1. Nigel Farage can win a Euro vote, but he still has a terrible record in general elections
After Nigel Farage’s Ukip caused a political earthquake in the 2014 Euro elections, it took another two years for the tsunami to arrive, in the shape of the Brexit vote that submerged Britain’s politics. Last night, Farage proved he can still shake the nation’s Leave voters into action, but this time the long-term damage is less clear.
The Brexit Party leader is right that his victory was stunning for a party that didn’t even exist six weeks ago. The scale of the devastation it wrought on the Tories and Labour was undeniable. And all this on a turnout that was half that of either the EU referendum or a general election, and when Remain areas saw more people voting than in Leave areas.
Yet his party has not come out of the ether. Farage’s high profile among many voters was underscored by his mass rallies, while a slick social media operation and superior spending on Facebook ads helped him win the ‘air war’. His voter base stems from Ukip’s. His infrastructure and funding came out of the ‘Leave Means Leave’ campaign, set up three years ago to prepare for a ‘Brexit betrayal’ that parliament duly delivered.
If this was a re-run of the referendum, it showed the UK is still bitterly divided between Leave and Remain and any fresh plebiscite could produce another narrow result. Despite all that, Farage’s vision of a no-deal Brexit was outpolled last night. Both his party and Ukip won 35% of the vote, but anti-no-deal parties (and you have to assume voters who doggedly backed the Tories are in favour of a deal) won more than 64%.
For all the boasts about causing ‘carnage’ at Westminster, the real problem for Farage remains just how well his ‘new’ force can do in an old fashioned voting system called a general election, especially one that favours the big two parties. Because in many ways, the Brexit Party is not a party at all, it is a single issue social movement.
And in a general election, it may repeat Ukip’s abject failure to win a single seat. Farage has tried and failed seven times to get into the House of Commons. When he is asked about privatising the NHS or supporting Putin, about austerity or tax rises, his surge in support among Labour and Tory voters could easily ebb once more like a receding tide.
2. Jeremy Corbyn is heading towards a second referendum as a route to No.10
The growing likelihood of a no-deal Tory leader is certainly having a direct impact on Labour and its own stance on a second referendum. Just as Theresa May was hammered in her own backyard, so too were Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry. In Islington, the Lib Dems soared to first place, increasing their vote share by 20% as Labour’s fell by 19%. In Camden, home to shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, the yellow surge was even more dramatic, up 26%.
Thornberry took just 20 minutes after the polls closed last night to push Labour’s policy much harder towards a referendum. “We were not clear on the one single thing people wanted to hear,” she told the BBC. “We should have said quite simply that any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum and that Remain should be on the ballot paper- and that Labour would campaign to Remain.” The party’s ruling NEC should meet and shift to the clearer policy, she added.
Earlier in the evening, there had been a major operation by some hardline Corbyn allies to suggest similar words from Tom Watson were part of a new ‘coup’ attempt against their leader. Len McCluskey was acting like an ineffective “Machiavelli”. But Thornberry, who has never plotted against Corbyn, showed why this was about a change of policy, not leader. More importantly, Corbyn supporters like Shami Chakrabarti have also come out stronger for a public vote recently.
Before the results, John McDonnell said the party should “bring people together and block a no deal and if that means going back to the people, so be it.” Yet it was just after midnight that Corbyn himself issued a statement signalling a significant change of direction, declaring: “This issue will have to go back to the people, whether through a general election or a public vote.” Uber-loyal Richard Burgon repeated the line on Today and Diane Abbott said: “We need to listen to our members and take a clearer line on a public vote.” McDonnell tweeted his ‘absolutely clear view’: “if, as likely GE not possible, then I support going back to the people in another referendum.”
There are still some shadow ministers, particularly in northern seats, who fear getting off the fence risks losing working class Leave voters. In Doncaster, Wigan, Rotherham, Wakefield and Bury, the Brexit party spiked as Labour plunged. But in Wales, Corbyn’s party came third behind Farage and Plaid Cymru. And in Scotland, it looks like coming fifth, a prospect that suggests it will lose its Westminster seats to the SNP. With the next party conference a long way away in September, Corbyn could convene a special conference this summer to further clarify Labour’s second referendum pledge. The real shift would come in a general election, if a referendum-remain-and-reform was put in the manifesto.
3. The Tory party leadership race could now be shaped by sheer panic
They knew it would be bad, but the scale of the Tory losses was truly astonishing. A national vote share of just 9% is its worst electoral result since 1832. All but three of its MEPs were swept away. The Conservatives failed to top the poll in every single council area of England and Wales (the Greens came top in three).
