The aftermath of the EU election – where do we go from here?
Just over a week ago saw little rest in the halls of Westminster and Brussels. Where before we had the (relative) certainties of a sitting prime minister and elections where the two main parties combined would achieve more than 50% support, these are now gone. Instead, we are left to pick over the remains of European parliamentary elections which revealed a more divided UK polity than ever before, an ever-expanding pool of potential Conservative Party leadership candidates and increased volume from the Scottish Government on the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Although the dust has yet to fully settle, Charlotte Street Partners have set out some early observations and views in the following note.
- There are few certainties, but voters are in the mood for protest…
EU election results are by no means an indicator of what will transpire in a Holyrood or Westminster election – turnout was only 40% and the electorate, even in normal times, sees EU elections as an opportunity for a protest vote. However, the ‘victory’ of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on 31.6% of the UK vote, the Lib Dems in second place on 20.3%, and 12.1% support for the Greens, show voters are opting for change. Although none is likely to make significant breakthroughs at any snap UK general election, they could yet be kingmakers, as could the SNP, which won the popular vote in 30 of Scotland’s 32 council areas (with the Lib Dems successful in the other two).
It is also a potentially important point, identified in Lord Ashcroft’s post-election study, that the Brexit Party, Lib Dems, Greens and SNP all scored highly in policy favourability – either on Brexit or other issues (e.g. climate change) – suggesting long-term voting behaviour could be in flux.
- … and the Conservatives and Labour are both paying the price
Both main UK-wide parties are smarting. The Tories were punished for their inability to deliver Brexit whilst Labour were punished for sitting on the fence. The scale of their defeat, however, was extraordinary – the two parties failed to achieve a combined vote share above 25%, and it also marked the worst electoral performance for the Tories in modern history. By contrast, any party which had a clear policy on Brexit (either way) – including the Brexit Party, Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru – made electoral gains.
- Beware claims that Labour now support a second EU referendum
Although indications are that Labour will move towards supporting a second referendum, remember that we have been here before. The hesitancy comes from Jeremy Corbyn’s inherent Euroscepticism and internal party efforts to reconcile the support of a broadly Remain-supporting metropolitan electorate with their Leave supporting seats in the north of England. However, the evidence suggests that more Labour supporters defected to Remain supporting parties than to the Brexit Party, which may yet prove the final spark to Corbyn’s reluctant reincarnation as a People’s Vote supporter.
- The next prime minister and leader of the Conservative party is likely to support ‘no deal’
The success of the Brexit Party at the expense of the Conservatives (some 53% of Conservative voters at the 2017 UK General Election lent them their vote) has highlighted the pro-Brexit instincts of the Conservative base. Only days after Theresa May’s resignation, leadership candidates including Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey have all indicated that they would be prepared to take the UK out of the EU without a deal come 31 October. Where once support for no deal was taboo, it – or at least something closer to a hard Brexit – now seems to be almost a prerequisite for Tory leadership election success.
The real paradox, however, is that this government is all but certain to fall if it seeks to guide no deal through parliament in its current form. Stuck between the proverbial rock of calling a General Election and the hard place of parliamentary arithmetic, May’s successor may yet chart a similar course. In these circumstances, a confirmatory referendum may yet emerge is a viable way forward.
- Scotland’s pro-Remain voice is becoming ever more distinctive
In Scotland, the SNP vote held up well at over 37% – impressive after 12 years of government – allowing them to pick up another seat for a total tally of three seats out of six. Combined with the Lib Dems taking a seat, too, this plays into the SNP narrative that Scotland is overall pro-Remain and distinctive, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to set out a new timetable for indyref2, which she suggested on the day after the EU election results should take place in the second half of 2020. The contrast with England and Wales, where the Brexit Party won, is clear: in Scotland the Brexit Party came a distant second, with 14.8% and one seat.
To counter this point, the clear pro-independence vote (i.e. SNP and Scottish Greens) was only around 45% at these elections, suggesting there is still some way to go to win any future referendum. The Scottish Government has stated its intent to begin the passage of a legislative “framework bill” in Holyrood, in order to facilitate another referendum, but there is still no prospect of the current UK government (under whichever Tory leader) agreeing to transfer the necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold such a vote on the same legal basis as the 2014 independence referendum (a Section 30 Order).
Read the full paper, including Charlotte Street Partners predictions, here.