When it comes to Brexit, it seems compromise has indeed become a dirty word. There can be no doubt who won the UK’s elections to the European Parliament and how they will interpret their success. The lessons the victors and losers will draw from these elections will be that the nation is polarised and that hardline positions are the ones which will prevail.
The correct interpretation is inevitably more nuanced, but political narratives once established are very hard to shift. The headline conclusion is that the parties with a clear pro or anti Brexit message fared well while Britain’s two major parties — the two with a policy of honouring the referendum result but with a negotiated Brexit — were both hammered. The failure to deliver Brexit on time as promised has been punished.
The results will therefore strengthen the hand of Brexit hardliners in the Tory leadership contest and Labour Remainers seeking to push their party policy towards a second referendum.
For Nigel Farage and his Brexit party the night was a triumph. His analysis will be that voters have endorsed his type of hard, no-deal departure. His new party were the outright winners on the night, outdoing even the UK Independence party’s victory in the last European election. They came top in every region of England and Wales bar London. Most worryingly for the other parties, they will see this as confirming their right to adjudicate on what is or is not a true Brexit.
For what one might call the pure Remainer parties there was also reason for cheer. The Liberal Democrats secured second place while the Greens saw the their vote rocket. The combined vote of the overtly Remainer parties (which also included Change UK) was slightly higher than the combined vote of the Brexit party and the now much reduced Ukip — 35.6 per cent to 34.9 per cent. It would be higher still if one adds in the avowedly remain Welsh and Scottish Nationalists.
The big losers were the two established parties, but also by extension the cause of compromise.
The scale of the Conservative meltdown is gobsmacking. It is the party’s worst ever result in a national election, with a vote share in single figures. They were beaten into fifth place by the Greens. Had Theresa May not already announced her departure date the clamour for her to do so would be deafening.
Labour’s result, though, is almost as remarkable. Thrashed in London, beaten into third place nationally, the party paid the price for trying to face both ways on Brexit. In Remain areas its vote melted away to the Lib Dems and Greens; in Leave strongholds it lost ground too. The figures validate Jeremy Corbyn’s fears of alienating Labour Leave voters without vindicating his strategy of trying to retain them by riding two horses.
Some caveats are needed. It is worth stressing that the British public does not believe these elections matter on their own terms. Voters do not care about representation in a parliament they expect to be leaving. These elections count only as a demonstration of the public mood about Brexit. Nearly two-thirds of the country did not vote.
This result is unlikely to be replicated at a general election, but it will show both parties how their vote could fray and cost them victory.
For the Tories, the conclusion will be clear: they need to deliver the Brexit they promised at the last general election. They are largely comfortable being a Leave party, the debate for them — a debate that will dominate their looming leadership election — is simply the form of Brexit they deliver. Conservatives will draw from this election the message that they need a tough position on Brexit and a leader ready at the very least to countenance a no-deal exit. The results were therefore good news for Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and other hard Brexit leadership contenders who opposed Mrs May’s deal.
For Labour it is more complicated. Its members and MPs are instinctively pro-Remain and the pressure on the leadership to commit to a second referendum will be immense. Even ardent Corbyn loyalists were on Monday indicating a readiness to move on the referendum after results that saw Labour losing votes to the Brexit party in Leave areas and to the Greens and Lib Dems in Remain areas.
The Corbyn aides who have resisted efforts to commit to a second vote may argue that Brexit will not be the key issue at a general election and that they simply need not to be seen to facilitate it. But increasingly this looks like it will not wash. Voting contains an element of habit; the first time you break with your party is the most difficult. While Labour voters may well return in a general election, it is also clear that a significant slice of the votes the party secured at the last election were lent to it by opponents of Brexit.
The night’s other big winners are the Liberal Democrats. They made huge gains and established their primacy over Change UK as the leading Remain party. For the new Change UK the night was a disaster. They will now have to decide how best to ally with the Lib Dems and some were openly countenancing simply joining the larger party.
This election seems to show a country polarised over Brexit, but in reality the results are more complex. There are several different ways to slice the vote. Parties opposed to no deal outpolled those in favour of it. Parties ready to countenance some form of Brexit outpolled those opposed to it.
It is also worth remembering that while 17.4m voted to Leave in 2016, just under 5.8m voted for the hard Brexit parties this time. Likewise, Remain secured 16.1m in the referendum, while the Remainer parties secured around 6.6m (with two regions still to declare). This represents the hardcore of both sides. So while hardliners on both sides are claiming a moral victory, their right to speak for all who voted Leave or Remain is questionable.
Voters have nonetheless chosen clarity over compromise. The two sides of the Brexit argument are entrenched. Both Labour and the Conservatives are going to find it increasingly difficult to hold their party members in check. Both are likely to gravitate towards the poles of Leave and Remain.
By the time the country votes again the forces of compromise are likely to be even smaller.