The UK’s divisions over Brexit were spelt out in technicolor in the European elections on Sunday night (26 May), as Nigel Farage’s Brexit party comfortably topped the poll, and pro-Remain parties also made large gains.
Farage’s party claimed 32% of the vote and are set to win 29 seats, a remarkable victory for a party that did not exist two months ago.
However, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrat and Green parties also recorded historically strong results, with the Liberal Democrats beating Labour, which was punished for its equivocation over whether to support a second referendum, into third place with 20%. Labour fell to a mere 14% of the vote.
The Green party, which also campaigned on a ‘stop Brexit’ platform, won seven seats on 12% of the vote, their best performance in thirty years, beating the governing Conservative party into fifth position on 9% and four MEPs.
The pro-Remain Change UK failed to win a single seat, while Farage’s former vehicle, UKIP, were wiped out, five years after winning the 2014 European elections with 27%.
In Remain-voting Scotland, the Scottish National Party, which also supports a People’s Vote, topped the poll on close to 40%.
“There’s a huge message here…If we don’t leave the EU on October 31 then the scores for the Brexit will be repeated at a general election, and we, the Brexit party, are ready for it, said Nigel Farage.”
The Brexit party has campaigned for the UK to trade with the EU on WTO terms, and has demanded that its MEPs be part of Brexit negotiations with the EU. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister now a Brexit MEP, said that her party had a “moral” authority to be part of fresh talks with the EU.
But both Remain and Leave supporters have reason to spin the results to support their case. Despite the Brexit party’s victory, 40 of the UKs 73 MEPs support the country’s membership of the EU.
“Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stop Brexit,” said Irina Von Wiese, the lead candidate in London, where the Liberal Democrats topped the poll.
“It’s best read as the approximation of a draw,” said BBC pollster John Curtice. “We are a polarised and divided country.”
While the Conservatives were widely expected to suffer a heavy defeat having failed to take the UK out of the EU as scheduled on March 31, the squeeze on Labour’s vote, which haemorrhaged to the Liberal Democrats and Greens, will ramp up the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn’s party to clearly endorse a second referendum.
Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, called on his party to “urgently re-think its Brexit position and realign with members and voters”.
Brexit has paralysed the country since the 2016 referendum. Earlier this week, Theresa May announced that she would step down as her party’s leader on June 7, heralding a leadership contest that will see more than ten candidates vie for the premiership.
The UK was forced to hold the EU polls after May failed three times to get her Brexit deal passed by national lawmakers, being forced to agree an extension to the UK’s exit date to October 31.
Although the mandates of the UKs 73 MEPs are expected to be short-lived, the prospect of a further extension or another referendum leaves their futures highly uncertain.
“It is impossible to plan. It could be five weeks, five months or five years,” newly elected Green MEP Magid Magid told EURACTIV.