The expected success of populist parties at the European elections will not make Brexit any easier for Theresa May’s successor as prime minister, MEPs and academics have warned. Right-wing alliances are predicted to make gains across the continent when the first results of the European parliament vote are announced today.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit party is expected to return the most MEPs in the UK, including at least one in Scotland. Results here will be announced tomorrow morning after counting gets under way in the Western Isles.
Sir John Curtice, the country’s leading polling expert, told Scotland on Sunday that it would be “extremely surprising” if the Brexit party did not do at least as well as Ukip in the 2014 European elections, when it returned 24 MEPs.
“Something like three-fifths of the Leave vote is heading in the direction of the Brexit party,” he said. “At least half of Leave voters think the UK should be leaving without a deal and the rest are deeply unhappy with the Conservative Government for failing to deliver Brexit. You have to remember that many people who voted Ukip in 2014 went to the Tories because they thought they would deliver Brexit and they haven’t done so.”
Several senior Conservatives are this weekend preparing to launch leadership campaigns after May confirmed on Friday that she would stand down as leader on 7 June, with the party bracing itself for its worst ever result at a European election.
But Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations think-tank, said divisions among Tories over Brexit were unlikely to be healed by the election of a new leader.
“Some Tories seem to think they can elect a new leader and go back to the EU for further talks on the Withdrawal Agreement,” she said.
“From a Scottish perspective, it seems clear that more than 50 per cent of the electorate in Scotland will have backed pro-Remain parties at the elections. It’s really going to bring home that big contrast.”
Eurosceptic parties, with varying degrees of hostility to immigration, have made inroads at domestic and European elections in recent years.
Yet many struggle to adapt to the reality of how the European Parliament works and are subsequently ignored, the SNP’s senior MEP claimed.
Alyn Smith said the example set by previous Ukip members in Brussels proved that populists “do not dig in and do not do the work”.
“The people the Brexit party selected are not there to do a shift,” he said. “They are there to make daft speeches and claim the allowances. They will not disrupt the parliament. It wastes a space that could have been used by someone effective.”
Struan Stevenson, who served as a Conservative MEP for 15 years until 2014, said the rise of the Brexit Party was in part down to strategic errors made by a former Tory leader over Europe.
“David Cameron has a lot to answer for, not least for calling the Brexit referendum in 2016 because he was so gung-ho following the Scottish vote two years previously,” he said.
“But if you go back even further than that, when I was first elected as an MEP, the Conservatives were members of the EPP, the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament.
“By 2009, I was sitting on the front bench of the Parliament. But after the party withdrew from the EPP, I was sitting at the back next to Marine Le Pen.
“We were stripped of all our credibility in Europe overnight and shunned by other parties.”