NEWS
28/05/2019 6:53 PM AEST

The European Election Result Explained For Non-Europeans (And Anyone Else Who Hasn't Kept Up)

Who the hell is in charge?

British politics is in turmoil. Again. Or has it ever actually been normal since the EU referendum in 2016?

Regardless, this weekend saw another huge event that will have massive implications for the UK as Nigel Farage’s almost brand new Brexit Party swept to victory in the European Parliament elections.

So let’s start with the basics...

Who the hell is in charge over there?

Excellent question. The phrase “in charge” is an increasingly relative term in the UK right now. Nominally, it’s still Prime Minister Theresa May but on Friday in a tearful speech outside Downing Street, she announced she would be standing down on 7 June.

In essence, this drastic move is because she could not deliver a Brexit deal that an increasingly divided government, or anyone for that matter, could agree on.

Crucially though, she will still be PM when President Trump pops over for a visit on 3 June. It will be interesting to see how he treats a lame duck PM on her way out.

Will Nigel Farage be taking over?

Absolutely not. The European elections are for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and have no direct effect on the makeup of the British government.

Indirectly however, they are certain to shake things up in the longer term, but we’ll come to that later. 

May’s resignation has triggered a leadership contest so the next PM will actually be decided by the Conservative Party, rather than a public vote. 

What did Nigel Farage actually win then?

Farage’s Brexit Party won 29 seats and now have 29 new MEPs. 

But anti-Brexit parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens also won big (more on them later).

What will they actually do?

The UK is served by 73 MEPs, each of whom is elected to represent one of the country’s 12 constituencies.

Based in Brussels, these members of European parliament spend a lot of their time representing the interests of their constituents back in Britain and dealing with casework.

However, above all else, it is their job to pass legislation in the EU, covering issues such as climate change, human rights, migration and finance.

Isn’t that a bit odd seeing as the Brexit Party doesn’t like the EU?

In a way, yes – the Brexit Party MEPs will have to deal with lots of EU red tape until Britain leaves the EU, and then when we do leave, they’ll be out of a job.

OK...

Bear with us. This election was about much more that MEPs. European elections often pass the British public by and interest and turnout has historically been low (around 35% compared to around 70% for general elections).

But 2019 is different – this time around the election has effectively become a second vote on Brexit.

The Conservative deadlock in parliament and Labour’s difficulties in forming a coherent stance have left voters frustrated with the main parties and new groups like the Brexit Party (which appeals to Leave voters) and Change UK (which has tried to appeal to Remain voters) have provided an alternative.

In essence, Farage’s victory is a protest vote by the British public who appear to be fed up with the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives.

PA Wire/PA Images
The Brexit Party's three winning candidates in the West Midlands region - Rupert Lowe, Martin Daubney and Andrew Kerr - pose for pictures alongside supporters at Birmingham's International Convention Centre.

But didn’t Farage make some pretty bold claims this morning?

He did indeed. Two in fact.

Firstly, he demanded a say in Brexit negotiations, saying this morning: “We should be part of the team now, that’s pretty clear.”

Secondly, he told the Press Association he was getting ready to fight a general election, warning that his Brexit Party could “stun everybody” if Britain has not left the EU by the next national contest.

“We’re not just here to leave the European Union but to try and fundamentally change the shape of British politics, bring it into the 21st century and get a parliament that better reflects the country,” he said.

So Farage really is going to shake things up then?

Steady on, not so fast. Farage can talk the talk but how far he gets on either of these is far from assured.

Firstly, it is highly unlikely – no, near-impossible – that the Brexit Party will have any say in Brexit negotiations. 

Tim Bale, politics professor at the Queen Mary University of London, told HuffPost UK last week: “It is a complete and utter non-starter. It will be frankly unconstitutional for a party with no MPs and not in government to be involved in a state to state negotiation.

“But it’s an effective soundbite.”

Then there’s the fact there currently aren’t any negotiations. So that’s that then.

And on the General Election front, Farage has a terrible record having tried and failed to become an MP no less than seven times.

