Why are Britons, who voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, and who were scheduled to do so on March 31 of this year, headed toward European elections in May? It’s a good question that, sadly, has no satisfying answer.
Members of the European Parliament are elected every five years. Of 751 MEPs representing 18 nations, the U.K. currently has 73. In February 2018, the parliament voted to lower the total number of MEPs to 703 if Brexit came to pass. But 15 months later, that plan remains on hold.
After nearly three years of politically incompetent Conservative government, Britain is no closer to leaving the EU. And unless Theresa May manages, by some miracle, to pass her thrice-failed deal before May 23, new MEPs will be elected and sent to Brussels to do a job that British voters opted to abolish in June 2016.
In ordinary times, one would be wary of overstating the domestic importance of European elections, which typically have low voter turnout and little bearing on Britain’s general and local elections. But this year’s vote may have broader implications for the country’s future. For one thing, both the Conservative and Labour parties are facing Brexit-induced identity crises. Though both promised to uphold the vote to leave the EU, the Conservatives weakened their parliamentary majority in the 2017 general election and have failed to deliver ever since. May’s attempt at a compromise has been unable to pass. And Jeremy Corbyn is feeling increased pressure from Labour back-benchers to move toward a second referendum, which Remainer MPs hope could stop Brexit entirely.
Amid all this Brexit chaos, signs of a possible electoral realignment have emerged.
Change UK — formerly “the Independent Group” — began as a group of disgruntled Labour MPs concerned about Brexit and the party’s anti-Semitism problem. Its ranks were soon supplemented by a handful of Europhilic Tory defectors. It now has 70 candidates on offer for the European elections, including Rachel Johnson, a writer and journalist who is the sister of Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit Tory who is currently the polling favorite to succeed May as the leader of the Conservative party.
Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, has emerged to lead the newly founded Brexit party. Farage’s UKIP did well in the 2014 European elections, and he is confident that his new party will have similar success. He seems to be right; the bloc is currently leading the polls with 27 percent of the vote.
Daniel Hannan, who has served as a Conservative MEP for nearly 20 years and is the author of Why Vote Leave and What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit, tells National Review by phone,
If the Tory party goes into the elections with Theresa May still at the helm, it is going to get what our [American] cousins call a shellacking, and on a different scale than anything that has come before. So, current opinion polls suggest that we would get around 15 percent of the vote in the European elections. That would by some measure be the worst national vote share we’ve ever had. And when I say, “we’ve ever had,” I mean literally since Robert Peel founded the party in 1834. But actually, it could be even worse. Because those polls don’t factor in differential turnout, the fact that all of our activists are on strike, the fact that we’ve got no money, and the central problem, which is the failure to deliver Brexit in the timetable that Theresa May set herself.
Hannan adds that if the Tories are dealt a big enough blow in the European elections, Corbyn might gain “irresistible momentum” in the race to succeed May.
The public is understandably furious. A moderate, clean Brexit was once an entirely achievable aim, but it now seems impossible. The only choices on offer appear to be May’s Brexit-in-name-only plan, a high-risk, sudden, “no deal” Brexit, or no Brexit at all. Whatever happens, one thing looks certain: The Tories’ bungling of the entire process will haunt them for years to come.