The 2019 European Parliament election results for Britain are shown in Fig. 1. As Richard Murphy discusses in The false narrative of Brexit Party success, this superficially looks a spectacular win for the Brexit party, but essentially they have cannabalised the UKIP seats and added five more. All but one of these have been at the expense of the Tories. The exception is Paul Brannen’s Labour seat in the North East, which was caused by a collapse in Labour support from 222k in 2014 to 120k. These votes largely went to the Lib Dems, 36k in 2014 to 104k, but also to the Greens and CHUK (75k) and were 16k short of winning the seat. The overall pro-EU+Labour vote actually increased from 290k in 2014 to 299k in 2019. More effective tactical voting would have secured the seat for the Lib Dems.
The real winners on the night were the Lib Dems, who went from one solitary seat to sixteen and the Greens who more than doubled their number of seats from three to seven. The losers were UKIP, essentially wiped out, the Tories beaten into 5th place and the worst result since the early 19th cent. and Labour having a dreadful night, halving its number of seats from twenty down to ten. This is a detailed analysis of voter switching patterns (Fig. 2) from Lord Ashcroft polls:
More than half (53%) of 2017 Conservative voters who took part in the European elections voted for the Brexit Party. Only just over one in five (21%) stayed with the Tories. Around one in eight (12%) switched to the Liberal Democrats. Labour voters from 2017 were more likely to stay with their party, but only a minority (38%) did so. More than one in five (22%) went to the Lib Dems, 17% switched to the Greens, and 13% went to the Brexit Party.
The disillusioned Tory vote largely went to the Brexit party, whereas disillusioned Labour voters largely went to the Lib Dems and Greens. The Labour voting pattern was in part been due to a major tactical campaign by Labour supporters to get the leadership off the fence and become a firm Peoples Vote supporting and Remain party (moving to Lib Dems Greens and CHUK and additionally Plaid in Wales and the SNP in Scotland).
In Scotland the SNP had a very good night, picking up a 3rd seat.
There are a number of analyses and I particularly recommend Ian Dunt’s ‘European elections: Remain triumphant’, Hugho Dixon’s ‘People’s will has changed: we don’t want Brexit‘ and Chris Grey’s ‘Interpreting the UK European Election results’. These are all worth reading in full. Even though the country remains very divided, on the basis of these results it is definitely more Remain than Leave.
The Brexit Party, the sycophantic right wing press and increasingly the BBC are desperate to spin this as support for a No-Deal Brexit and the lack-lustre performance of the Brexit party will be endlessly paraded as a triumph. The Tories in particularly are terrified by a large tranche of their supporters moving to the Brexit party. The Brexit Party will certainly move the dial on the Tories leadership election and make the likelihood of a No-Deal supporting candidate far more probable.
In Northern Ireland there have been two Unionist MEPs and one Nationalist MEP since the first European Parliament election in 1979.This was unlikely to be repeated in 2019, as the Unionist community is in relative decline, through demographic factors (Fig. 4), and younger people are in general less sectarian and more likely to vote for cross-community parties such as Alliance.
There is the added complication of Brexit with nearly all Nationalists and a substantial minority of Unionists (largely more middle class and better educated) being pro-EU. There is in addition, the Backstop which is strongly supported by Nationalists and Alliance, the main cross-community party in NI. The two main Unionist parties are the DUP and UUP. The DUP is anti-EU and anti-Backstop. The UUP, pro-EU in 2016, has pivoted towards DUP-lite, is also anti-EU and anti-Backstop. Pro-EU Unionists had no Unionist party they could vote for.
It was widely predicted that the first seat would go to Sinn Féin, the second to the DUP but the third seat would no longer go to a Unionist, rather either to the SDLP or Alliance. Both the SDLP and Alliance had excellent candidates in Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long, but in the end it was Alliance who triumphed. Indeed Sinn Féin who were predicted to get the first seat, in fact got the third. There was clearly considerable tactical voting going on.
This signals emphatically that Northern Ireland is pro-EU, pro-Backstop and also becoming less sectarian. A very good result all around. It also shows that the DUP is ever more out of touch with NI as a whole.
Jon Worth has been producing flow charts on Brexit for some time and has even featured in the New York Times. Fig. 5, the latest version is available here. Jon puts the probability of a GE to be the highest, but this assumes no change in the Labour leadership position on a People’s Vote. I sadly agree. I believe Corbyn will sit on the fence as he does not understand that leadership requires him to make a firm decision.
According to all serious analysts there are three possible outcomes:
1. Staying in the EU, either by revoking Article 50 or through a referendum with remain on the ballot. The former would be preferable, but whether HMG and parliament have the honesty, humility and above all courage is doubtful. A second referendum with a remain option has no chance of materialising, unless championed by one of the two remain parties. It is well nigh politically impossible for the Tories to initiate one. It seems increasingly obvious that for Labour to do so would require the removal of Corbyn.