“The prospect of Farage becoming prime minister is extremely unlikely. Never say never but to turn what is effectively a protest vehicle into an all-singing, all-dancing party that people feel is ready for government is a very difficult thing to do,” says Professor Bale.

The thing is, Farage has broad appeal in the binary contest of Brexit or no Brexit and his party only has one policy – leaving the EU without a deal.

But on other issues he is way wide of the mainstream.

The Brexit Party has said it does not plan to publish a manifesto until after the European election but the Led By Donkeys campaign has helpfully been reminding the British public about where Farage stands on issues such as the NHS.

OK, so Farage won but it’s not going to have any effect on anything substantive?

Not quite. Where the European election results will have the biggest effect on British politics is in how Labour and the Conservatives react.

Remember, this was a protest vote, primarily against those two parties.

How did Labour and the Conservatives do?

Abysmally. Truly abysmally. Just look...

Statista

The Tories took their worst ever national election share, having dropped to just 9.1% of the vote in England and Wales, and Labour saw their number of MEPs halved.

So how did they react?

To put it bluntly, the UK’s two leading political parties are currently eating themselves alive.

To be fair, the Tories would be regardless of the election result, as the ongoing leadership contest sees all of their big names jostle for the top job.

Leadership contender Jeremy Hunt was the first to react, saying the results posed an “existential risk” to his party.

Boris Johnson said they proved that if Brexit was not delivered “I fear we will see a permanent haemorrhage of Conservative support”.

The result is likely to impact the Tory stance on a no-deal Brexit. 

“For the Conservative Party, they are in such a panic mode at the moment that they are likely to chase the Brexit Party down the even harder Brexit path,” says Professor Bale

“In other words what they will try to do is try and prevent Farage from stealing all their voters in the long term by moving towards the vision the Brexit Party has on the EU.”

As for Labour, the pressure is squarely on them. The Tory party has been in disarray over Brexit for years now yet Labour has failed to monopolise.

As soon as the disastrous results became clear, some of the party’s MPs began to turn on leader Jeremy Corbyn and blame the defeat on his ambiguous and often confusing stance on Brexit.

What was Corbyn’s stance on Brexit?

Well, ambiguous and often confusing. Which, given that according to one poll 88% of Labour members would vote to Remain EU if given the opportunity, remains a slightly baffling stance.

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson said on Twitter last night: “Following the disastrous EU election results, Labour urgently needs to re-think its Brexit position and realign with members and voters.”

And shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry called on the party to explicitly support a second Brexit referendum and campaign to remain, a stance that prompted support from many of her colleagues.

Speaking after the results were announced, Corbyn told the BBC he supports a referendum on a Brexit deal but that his “priority” is a general election, which, given that fact during his time in charge he has yet to win any sort of election, raised a few eyebrows.

In fact, the hashtag #CorbynOut was trending by mid-morning. 

In a sign of the discontent among the Labour faithful, this was an exchange between a Labour MP, a pro-Labour journalist and a pro-Labour blog site.

Knives out. 

Is there anything good that came out of all this?

Yes. In a sign that Britain hasn’t completely lost its marbles, the extreme far-right was humiliated. 

Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, managed a paltry 2% of the vote in the North West region and opponents literally laughed in his face when the results came through at the Manchester count. 

Here is a clip of that very moment for your viewing pleasure.

Ukip, an increasingly anti-Muslim and xenophobic party, also did terribly. Following multiple defections, it had only three MEPs before last night and now has none. It has no MPs, no London Assembly members, and just 62 local councillors across the entire country. But, of course, it has largely been absorbed into the Brexit Party, which is led by its former leader, Nigel Farage.

Anything else I should know?

Yes, yes there is.

The protest vote didn’t all go to the Brexit Party. Both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, both anti-Brexit parties, saw their vote share surge.

In fact, explicitly anti-Brexit parties gained 40% of the vote compared to the Brexit Party’s 35%.

Adding in Labour, which gave qualified support for another referendum, takes the anti-Brexit side to 56% and counting Conservative votes on the pro-Brexit side gives 44%.

What’s the bottom line then?

We British can’t decide on anything and likely never will.