In Depth

European elections: the reasons to vote tomorrow

The poll is considered to be first real indication of public reaction to the ongoing Brexit chaos

Thursday’s European Parliament elections look likely to be one of the UK’s most consequential plebiscites in decades.

The Times’s final YouGov poll of the campaign puts The Brexit Party way out in front, with 37% of the vote, while the Lib Dems sit in second place with 19%. Labour is further back on 13%, while the Tories have fallen to fifth place - behind the Greens - on a miserly 7%.

“Yes it’s only one poll, but these are truly extraordinary numbers for the party of government,” says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

Theresa May’s polling misery will be compounded by the news that ConservativeHome is now telling its readers that if “May isn’t on her way out by the end of today, don’t back her in tomorrow’s European elections”.

So with Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party appearing to have drawn strength - in the polls at least - from his recent encounter with a milkshake and Theresa May’s premiership hanging by a thread, all eyes are on the results of the traditionally overlooked European elections.

“The UK has always been indifferent towards electing MEPs,” says Adam Boulton in The Times. “We are usually near the top of the chart for low turnout. So this time, since we’ve voted to leave the EU, what’s the point?”.

But, Boulton continues, these elections “may have done more to transform the political landscape of the UK than general elections”.

The Brexit barometer

In the UK, which was supposed to have left the bloc before the elections took place, the vote “is considered to be the first real indication on the country’s reaction to the ongoing chaos in Westminster as MPs attempt to settle the Brexit issue”, says iNews.

The results of the election could have a huge effect on the Brexit policy of the two main parties.

Indeed, the “three most probable Brexit endgames are a negotiated withdrawal, crashing out without a deal, and staying in”, says the Financial Times. The UK’s participation in the EU elections now “makes the last two outcomes more likely than the first”, concludes the newspaper.

If Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party does as well as expected, “the Conservatives are set to metamorphose into a ‘leave with no deal’ Brexit party”, agrees The Times’s Boulton.

Asked what a Brexit Party success would mean, Farage has said: “It puts a no-deal Brexit back on the table. Parliament has taken it off the table. Our voters say, put it back on the table, and if we win, we will demand representation with the government at the next stage of negotiations.

“We have a deadline of 31 October and we want to make sure, our voters want to make sure, that, actually, no deal is being seriously thought about.”

Conversely, a strong showing for the pro-Remain parties such as the Lib Dems or the Greens could force Labour to finally back a second referendum. This week’s meeting of the parliamentary party “saw speaker after speaker warn Jeremy Corbyn the party was ‘haemorrhaging’ votes to pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens on the Euro elections campaign trail”, says HuffPost’s Paul Waugh.

Meanwhile, Labour MPs scared by inroads made by Farage into their voter bases in northern England and the Midlands might be open to finally approving May’s EU withdrawal deal, says The Spectators James Forsyth. 

“Some optimists hope that if Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has made big gains from Labour as well as the Tories in the European Elections, then there might be more MPs on the Labour side who just want to get Britain out of the EU,” he writes.

A bloody nose for the two main parties

Interpretations of the results of these elections “are likely to rest on the degree to which the bubble of two-party politics – perhaps the key political fact of the 2017 general election – has burst”, says Anand Menon and Alan Wager, from think-tank the UK in a Changing Europe, in an article on The Conversation.

Three in five Tory members have told ConservativeHome they will not vote for their party. The Daily Telegraph’s Alison Pearson believes “this unprecedented mutiny” is largely due to the UK not leaving the EU on 29 March.

“Who would have thought it? In what world did we ever imagine we would be looking forward to the European elections? Yet, now, I have my polling card for May 23 on the mantelpiece, and I can’t wait to use it,” she writes. “How many Tories will go eagerly to the polling station to deal the party they have supported half their lives a possibly lethal blow?”

For Labour, elections analyst John Curtice “pointed to a new YouGov poll on Monday that showed that the Lib Dems now commanded more support than Labour among those who voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, with 28% of this cohort against 24%”, reports the Financial Times.

Asked about the electoral consequences of Corbyn’s opaque strategy on Brexit, Curtice told the newspaper: “It means you just lose both sides.”

A proxy second referendum

These elections will be written up not just as an electoral test for party politics, but also as a proxy for a second referendum.

While Leavers seem to have their vote suitably covered by the Brexit Party, a number of tactical voting websites have sprung up to allow Remain supporters to vote for the Remain MEP with the best chance of winning.

Alongside this, the ability to test which areas of the country currently have the highest levels of relative enthusiasm – measured in turnout – “will provide a useful indication of which voters would show up in another national poll on EU membership”, say Menon and Wager.

For example, if in these elections the biggest jumps in voter turnout between 2014 and 2019 are in areas that voted disproportionately Remain, that would suggest a relative enthusiasm among Remain voters.

This is important, “not least as the drift to Remain in opinion polling is largely predicated on voters who did not turn out in 2016”, Menon and Wager add.

Changing the European Union

Lastly, many will vote on this month in order to have a say in the future of the EU. This year’s elections seem certain to produce a more fragmented European Parliament, with the two main party groups on the centre-right and centre-left set to lose their combined majority. A ragtag bunch of right-wing nationalists, anti-establishment populists and anti-EU critics from across the continent may win as much as 30% of the assembly’s 751 seats.

Such an outcome would surely destabilise the European Parliament’s cross-party consensus on Brexit that has characterised the EU since the UK’s June 2016 referendum. It might also result in the appointment of a European Commission that would reconsider the Brexit red lines of Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing commission president, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.

Should the UK remain in the bloc beyond the 31 October, the country’s elected MEPs will also have a large say in a number of the EU’s future projects, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for structural reform.

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