EU Elections: UK remains divided on Brexit

May's Brexit strategy: avoid becoming the new Ramsay Mac

Shaun Riordan | The elections to the European Parliament in the UK were always something of a farce. Because of the inability of the British political class to decide what kind of Brexit it wanted, if indeed it wanted Brexit at all, British voters were forced to elect members to the parliament of a Union which, in theory at least, they will leave in five months. But they were also something of an anti-climax. The success of the Brexit party and the collapse of the Conservative vote were supposed to drive Prime Minister May from office. But she has already gone, or at least announced that she will step down at the beginning of June. As a consequence the European elections in the UK seem something of an afterthought, no longer enjoying the relevance they once did.

In terms of results, all was much as expected. The Brexit Party of Nigel Farage won, although doing slightly less well than the polls suggested. The Liberal Democrat Party, standing on a remain and second referendum ticket, came second slightly outperforming the polls. The Green Party also did well, leaving the Labour Party grateful not to be forced into fourth place. The Conservatives did even worse than expected, with their lowest share of the vote since the modern Conservative party was created in 1834. Although not officially announced yet, the Scottish National Party seems to have dominated north of the border.

These results should not be interpreted in terms of the wider European elections, where the rise of populist parties seems to have been counterbalanced by the emergence of alternative centrist parties. The European elections in the UK were entirely about Brexit. The Conservatives were punished because of their inability to deliver on Brexit, with the allure of Nigel Farage´s Brexit Party impossible to resist for a disillusioned rank and file. Labour was punished for its inability to craft a coherent and unambiguous policy on Brexit.

Parties either in favour of a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all secured 77% of the vote in England and Wales. The main concern for those in favour of a no deal Brexit is that parties in favour of remaining in the EU (Liberal Democrats, Greens and Scottish National Party) comfortably outperformed the Brexit Party. In other words, the British public remains deeply divided between those who want to leave the EU and those who want to remain, with some kind of muddled compromise appearing to be the least favoured result of all.

The first lesson drawn from these results will be for the election of a new Conservative leader (and in effect Prime Minister) to succeed Theresa May. The Brexit Party may not be a long term challenge, despite the outbursts of Nigel Farage, as, apart from Brexit, it has not the shred of a coherent policy programme. But the scale of the Conservative´s disaster makes it almost inevitable that their next leader come from the Brexit wing of the party, even if it is not Boris Johnson himself (who may prove too distrusted by his parliamentary colleagues).

This may decrease the chance of agreement prior to the 31 October deadline for the UK´s exit from the EU (not least because the new Commission will not be in place by then). At the same time, these results may also force the Labour Party, despite its leader Jeremy Corbyn, aligning itself more openly with the Remainers. In other words, plus ça change …

The lesson for Europe of these results is perhaps clearer. The prospect of 28 Brexit Party MEPs wreaking havoc with Salvini and other Eurosceptic elements in the European Parliament should be incentive enough to ensure the UK´s orderly departure from the EU as soon as possible.

About the Author

Shaun Riordan
Shaun Riordan is Director of the Department for Diplomacy and Cyberspace in the European Institute of International Studies and a senior visiting fellow of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, “Clingendael”. He is also an independent geopolitical risk consultant. A former British diplomat, he served in New York, Taiwan, Beijing and Madrid, as well as the departments of counter-terrorism and the Eastern Adriatic in the Foreign Office. Shaun has taught at diplomatic academies in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Armenia and Bulgaria. He is the author of “Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online” (Polity, 2019), “Adios a la Diplomacia” (Siglo XXI, 2005) and “The New Diplomacy” (Polity, 2003). He maintains a blog ( and can be followed at @shaun_riordan