Brexit Looms Over European Elections in?U.K.

British voters, including those who want to leave the European Union, appear likely to punish Conservative Party candidates in this week’s EU?elections.

By Thomas K. Grose ContributorMay 21, 2019, at 7:00 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

Brexit Looms Over EU Elections in U.K.

(Mike Kemp/Getty Images)

LONDON – James Mustoe, a Conservative Party councillor in Cornwall, is running hard for another political office — one he doesn't really want, and is unlikely to win: a seat in the 751-member European Union Parliament.

"I've got mixed feelings about even having to campaign," he admits. "We shouldn't even be having these elections."

Indeed. The United Kingdom was supposed to have exited the EU nearly two months ago, on March 29, as part of the Brexit deal Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May hammered out with Brussels. But since the beginning of the year, the British Parliament has thrice rejected that deal. As a result, the EU extended Brexit's deadline to Oct. 31. So for now, the U.K. remains a member of the 28-nation political and trading bloc, and must elect 73 members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, in EU-wide elections this Thursday.

Brexit and The Irish Border

MUFF, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 15: Kieron Moore, a builder by trade who works on sites on both sides of the border stands on a bridge separating the United Kingdom with the Republic of Ireland on February 15, 2019 in Muff, Ireland. After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union following a referendum Moore believes that, "It will still take years to sort out. The politicians themselves don't know what's going to happen". (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

British voters narrowly approved Brexit in a 2016 referendum — it captured nearly 52 percent of the vote — and the delay has left those Britons still wanting it to happen angry with the Tory government for not delivering the divorce the country voted for.

"May is regarded as a failed leader," says Robert Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester.

Accordingly, the Conservatives are likely to pay the price on Thursday as millions of its usual supporters are instead flocking to the upstart Brexit Party. Polls indicate that the newly cobbled together protest party, led by Nigel Farage, the former leader of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), will win the largest share of voters in the EU elections, especially since pro-Remain voters are scattered among several other parties.

Politics in the U.K. Is Increasingly Fragmented

A May 18 YouGov/Datapraxis poll placed the Brexit Party at 34 percent and the Tories at 9 percent, with Labour, the main opposition party, at 15 percent. A Daily Telegraph tracker that averages all polls puts Farage's party at 32 percent, the Tories at 11 percent and Labour at 21 percent.

"The Conservatives are going to get an absolute beating," Ford says. "They are losing voters every which way."

While the largest chunk of Tory defectors are embracing the Brexit Party, around a third of Conservatives are pro-Remain, and some of them might vote for one of the Remain parties or stay home (British turnout is notoriously low in EU elections, anyway; in 2015 it was only 35.4 percent).

Ford notes that in 2014, when UKIP was the largest vote-getter with 27.5 percent of the vote, the Tories still managed to get to 23.9 percent. That suggests that this time "the Brexit Party is clearly not the only thing going on."

EU Elections a Vote on Values, Not Policies

European elections in the U.K. tend to be similar to the midterms in the U.S., says Paul Webb, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex. "They're usually seen as a way to send a message to the government, it's a referendum on government performance."

While it may seem pointless to vote for a party that's powerless to make Brexit happen, Ford says, "In European elections, people don't vote for policies, they vote to express a particular important value." For instance, Green Party voters know that the party can't deliver big environmental policies, but they approve of the party's focus on environmentalism.

The U.K. is divided into 12 European Parliamentary constituencies, and Mustoe is seeking one of six seats in the South West district, a region that supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum by 52.6 percent, slightly more than the national vote.

And Mustoe says what he's mainly hearing out on the hustings is "frustration with the parliamentary establishment as a whole for not getting on with Brexit," though he concedes that as the ruling party, the Conservatives are "bearing the brunt" of that dissatisfaction. He admits that the feedback he's hearing indicates that the polls are probably right. "It's not a big secret they (the Brexit Party) have a lot of supporters."

An Unreliable Indicator of General Elections

Unlike general elections in Britain, where only the winner in each constituency is awarded a seat in Parliament, EU elections use proportional representation — a formula that divvies seats to parties based on their vote share, which gives smaller parties a chance to take seats. Voters vote for parties, not candidates. Each party in advance chooses a slate of candidates. If a party wins, say, two seats, they'll go to the first and second candidates on its slate.

Mustoe is the second name on the Tories' South West slate. So if the polls are correct, he won't be going to Brussels.

Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London, says that "anything under 15 percent would be difficult for the Tories, but anything under 10 percent would be absolutely catastrophic."

Nevertheless, EU elections are not reliable indicators of how parties would fare in general elections, because of low turnout, because voters aren't choosing a national government and because it uses proportional representation. For instance, despite UKIP's top performance in 2014, it's never won a seat in Parliament in a national election. Still, Bale says, "politicians are prone to read too much into them."

May, meanwhile, plans to try one last time to push a revised version of her withdrawal agreement through Parliament in the first week of June. Few think she'll succeed. No matter the outcome of that vote, however, she's agreed to set a timetable for resigning her premiership, which has sparked a Conservative Party leadership contest.

EU Voting May Determine the Timing of a U.K. Election

Does a dismal performance in the EU elections, coupled with a new prime minister soon taking over, increase the chances of the Conservatives opting for another general election this fall?

"Probably not," Webb says. "I doubt the Tories will agree to it, they'll consider it too risky," in part because they will see their European elections drubbing as a bad omen.

But Bale disagrees. "I'd be very surprised if whoever takes over (from May) doesn't call for a general election. It's a bit of a gamble, but they'll have to do it."

Why? Because the likelihood is that the next leader will either be Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, or some other hard-Brexiter who is willing to pull the U.K. out of the EU without a deal. But the vast majority of the current Parliament is against a no-deal Brexit, which risks severely damaging the economy. "They're not going to get the Brexit they want through this Parliament," Bale says.

Back in Cornwall, Mustoe says that despite expecting his party to be pummeled on Thursday, he's enjoying the campaign. "We Tories are a hearty bunch, and I like a challenge."

Thomas K. Grose, Contributor

Thomas K. Grose is a U.K.-based journalist who has spent much of his career living and working ...? Read more

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