The notion that there is a silent majority for a soft Brexit is dead
EU election results saw the Brexit Party and Lib Dems surge – but the battle to dominate the debate is far from over
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage: His party scored a resounding win in the European Parliament elections, winning at least 32% of the vote. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
The European elections unfolded according to predictions: the Brexit Party won big, Labour and the Conservatives both got a kicking, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens swept up. But predictability aside, these elections were bizarre – they were never meant to have happened, and as such, were conducted on the hoof. The most passionate voices on one side, at least, were fighting for seats that they intended to occupy for only the shortest possible amount of time. But the really distinctive thing was that no party said anything.
The Conservative campaign launched to a near empty room, with nothing to deliver but an abject apology. The Labour campaign, described in a withering email sent to supporters ahead of the results by their MEP John Howarth, was “implausible rot” – defined by a single-minded determination to fight a European election without mentioning Europe. The leadership took a ballot that was animated entirely by Brexit and preached a pious and incredible creed of forgetting our Brexit divisions and uniting in Labour-ishness. That much was predictable from the moment the elections became a certainty.
Interestingly, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party did not have a message either, that was in any recognisable way political: they had stopped talking about immigration, on the basis that it was no longer very salient. They had no concrete agenda for Brexit itself. For sure they had no wider political aim that you could glean from their speeches. Their agenda was pure anti-politics, anti-Westminster, anti-elites, anti-this-lot. Their success is both terrifying and mundane: history is alive with people who swept to power with the single, amorphous promise of destroying institutions. It rarely transmutes afterwards into constructive, pro-social policy.
The Lib Dems, who have also done well, spectacularly so in some areas, at least matched the Brexit party in certainty: Bollocks to Brexit. But they skirted as carefully away from domestic politics as Labour cleaved to them, and had nothing much to say on their dreams for the future of Europe, either. So it was hard to read anything from their runes but status quo-ism. Change UK, it feels kinder to ignore in these terms. The Greens were alone in having an immediate aim – stay in the EU – that married to a longer-term objective – fight climate change. They were rewarded with a modest bounce of 4.6 per cent, a major boost in other places (Ireland!) and a couple of freak results, taking second in places such as Sheffield where grassroots environmental campaigns had already made headway.
In an election where so few of the parties have a definable position, it is hard to draw wider conclusions about what people were voting for; and so begins the mad scramble to take control of the narrative. The Conservatives kicked off before the results were even in, with most of the myriad leadership candidates taking this as an invitation to head off the Brexit Party by becoming more like it. The Labour leadership is essaying an absurd stance – these elections were bound to be difficult, because the country is so divided; ergo, only a party that can ignore those divisions, and appeal equally to both sides, will ever bring it back together. But the furious counter-reactions, not only from MEPs such as Howarth, Seb Dance and Jude Kirton-Darling, but also from frontbenchers such as Emily Thornberry, indicate that even without its logical flaws, that position is pretty fragile. The Lib Dems are cherishing their resurrection, understandably, and the Greens can congratulate themselves not just on their clarity, but also on their competent and energetic campaigning.
What died, with these elections, was any realistic notion of a silent majority who just wanted a soft Brexit and be done with it. If that majority ever existed, it was so silent as to be functionally irrelevant. In its place, a surge of no-dealers and a hardcore of remainers. The collective dread of a general election in these conditions – both major parties feeling blindly towards a compromise nobody wants – must surely introduce a new hard border into already vexed territories. – Guardian
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist