good news for Britain’s main political parties, for whom recent local elections results have already sent a grim warning of public discontent. Both the Conservative and Labour party faced heavy losses in the May 2 elections in England and Northern Ireland, as smaller parties, including the Greens and Liberal Democrats, made gains, while the UK Independence Party (though suffering net losses overall) made some gains in areas that had voted heavily to leave.
A poll conducted by Opinium on behalf of The Observer newspaper this past weekend led to a new wave of panic among Britain’s main political parties as the Brexit Party — set up by former UK Independence Party head Nigel Farage — looked set to be the most popular, with 34 per cent support, followed by Labour (21 per cent), the Liberal Democrats (12 per cent) and the Conservatives (11 per cent). Change UK, a new political party — which is campaigning to remain in the EU and for a second referendum — set up by former Labour and Conservative MPs has so far failed to make the headway it had hoped, commanding just 4 per cent support, putting it neck-and-neck with UKIP.
“The first and most obvious takeaway is that the Brexit Party will do pretty well in terms of seats but the ‘Remain’ parties may do well in terms of vote share,” says Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe, who argues that the splintered nature of the ‘Remain’ parties — Change UK, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party — could enhance their ability to reach a diverse range of supporters of remaining in the EU. “By contrast where does a supporter of Brexit who doesn’t like Nigel Farage go?,” he said.
The elections — beyond their impact on the functioning of the EU and its legislature — are already having significant impact domestically, and the likely poor performance of the Conservative Party is adding pressure on May to step down.
Last week, Graham Brady, chair of the influential Conservative backbench 1922 committee, told BBC that they expected the Prime Minister to set a date for her departure this week. May, while pledging to step down ahead of the next phase of Brexit negotiations, is yet to name a date.
The expectations of the election have also piled pressure on the Labour Party around its stance on Brexit, whether it should demand a public confirmatory vote no matter what the deal agreed with the government is. Some within the party believe that should the government concede to some of its key demands — particularly around remaining in a customs union with the EU — a confirmatory vote or a second referendum would not be necessary. But others are adamant that it must be the feature of any deal.
In an interview with The Guardian , Labour’s shadow minister on Brexit, Keir Starmer, insisted that any deal had to include a confirmatory vote, and urged those who were considering voting for Remain supporting parties such as the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Change UK, to support Labour, insisting it was the only party capable of delivering on a second referendum.
The bigger question will be how the EU parliamentary elections translate into national politics and future general elections. Menon is cautious about extrapolating, given the very specific nature of the vote.
“We are aware that there is a de-alignment in politics. People are no longer committed to parties to the extent they were and are more willing to lend their votes to another party in specific circumstances… These elections are about Europe and we were not meant to be having them.”
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