Brexit: EU elections are ‘second referendum’ in all but name – leader comment

The EU elections on 23 May could send a strong message about the ‘will of the people’ on Brexit to Britain’s politicians.

Anti-Brexit activists demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-Brexit activists demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

In the event that Brexit does actually happen, the UK’s participation in the European Parliament elections on 23 May is likely to become little more than an inconsequential footnote. A nuisance of history, more than anything else, with British MEPs potentially serving for a few, rather pointless, weeks.

However, that does not mean the election itself is pointless. Far from it, in fact, as demonstrated by the impact of the council elections in England last week.

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It appears to have focussed the minds of Conservative and Labour politicans in particular, who suddenly seemed to start talking to each other with renewed enthusiasm.

Voters anger with the two main UK parties was obvious, with the Conservatives losing an extraordinary 1,330 seats, while Labour, which normnally would have expected to make significant gains given the extent of the ruling party’s defeat, lost 84. The big winners were the Liberal Democrats, who added 704 councillors, the Greens, up 194, and independents, whose number rose by 661.

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These figures certainly made politicians sit up and take notice of public anger. And now the whole country will have an opportunity to let its feelings on Brexit be known.

For those reckless enough to wish a no-deal Brexit, there is, of course, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which according to a poll last month is on course to win with 27 per cent of the vote, with Labour on 22 per cent and the Conservatives on 15.

The better the Brexit party performs, the greater the pressure will be on the UK Government and Tory MPs to allow a no-deal Brexit. It is important to remember that if the Commons cannot agree to a deal and the UK does not seek a further extension of Brexit, that is what will happen.

So those who do not wish to see a no-deal Brexit would do well to consider their vote carefully in order to send that message to the Commons.

Those who hope for Brexit with a deal could back the Conservatives or possibly Labour, a party which needs to urgently clarify its actual position.

If parties that back a second referendum, like the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, do well, it will boost the chances of that taking place.

In many ways, this election is almost like a second referendum on Brexit through the distorting prism of party politics.

Who knows, it might even attract a record turnout, although beating the 38.5 per cent in 2004 wouldn’t be much of an achievement.