World / Politics

Brexit tears up British politics as Nigel Farage tops EU election poll

Bloomberg

Brexit wrought more havoc on Britain’s main political parties in European Parliament elections, with both Conservatives and Labour scoring their worst results in decades as voters opted for politicians with clear pro- and anti-European Union messages.

With nearly all the vote counts complete, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which wants the U.K. to leave the EU without a deal, was in first place, with 32 percent of the vote. In second place, with 20 percent, were the Liberal Democrats, who want to stay in the bloc. Labour, which is split about what to do, was third with 14 percent. The anti-Brexit Greens had 12 percent.

In fifth place were Theresa May’s Conservatives at 9 percent, a catastrophic result for the party of government. The heavy defeat immediately sparked calls for the Tories speed up efforts to leave the bloc or risk being destroyed at the next general election.

May finally gave in to pressure from her party and announced Friday that she would quit as prime minister. Tories supporting a quick, hard break with the EU are likely to use Farage’s success to bolster their case for preparing to leave without a deal.

“Never before in British politics has a new party launched just six weeks ago topped the polls in a national election,” Farage said, after he was re-elected an MEP. “The reason of course is very obvious: We voted to leave in a referendum, we were supposed to do so on March 29 — and we haven’t.”

The pound, which has weakened this month on growing concerns about a no-deal exit, was up 0.2 percent at $1.2738 early on Monday.

Britain was due to leave the EU on March 29, but May’s failure to get the deal she negotiated with the bloc ratified in Parliament has forced the U.K. to delay exit day until Oct. 31. Euroskeptic voters have run out of patience and punished the ruling Tories for their inability to deliver on the 2016 referendum decision to leave the EU.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — one of those running to replace May — said on Twitter that the result was predictable but “painful” for the Conservatives. He warned of an “existential risk to our party unless we now come together and get Brexit done.”

Boris Johnson, the current favorite to win the leadership, agreed with Hunt’s diagnosis. “The voters are delivering a crushing rebuke to the government — in fact, to both major parties,” he wrote in his column for the Telegraph newspaper.

“I cannot find it in my heart to blame them,” Johnson wrote. “They gave us one chief task: To deliver Brexit. They have so far given us almost three years to do it. We have flagrantly failed to carry out their instructions. We have missed deadline after deadline, broken promise after promise.”

But there’s little sign that the elections will break the deadlock in Parliament. Conservatives who rejected May’s deal because it stayed too close to the EU — such as Johnson — will argue that support for the Brexit Party shows the public agrees with them. Other Tories will look at the loss of votes to the Liberal Democrats and come to the opposite conclusion.

With the race to succeed May under way, many of the candidates are seeking to appeal to Conservative activists, who are largely pro-Brexit, by announcing their support for a no-deal divorce. But parties backing a hard, no-deal Brexit won only 35 percent of the vote share, while the combined support for all the parties backing a second referendum was 40 percent.

Two Cabinet members who aren’t running, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Justice Secretary David Gauke, warned against pursuing a no-deal split. Hammond didn’t rule out voting against his own government to prevent such an outcome.

“It would not just challenge me, but many of our colleagues,” Hammond told the BBC.

While turnout was slightly higher in the U.K. than in 2014, the election didn’t offer a clear result as a proxy referendum on EU membership. Parties backing leaving the EU claimed 44 percent of the vote. Parties opposing Brexit had 40 percent. Between the two was Labour, which officially supports leaving but staying close to the EU, even as many of its supporters and leading figures are calling for a second referendum.

Labour’s splits were exposed as the results came in. Members of Parliament who represent pro-EU seats, such as foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry, argued that the party needs to move to supporting a second Brexit referendum. Her colleague Caroline Flint, who represents a pro-leave seat, said the opposite. Even if leader Jeremy Corbyn were to conclude he had to help the government get Brexit delivered, he would struggle to get enough of his MPs to support it.

Corbyn issued a statement repeating his calls either for an election — his preference — or a referendum. In the past, his office has been clear that he only wants a referendum if the Brexit deal is one that he doesn’t support.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said his party’s result had shown the advantages of a picking a side. “There is a clear lesson for Labour in tonight’s results: Get off the fence,” he said in an emailed statement. “In trying to please everybody they have pleased nobody.”

Farage demanded a place for his Brexit Party in the U.K.’s negotiating team with the EU. “If we don’t leave on Oct. 31 what you will see is the Brexit Party stunning everybody at the next general election,” Farage told the BBC.

Whoever May’s successor is, they’re unlikely to find either working with Farage or a general election a tempting offer.