One of the prevailing myths to emerge from the 2019 European Parliament elections in the UK is that the Conservative party was hit hardest by Nigel Farage and his Brexit party. The six-week-old Brexit party finished first with 31 per cent of the vote while the Conservatives slumped into fifth place with less than 9 per cent of the vote — their worst result at any election in their history.
This outcome was presented by some as evidence to support an argument for the Conservatives and their next leader to veer quickly toward a “harder” or no-deal Brexit to fend off the threat from Mr Farage. But, as our new study ofthe European elections reveals, things are not quite so simple. Drawing on a large amount of aggregate voting data and census information, we have examined what really happened.
There is no doubt that the Brexit party is a problem for the Tories. Mr Farage and his party enjoyed their strongest performances at the European election in the East and West Midlands and also in the North East, averaging more than 40 per cent of the vote in these three regions. The populist party also strengthened its presence in the strongly Leave-voting eastern heartlands; of the Brexit party’s 20 strongest results, 15 were in the eastern half of England, in the same areas — Castle Point, Boston, Clacton, Great Yarmouth and Thurrock — that turned out in large numbers for Mr Farage’s former party, Ukip, in the previous set of European elections in 2014, and then for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
But when we crunched the numbers we found no relationship between changes in support for the Brexit party and the Conservatives. Even in places where the combined force of post-Farage Ukip and the Brexit party improved substantially on Ukip’s result in 2014, the Conservative vote share was hardly any different to that in places where the Brexit party did not make any gains at all.
Put simply, this suggests that Conservatives who were going to defect to Mr Farage had already done so in 2014, so his latest insurrection did not make much difference to Conservative fortunes. Make no mistake: this is still a huge problem for the Tories. If enough of those who voted for the Conservative party in 2017 follow through with their intention to defect to the Brexit party (nearly 40 per cent of them feel this way in current polling) then it is game over for the Tories.
But all this has obscured another problem that hit the Tories hard and direct at the European elections: the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats. The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan might have been criticised for being brash but it helped a campaign that ended with the highest share of the vote for the Liberal Democrats since “Cleggmania” temporarily gripped the nation during the 2010 general election campaign.
Securing 20 per cent of the vote last month, the Lib Dems added 13 points to their 2014 European election result. They averaged more than 25 per cent across London and the South East, where 13 of their 20 top results occurred, and much of this appeared to come at the expense of the Conservatives.
Our models show that Lib Dem support rocketed in affluent areas where there are lots of graduates — places such as Richmond and also Kingston-upon-Thames, St Albans City, Oxford, South Cambridgeshire, Mole Valley, Wandsworth, Cheltenham, Woking, Guildford, Waverley, Winchester and Bath. In these constituencies, a Lib Dem surge often went hand-in-hand with dramatic Conservative declines. In places like Richmond and Winchester the Lib Dems walked away with 40-50 per cent of the vote while the Tories lost 26 percentage points.
This was not only about Brexit. The relationship between the Brexit party and the 2016 Leave vote is much stronger than the relationship between the Liberal Democrats and the 2016 Remain vote. This suggests that the Lib Dems are benefiting from other things too, perhaps a “none of the above” sentiment about the main two parties, as well as local issues.
Either way, for Liberal Democrats this raises an intriguing opportunity to exact revenge for the Conservative party’s so-called decapitation strategy of the 2015 general election, in which then prime minister David Cameron’s campaign, masterminded by strategist Lynton Crosby, successfully offset losses to Labour or Ukip by targeting Lib Dem seats. A liberal Conservative leader appealing to liberal England feels like a lifetime ago. But it paid dividends in securing a surprise parliamentary majority.
Next time around, things will not be so easy for the Conservatives. While Mr Farage sinks deeper roots into the Brexit heartland, retaining the disaffected Eurosceptic Tory vote, the resurgent Lib Dems have opened up a second flank against Conservatives.
There are other ominous signs for the governing party. Pro-Brexit areas were less likely to turn out than Remain areas and the Tories remain weak in ethnically diverse places. Labour also have problems but they remain strong in London and in university towns, are spreading into the south-east and have large majorities farther north. With the SNP dominant in Scotland and new life breathed into the Liberal Democrats, it is becoming harder and harder to see where the next Conservative leader can find the seats needed to hold on to the keys to Downing Street.
The writer is professor of politics at the University of Kent. The research paper was co-authored with David Cutts, Oliver Heath and Caitlin Milazzo.