2. Brexit with a deal. The Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened, but there is considerable scope for change in the Political Deceleration. There is a feeling in many of the EU27, e.g. in Germany, that the WA is far too generous towards Britain. In Ireland there is a belief that HMG is not to be trusted, and the Backstop is essential. Opinions in Ireland are hardening on this from an already immovable position. It is as likely that Corbyn would be elected as leader of the Tory party as Ireland backing down. The EU will support Ireland.
3. No-Deal: terms like Clean-Break or WTO terms are used to make this sound more palatable. This is madness. As Ian Dunt suggests in ‘A few questions we could maybe ask the Tory candidates about no-deal‘, it is a recipe for disaster. It will put the UK in a vastly weakened position, and trust, which is an already limited supply, will have evaporated. If the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is threatened there will be no trade deal with the US. The EU will ask for WA to be signed as the price of a trade agreement. Any bilateral deals will be vastly inferior to the status quo, with the EU protecting itself. On the positive side the EU likes stable prosperous countries on its borders so will not deliberately set out to damage the UK. Even the Brexiters talk about 50 years (Rees-Mogg) or 100 years (Digby Jones) before the UK gets back on its feet.
Are there alternative solutions? looking at the wider political picture has its merits.
Ireland leaves the EU and joins the UK Economic Area
This has been explored on this blog before and dismissed as being completely implausible. There is now however firm electoral data in that an Irexit candidate, leader of the Irish Freedom Party and close ally of Farage, Hermann Kelly, ran in the Dublin constituency for the EP election. His poll rating is a good indication of the appetite for Irexit. He gained 0.67% of the votes and was eliminated on the first count. This implausibility has been confirmed.
A Northern Ireland Only Backstop
The granting of a UK wide backstop is seen in Brussels as a major concession. Indeed Barnier has said that reverting to a NI only backstop was a possibility, but it is not clear whether it is any longer on the table. May was a committed Unionist at heart and reliant on the DUP. Her successor may not be and for many Tories, Brexit is more important than the Union. Many Tories also see the UK-wide Backstop as a trap rather than a concession. Could a new Tory leader move towards a NI only backstop? This would be popular in NI and almost certain to pass if a NI referendum on the Backstop were called. While the Tory government is reliant on the DUP, this is not an option, but after a GE the arithmetic may be different.
A United Ireland
The GFA has a provision for a border poll when it seems the majority may want a United Ireland. The demographics are moving in this direction. Furthermore Ireland has improved dramatically, both economically and socially, in the past seven years. The same can not be said of the UK. It is immensely depressing looking at the decline UK from the Summer Olympics in 2012. Lacklustre economic performance but more importantly, a move towards nativism and populism. Brexit has consumed nearly all the bandwidth in Westminster and myriad problems, from housing, health, social provision, poverty, education etc. not only remain unsolved but are getting worse.
Brexit has opened up the conversation as never before. Opinion polls show that in the case of a hard Brexit there would be a majority for a United Ireland in the North.
One major question is whether the Republic is still interested? The North seems increasingly a social and economic liability. This has been answered by a Red C exit poll taken after the Euro Election. This gave a result of 65% in favour of a UI, 19% against and the rest don’t know or refused to answer the question.
Including Scotland in the Backstop.
This has been discussed before in the light of the Dalriada Document, but considered implausible as it was assumed that neither the EU or Westminster would agree to it. Given however, that the EU has agreed to a UK wide backstop, that political hurdle might be overcome. Westminster may be a different issue. The Dalriada Document is by Prof Brendan O’Leary, a world leading constitutional lawyer. It goes ever further by arguing constitutionally that both NI and Scotland could stay within the EU, whilst England and Wales leave and is based on the premise:
This document explains how Northern Ireland and Scotland should and could stay within the European Union while remaining inside the United Kingdom; why this proposal need not prevent and may in fact facilitate England and Wales in leaving the EU; and why this compromise proposal is in accordance with the respective preferences of the peoples of the two Unions within the UK who voted in the advisory referendum held on June23 2016.
Staying in the EU is of course very popular in Scotland. Including Scotland within the Backstop might be a good compromise.
This would necessitate a harder border between Scotland and England, but logistically this is far easier implement than the Irish equivalent. It is less than 1/3 of the length of the Irish Border and with far fewer crossings. There is also far less difficulty in putting in physical infrastructure as the security aspects far less sensitive. Should Scotland decide to leave the UK completely, some of the infrastructure will already be there.
As the DUP are largely of Scottish ancestry, it is possible that they may see this as less threatening than an Irish Sea border.
It is a possibility which might be worth re-exploring.
The future looks uncertain. A General Election in the Autumn seems the most likely outcome. It seems that some coalition is most likely, possibly a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP Government. If that is indeed the case a backstop including Scotland maybe a possibility. If however the Brexit party can increase its electoral appeal a very different outcome is possible.