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by David Laws 28th May, 2019
3 min read

European Elections – GK insights

GK adviser, David Laws, give us his analysis on last week’s European Elections.

gk adviser on european elections

“The results of the European elections represent the worst performance by the Conservative Party in its history and will have an immediate impact on the Conservative leadership election. A large part of the Conservative vote drained away to the Brexit Party, and Tory MPs will now conclude that if they wish to keep their seats then they must deliver Brexit – even if it is without a deal – as soon as possible.

That is likely to strengthen the position of those leadership candidates who voted “Leave” in the original referendum.  Indeed, provided a “leave” candidate makes it to the final run off in which Tory Members vote – which seems likely – the next leader of the Conservative Party is likely to be a “Brexiteer”, rather than an unwilling or pragmatic remainer.

The leading “Leave” candidates for Tory leader are Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab. They are now the three candidates to beat – in that order. Of the former remainders, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid look like those likely to be most in contention.

While Boris Johnson is presently the clear favourite with Conservative members, there is much more skepticism about Boris from Tory MPs. Many think he is a political chancer, whose commitment to Brexit is skin deep. Others seem him as unserious and disorganised.

Michael Gove should not be underestimated. His leave credentials are unquestioned, and of late he has become a far more reliable team player. He could draw votes from remainer Tory MPs who might see him as the most credible and possibly pragmatic of the Brexiteer candidates.

“While the Conservative Party may be concluding that it needs to move to the right on Europe, to stem the tidal wave of votes to the Brexit Party, other UK parties will read Sunday’s results in a quite different way.

The Liberal Democrats and Greens had a great night and their combined vote matched the Brexit Party. Labour had a dreadful night and already seems to have concluded that it will need to tack towards a stronger position on a second referendum.

More generally, although the Brexit Party came first in the elections, it is quite possible to read the overall results as a win for the parties of Remain. Indeed, for the Conservatives, there is now a huge risk that they will move to a tougher Brexit position just as key swing voters are moving the other way.

The overall conclusion is that in the short and medium term the forces of compromise have been weakened and the extremes of the debate – hard Brexit versus Remain – have been bolstered.

What has not changed is the Parliamentary arithmetic. There is no majority for a compromise, or a hard Brexit. And the more sensible of the potential pro Brexit PMs – Johnson and Gove – know that a no deal Brexit would likely be an economic calamity. Meanwhile, it is unlikely that in this political environment any Tory leader will see a General Election as attractive.

“What does this all mean? A new Tory PM is likely to be from the “Leave” wing. They will need to try to negotiate a new deal with the EU.

This seems unlikely on the existing end October timetable. Subtlety and pragmatism will be needed to secure a deal that can get through the Commons. Without such an outcome,  the UK will face a continuing stalemate. In such circumstances, a second referendum could be necessary to break the logjam. As Alastair Campbell observed on Monday, would that really be any less democratic than our next PM being selected by 100,000 largely elderly Members of one UK political party?

Political uncertainty in the UK is high and getting higher. Late 2019 will see a new UK PM trying to find his or her feet on Brexit. What 2020 brings remains far less clear. The odds of both no deal and no Brexit have risen”.

David Laws was an MP for 17 years, a cabinet member and minister in several departments, holding key posts in HM Treasury, Cabinet Office and Department for Education.

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