If Theresa May hadn’t already announced her resignation, it would surely have been inevitable after her own seat of Maidenhead saw the Tory vote fall off a cliff by 26%. Leadership contender Jeremy Hunt was the first to react, saying the results posed an “existential risk” to his party. Boris Johnson said they proved that if Brexit was not delivered “I fear we will see a permanent haemorrhage of Conservative support”.
It’s not surprising that panic is beginning to set in. One YouGov analysis of the 2016 referendum found that the largest block of Leave voters were middle class Tory voters (5.6 million of them), closely followed by working class Tory voters (4.4 million of them). Unlike Labour, the Conservatives are being squeezed by their base across all classes, north and south.
The next test on the horizon for the Tories is the Peterborough by-election, held next week. Farage opted not to run, claiming he needed to lead his forces in the European parliament instead. This is a Labour seat that is traditionally a straight fight with the Tories. Yet last night’s Euro results put the Brexit party first on 38%, Labour second on 17% and the Lib Dems third on 15%. The Tories managed just fourth on 11%, a whisker ahead of the Greens. It’s only a by-election, but enough to scare the hell out of many MPs.
Many Tory MPs may now opt for a no-deal leader like Johnson or Dominic Raab simply to counter the Farage threat. However, moderate backbenchers will be equally horrified by the huge swings last night from their party to the Liberal Democrats in key heartlands like Kensington and Chelsea and Woking. And in a swath of Tory seats targeted by the Lib Dems, the Conservative vote could easily fracture in a general election and turn blue areas yellow. The long-term damage to the Tory brand of a chaotic, no-deal exit is terrifying many backbenchers. Maybe that’s one reason why Michael Gove last night underlined his anti no-deal credentials, telling Nick Robinson even Margaret Thatcher often compromised. With Labour heading towards a second referendum, the new Tory leader faces a stark choice: opt for a general election or gamble on a referendum of your own.
4. The Lib Dems and Greens are a growing electoral force
Jo Swinson, the woman who is favourite to become the Lib Dems’ next leader, put her finger on her party’s twin triumph last night: any party that can get Alastair Campbell and Michael Heseltine in the same voting booth has done something extraordinary.
After their 2015 general election hammering for their role in the Cameron coalition, Lib Dems used to talk about a ‘fightback’ and everybody laughed. It has taken four long years but this year they have proved their resilience with a set of impressive local elections and now the European elections. Going from one MEP to 15, and from 7% to 20%, gave them the clear second place they craved.
The immediate impact of last night looks like some kind of merger or formal alliance with ChangeUK, whose interim leader Heidi Allen suggested the move yesterday. If so, they would overnight double their strength to 22 MPs in Westminster. Last night’s results show that the Lib Dems will be the ones calling the shots.
On 12%, the Greens scored their second highest ever vote in a national election (they had a fantastic 15% in 1989, post Chernobyl and mid-Ozone layer crisis, but the first past the post voting system gave them zero seats). Having also done well in the local elections, they proved a safe home for many Labour voters (particularly hardcore Corbyn supporters) who couldn’t quite stomach the Lib Dems.
The Greens’ clear pro-Remain message, plus their longstanding credibility on the climate crisis and their stance against austerity, proved a potent mix. Many new Labour members who flocked to Corbyn’s leadership came from the Greens. If he doesn’t act, the danger is they again peel off to their former home. Unlike the Brexit Party, the Lib Dems and Greens have on-the-ground electoral organisation that can harm the main two parties.
5. The British far-right has been marginalised
Two big bright spots on the night were the humiliation of both ‘Tommy Robinson’ and Ukip leader Gerard Batten. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, managed a paltry 2% of the vote in the North West region and opponents literally laughed in his face when the results came through at the Manchester count. He came in eighth place with 38,908 votes.
Yaxley-Lennon remains an ‘adviser’ to Batten, who is Ukip’s leader, at least for a few more weeks. Batten lost his seat in London as Ukip’s vote plummeted and the Brexit Party replaced it. More than anyone, he had taken his party down a route of hostility towards Islam and Muslims, and it now looks like it is finally dead. Following multiple defections, it had only three MEPs before last night and now has none. It has no MPs, no London Assembly members, and just 62 local councillors across the entire country.
Ukip’s most controversial candidate, YouTuber Carl Benjamin, failed to come close to winning a seat in the South West region, where his party managed 3% of the vote. Benjamin is being investigated by police over remarks that he “wouldn’t even rape” Labour MP Jess Phillips. Another ‘alt right’ YouTuber, Markus Meechan, was standing for Ukip in Scotland but was on course to score 2% of the vote. Meechan was fined recording his girlfriend’s pet dog giving a Nazi salute after responding to statements such as “gas the Jews” and “Sieg Heil”.
Marine le Pen’s National Rally movement beat Emannuel Macron’s En March into first place in France. But the far-right remains a marginalised movement in the UK.