Few of us would have predicted at the start of the year that by the end of May we would be preparing ourselves for Euro elections in the UK. However bar a Brexit rabbit being pulled from the Prime Minister’s handbag, this is the direction we are heading in. Although Brenda from Bristol will no doubt be unimpressed, the potential implications of this surprising electoral event are rather significant.
Low turnout, big impact.
The Brexit deadline extension to 31st October has meant that despite MPs returning this week to Parliament, things are pretty calm in Westminster. Apart from continuing speculation about when Theresa May will go and the dying-on-their-feet Government-Labour Brexit talks, the Euro election, with its new parties and wacky candidates are taking centre stage. The ensuing results may have real significance, chiefly influencing the future of Brexit.
For an election traditionally viewed as a non-event that suffers from a poor turn-out, this is very much a change in mood. That is because the Euro elections are a high stakes poker game for both Leave and Remain to shift the tables and break the current deadlock in Westminster.
Remainers celebrated more than Brexiteers when Theresa May was forced to accept an extension to Brexit. The extra time heightened possibility of a 2nd Referendum. However, Remainers also need to be careful what they wish for. The delay and therefore the likelihood of Euro elections has created an opportunity for Leavers to put the People’s Vote arguments to bed once and for all.
What the polls say
We all know polls can be unreliable barometers of future voting intention, but if they are to be believed then Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will be the big winners in these Euro elections. The Times’ Red Box showed the latest YouGov polling on Euro voting intentions in a handy Leave v Remain v Lab v Tory format. It is early days and only one poll, but what it does show is that there is a very good chance that if you include the Conservative vote as broadly ‘Leave-supporting’ then Leave-supporting parties are on course to win the highest percentage of the vote on 23rd May.
A combined Brexit Party, UKIP and Tory vote would gain 46% of the vote, and a combined LD, Green, SNP/Plaid and ChangeUK vote, 32% of the vote. The great enigma in this is Labour who, are on 22%.
Labour is simultaneously committed to a 2nd Referendum but ultimately still in favour of Brexit (as even arch-Remainer Andrew Adonis has been forced to concede). A sizeable proportion of the Labour vote is pro-Brexit as opposed to the membership which is overwhelmingly pro-Remain. As the only party on the ballot without a firm anti- or pro- Brexit position, on this occasion their vote is essentially neutral and they may see a big dip in support in comparison to previous elections.
People’s Vote proxy?
So the question is, come Euro election results day on Sunday 26th May, will a majority for Leave-supporting parties ensure Brexiteers can claim that Britain is still in favour of Brexit and go so far as to suggest that it negates the need for a 2nd Referendum? Given how important motivation and media air time are, and that the more representative EU voting system favours small/emerging parties, I think that it probably will. If the margin is significant between the two sides, then the call to treat the Euro polls as proxy for a 2nd referendum will become deafening. After all, it’s not like the Euro elections are about anything else except Brexit.
To date both sides have been reluctant to discuss this thought, for obvious reasons. As the 2017 election demonstrated, big early polling leads can rapidly disappear. The flip side is, of course, also true. If Labour comes out firmly in favour of a 2nd Referendum and the combined percentage of the Remain parties wins the day then the calls for a 2nd Referendum or even a revocation of Article 50 will be loud too. But those are bigger ‘ifs’.
Either way, much as we are enjoying the revelation of d-list celebrity names of Euro candidates on both sides, the vote is actually far more important than perhaps realised. This has not been lost on senior campaigners and when I put this thesis to a senior Eurosceptic Cabinet Minister recently, his view was ‘100%’ the results of the vote will be used as a 2nd Referendum. There is no doubt that after the 26th May the shape of the Brexit argument will have been fundamentally realigned and perhaps decisively in one direction or another.