28 May 2019

Major-party meltdown – not Remain’s mythical victory – is the story of the European elections

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The final results of the European Parliament elections have provoked a veritable orgy of fag-packet maths, with commentators straining to point out that, in fact, their side of the Brexit debate “won” the elections.

Perhaps the most spectacular example was Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, confidently asserting that “in these elections remain was the winner, not Farage”.  To prove this Toynbee tots up pro-Remain party votes and declares that a second referendum would be won by Remain, by the rather quirky margin of 50-47.

The veteran Tuscan socialist is hardly the only culprit, of course. Even the BBC has been putting up bar charts of ‘hard Brexit’ versus ‘Remain’ as if the elections were actually a poll on precisely how people want to leave the EU, handily translated into a tick for a series of parties. Never mind that the turnout was a mere 37 per cent, meaning about 15 million fewer people voted than in the 2016 referendum.

What’s more, by focusing only on parties that either want No Deal or to scrap the referendum result entirely, parts of the media risk making the debate all about the two extremes and ignoring the many people, and politicians, who want to find compromise.

Far more enlightening than pseudo-mathematical projections about a second referendum is the very detailed polling work done by Lord Ashcroft over the weekend. His survey of voters has dug into which 2017 voters went where.

It gets to the heart of the real story of these elections — the devastating blow delivered by the electorate to the two major parties. After all, it’s much more important to examine what might happen in a general election that will definitely happen than in a second referendum that will probably never take place.

Fans of Conservative majority governments, look away now. According to Ashcroft’s survey, of those who took part in these elections only one in five 2017 Conservative voters stayed with the party. Unsurprisingly the majority of that exodus (53 per cent of 2017 voters) was to the Brexit Party, but there was a not insignificant 12 per cent who went to the Lib Dems too.

Labour fared slightly better, with 38 per cent of their 2017 voters staying put, but they lost votes to several different parties – principally the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Brexit Party.

What will really worry both the main parties’ strategists is that many of those 2017 voters may get into the habit of voting for another party. Ashcroft’s figures make this starkly clear: only 43 per cent of 2017 Tory voters who turned out last Thursday said they would back the Conservatives next time out. The figures for Labour was 56 per cent — certainly better than the Tories, certainly pretty bad.

All of this comes with the usual caveat about turnout, but a bigger pinch of salt is needed because of the big political drama around the corner.

There’s a Tory leadership election, with a potential new-leader bounce in the polls for whoever wins it. A personality-driven race may help take the edge off this week’s meltdown, as well as keeping the Tory big beasts on the front pages for the forseeable future. The impending arrival of Donald Trump may have a similar analgaesic effect, by diverting the public’s attention for a bit.

Then there is the bigger and more difficult quesiton of what happens next with Brexit. How can one possibly account for the myriad effects of leaving the EU at the end of October without a deal, for instance?

On the one hand it might enhance a Brexiteer Tory PM’s credentials among Leave voters and shoot the Farage fox. On the other it might provoke turmoil that permanently scars the Conservatives’ reputation for competent stewardship of the economy. Pro-Europeans could desert the party, too, just to add to the maelstrom. That’s before we consider the possibility of another referendum in Scotland if Nicola Sturgeon gets her way.

These permutations are too many to predict with any confidence, but in the meantime these elections have at least given us a sense of the dissatisfaction many voters feel with the two biggest parties and the scale of the challenge they face in turning things round.

As has become clear from the last few days of not very private infighting among Labour’s top brass, plenty on the Corbyn front bench feel the time is nigh for a far clearer, more robustly pro-Remain view. That presents its own internal challenges, of course.

How can Jeremy Corbyn pivot from the fudged ‘Labour Brexit’ line he’s been trotting out for three years to the kind of ‘Remain and reform’ position now advocated by Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry? Is there any realistic prospect of a different leader than Corbyn taking the helm, given how well trying to unseat him has gone in the past?

In a way, the Conservatives’ task is both simpler and riskier, certainly in the longer term. Elect a leader and Prime Minister to deliver Brexit and sock it to Brussels, with the nuclear option of no deal firmly back on the table. It’s a strategy that may appeal to party members and plenty of MPs — whether it is a strategy to create a broad election-winning coalition is another matter entirely.

All the while Nigel Farage and the resurgent Lib Dems will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the potential spoils to come.

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John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX.