European election results: 5 things they tell us about Britain's Brexit crisis

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  • Nigel Farage's Brexit party won the most seats in the European Parliament elections in the UK.
  • This means the next prime minister is likely to be a Hard Brexiteer who supports leaving without a deal.
  • However, pro-Remain parties collectively won the biggest share of the vote.
  • The polarised result means Britain's Brexit crisis will only deepen.
  • The UK could soon be heading for a general election or a second referendum.

LONDON - Nigel Farage's Brexit Party has won a major victory in the European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom, winning the most seats and biggest share of the vote.

The surge in support for the anti-EU party came largely at the expense of the governing Conservative party, which suffered its worst result in any national election in its history, coming in a remarkable fifth place.

Meanwhile, Remain voters flocked to smaller parties in favour of a second referendum on Brexit, with the Liberal Democrats leapfrogging Labour to second place and the Greens enjoying a significant surge.

What do the results mean for Brexit and the ongoing political crisis in Britain? Here are 5 things we learned.

The next prime minister will be a hard Brexiteer

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Last night's results suggested that the Brexit Party's victory came largely at the expense of the Conservative party.

Theresa May's decision to twice delay Brexit has caused a clear collapse in support for the party, which had previously seen its support propped up largely by pro-Brexit voters. This has led to a hardening of the position of Brexiteers in the party, with two of the leading candidates to replace May as prime minister - former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab - both declaring their support for leaving the EU without a deal.

Last night's surge in support for the Brexit Party will only strengthen the hand of those in the party who want a hard exit from the EU, with the collapse in the Conservative vote making it even more likely that the party will turn to the one-time popular figure of Johnson as their best bet of a recovery.

But hard Remain parties won more than hard Brexit parties

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As soon as it was clear that European elections were taking place in the UK, they were framed as a proxy second EU referendum, with the newly-formed Brexit Party, and their predecessors UKIP, representing Leave voters and the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Change UK, representing the forces of Remain.

Faced with this polarised choice, voters went towards one of the two poles and away from the Conservatives (who back Brexit but delayed it) and Labour (who campaigned for Remain but now back leaving the EU).

However, while the Brexit Party won the largest share of the vote in these elections, these results are far from a clear vindication of their stance on leaving the EU without a deal.

In fact, if we look just at those parties competing nationally, the two explicitly hard Brexit parties together won 35% of the vote while the three explicitly anti-Brexit parties also won 35%. If you then add on Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland, then it tips the balance in favour of Remain.

The Brexit deadlock will only get worse

Brexit Remain protestJenny Matthews/In Pictures via Getty Images

Even if you accept that these elections were entirely a proxy referendum for Brexit, rather than also being based on existing party allegiances and other issues such as austerity and climate change, then there is still no decisive majority for either leaving or remaining.

Indeed far from showing a route out of the chasm British politics has fallen into since the 2016 referendum, these results merely show how deep it remains.

The big problem with a complex set of multi-party elections like these is that it is possible to read pretty much whatever you like into them. If you're a committed Brexiteer then you can point to the Brexit Party's success and declare it a victory for your belief in leaving the EU without a deal.

However, if you're a committed Remainer then you can point to the larger collective vote share for Remain parties and declare these results are a vindication for revoking Article 50 and remaining in the EU.

Similarly, if you're a Labour MP wanting your party leader Jeremy Corbyn to shift to an explicitly pro-Remain platform, then you can point to the Lib Dems' big win in Labour's London stronghold and declare your case closed.

However, if you're a Labour MP like Lisa Nandy, representing a northern seat where the Brexit Party won by a big margin last night, then you're likely to take a very different lesson from these results.

The same problem occurs in the Conservative Party, which is currently in the process of choosing its new leader. While Tory Brexiteers will take last night's results as a vindication for electing a leader who will leave the EU without a deal, Remainers in the party will point to the resurgence of the Lib Dems, from whom the Tories must take votes in order to secure a majority at the next general election, and declare a clear mandate to elect a moderate leader.

This ambiguity means that the polarisation which has caused such deadlock in the UK parliament is only going to continue. While it looks more likely than ever that the next Conservative party leader and prime minister will be a hard Brexiteer, these results mean that it is also even more likely that parliament will vote to prevent such an outcome.

For that reason another Brexit delay remains the most likely outcome in October.

A general election could be just around the corner

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With British politics set to become even more polarised after these European elections, it is incredibly hard to see a way for the next prime minister to ever find a way through Britain's Brexit crisis under this current parliament.

The pro-Brexit nature of the Conservative membership means that whoever wins the upcoming contest for Tory leader will have won through committing to a hard exit from the EU.

However, were any new leader to even attempt to deliver one, then they would be frustrated by parliament at their first attempt. Such attempts may not work. As the Institute for Government pointed out last week, an ideologically committed Brexiteer could ultimately overrule members of parliament. However, as the current Chancellor Philip Hammond pointed out on Sunday, were a new prime minister to attempt this then they would immediately lose the confidence of MPs, meaning that the UK would be heading towards a general election.

And were such a general election to take place then it would do so either under the threat of an imminent no-deal Brexit, or in the immediate economically painful wake of one. Whichever side of Brexit the election fell, it is hard to see how that would lead to a successful outcome for a newly-appointed prime minister.

This means a second referendum could win through

Anti Brexit campaigners hold banners near Parliament in London, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May was under pressure Wednesday to scrap a planned vote on her tattered Brexit blueprint - and to call an end to her embattled premiership - after her attempt at compromise got the thumbs-down from both her own Conservative Party and opposition lawmakers. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)Anti Brexit campaigners hold banners near Parliament in London, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May was under pressure Wednesday to scrap a planned vote on her tattered Brexit blueprint - and to call an end to her embattled premiership - after her attempt at compromise got the thumbs-down from both her own Conservative Party and opposition lawmakers. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)Associated Press

A general election remains a deeply unappealing prospect for the Conservative party, either before or after Brexit. For that reason the option of a second referendum may ultimately prove to be the one that wins through.

Forced to choose between allowing a general election in which their party would be favourites to lose an already fragile grip on power, or accepting a new referendum which at the very least would delay their judgement day with voters, a new Conservative prime minister could ultimately have little choice but to accept the latter either voluntarily, or under duress from a UK parliament determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

And with last night's results likely to push the opposition Labour party to a more explicitly pro-Remain stance, the chances of Brexit being stopped altogether will only increase.

Our Brexit Insider Facebook group is the best place for up-to-date news and analysis about Britain's departure from the EU, direct from Business Insider's political reporters. Join here.

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