By Brian Reyes and agencies
Britain’s two main parties set the stage yesterday for a battle over a ‘no deal’ Brexit, hoping to win back voters who abandoned them for a new movement led by eurosceptic Nigel Farage and other smaller pro-European parties in Sunday’s EU elections.
After a punishing night when acrimonious divisions over Britain’s departure from the European Union were plain to see, contenders for the leadership of the governing Conservatives said the results were a demand to deliver Brexit no matter what.
Taking a different tack, the opposition Labour Party said a public vote – a new national election or second referendum – was the way to reunite the country.
It pledged to make sure any new eurosceptic Conservative leader would not take Britain out of the EU without a transition deal to help protect the economy.
But with Farage’s Brexit Party, which prefers a no-deal Brexit, capturing the greatest number of votes for seats in the European Parliament, closely shadowed by a group of fervently pro-EU parties, Conservatives and Labour were under pressure to commit clearly to either side of the debate.
For the Conservatives, who will name a new leader by the end of July, many of the would-be successors see the European vote outcome as proof they must seek a cleaner break with the EU, with several saying they would leave without a deal – a move some senior pro-EU Conservatives regard as foolhardy.
For Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pressure will mount to embrace a second referendum without qualification – something he has said would be needed to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
But what is clear from a vote which many used as a protest is that Brexit – which forced Prime Minister Theresa May to say she will resign on June 7 after failing to deliver Britain’s departure – risks shattering the election prospects of both the main parties.
After the Brexit Party came out on top in Sunday’s European vote with 31.6% of the vote, the party’s leader, 55-year-old Nigel Farage, said he wanted to be included in any new negotiation to leave the EU.
“We should be part of the team now, that’s pretty clear,” Mr Fagage said.
After repeated delays to Brexit, Mr Farage said the UK had to leave the EU on October 31, the current deadline for Britain’s parliament to agree an exit deal. Mr Farage would prefer to leave without a deal.
“If we don’t leave on that day, then you can expect the Brexit Party to repeat this kind of surprise in the next general election,” he said.
But People’s Vote campaigners highlighted how the five parties who they said campaigned explicitly against Brexit and for a People’s Vote – the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP, Change UK and Plaid Cymru – won 40% of the vote, compared to 35% for the Brexit Party and UKIP.
Pollster Professor John Curtice said things were not quite so clear cut, although voters were polarised and had clearly rejected the attempted compromises of Labour and the Conservatives.
Speaking to the BBC, he said: “Some want to add the numbers up to say that actually rather more people voted for pro-referendum parties than no-deal parties, therefore this was a mandate for a second referendum.”
“Well, we can argue about the extent to which the SNP’s vote is actually a Remain vote – it is predominantly but not wholly – and if you take them out actually it’s 35:35.”
“But in any event, whether it’s 35 or 40, it’s still less than 50%, so I think the honest truth is that neither side can claim on the basis of these results that voters are sending clear signals.”
However, Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat deputy leader and People’s Vote supporter, claimed the results breakdown showed there was no mandate for a no-deal Brexit.
She said: “The real story from last night’s results is the huge surge in support for the Lib Dems and other strongly pro-People’s Vote parties, who look set to win a larger share of the vote than parties backing a no-deal Brexit.”
“There is no majority in either the country or in Parliament for a crashing-out of the EU with a no-deal Brexit.”
“Two-thirds of people who voted in this election rejected Nigel Farage’s terrifying vision for our country.”
“There was no mandate for this form of Brexit in the 2016 referendum – when it was scarcely discussed – and it is fanciful to pretend such a mandate exists now.”
Ms Swinson called on Labour to “get off the Brexit fence” and warned the Tories there was no point trying to “out-Farage Farage” by pursuing no deal.
In Gibraltar, the Liberal Democrats received resounding backing from voters, securing 76.5% over the votes in the 2019 election to the European Parliament.
The party, whose list of candidates included Gibraltarian Luke Stagnetto, received 7,220 votes out of 9,331 votes cast on a turnout of 39.8%.
The votes helped the Lib Dems secure two MEPs for the south west and Gibraltar region – but it was the Brexit Party that won most of the votes for the region, where it will have three MEPs. The final seat was won by the Greens.
The MEPs for the south west and Gibraltar region are Anne Widdecombe, James Glancey and Cristina Jordan for the Brexit Party; Caroline Voaden and Martin Horwood for the Liberal Democrats; and Molly Scott Cato for the Greens.
Labour MEP and longtime friend of Gibraltar, Claire Moody, lost her seat, as did Tory MEP Ashley Fox.
Both Labour and the Conservatives haemorrhaged votes to the Brexit Party and smaller pro-EU parties, as voters punished to two parties for the stagnation of Brexit.
Ann Widdecombe, elected for the Brexit Party in south west England and Gibraltar region, said: “The night reaffirms the vote of 2016, because there was only one reason for voting for the Brexit Party and that was if you wanted a Brexit.”
“Therefore we will go forward determined that is what we are going to achieve.”
“And when we go to Brussels we will say that because of our showing in these elections, and the fact that we so clearly speak for the people, that we want a role in the negotiations, that is what we will be asking for.”
The win for the Brexit Party in the south west and Gibraltar reflected the trend across much of the UK, but in Gibraltar it was the Lib Dems which dominated the vote.
The pro-EU Lib Dems had fought a Remain-focused campaign, vowing to “stop Brexit”. It was also the only party to include Gibraltar in its manifesto as well as its line-up.
“The people of Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly for the Liberal Democrats in the 2014 European elections (67%) and we pledge to continue to support their rights in Europe and to self-determination,” the manifesto said.
The Lib Dems registered strong support across the UK and Sir Vince Cable, the party’s leader who was in Gibraltar last week, welcomed the result.
“A brilliant set of EU results so far for the @LibDems,” he said on Twitter.
“Making gains around the country with some really impressive swings in many seats.”
“Proof that the Lib Dems are the biggest, strongest voice of Remain.”
Speaking after the results were announced by returning officer Paul Martinez in the John Mackintosh Hall, local Lib Den candidate Mr Stagnetto thanked voters for their support.
“I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
But while the overwhelming sentiment among voters was clearly pro-EU and pro Remain – reflecting Gibraltar’s 96% backing for Remain in the 2016 referendum – there was another significant trend evident in the result.
The second most voted party was Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which secured 746 votes, or 7.9%.
That reflects not just frustration with the stagnated Brexit process, but also anger at the way the EU has backed Spain during the withdrawal negotiations.
The Green Party secured 4.9% of the vote, with Labour close behind on 4.4% and the Conservatives on 2.7%.
Pic by Johnny Bugeja