Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has won a major victory in the European Parliament elections, winning the UK’s most seats and biggest share of the vote.
The surge in support for the anti-European Union 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.
At the same time, voters hoping to keep Britain in the EU flocked to smaller parties in favor 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 Britain’s political crisis? Here are five things we learned.
The next prime minister is likely to be a hard Brexiteer
The results suggest that the Brexit Party’s victory came largely at the expense of the Conservative Party.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to twice delay Brexit has caused a clear collapse in support for the party, which had 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 former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab — both declaring their support for leaving the EU without a deal.
The surge in support for the Brexit Party will only strengthen the hand of those in the party who want a so-called hard exit from the EU, with the collapse in the Conservative vote making it even more likely that the party will turn to the onetime popular figure of Johnson as their best bet of a recovery.
But hard Remain parties won more than hard Brexit parties
As soon as it was clear that European elections would take place in the UK, they were framed as a proxy second referendum on Britain’s EU membership, with the newly formed Brexit Party, and its predecessor UKIP, representing Leave voters and the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and Change UK representing the forces of Remain.
Faced with this polarized choice, voters went toward one of the two poles and away from the Conservatives (who back Brexit but have delayed it) and Labour (which campaigned for Remain but now backs leaving the EU).
But while the Brexit Party won the largest share of the vote in these elections, these results are far from a clear vindication of its 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 Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland, then it tips the balance in favor of Remain.
The Brexit deadlock will only get worse
Even if you accept that these elections were 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 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 multiparty 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.
But 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.
But if you’re a Labour MP like Lisa Nandy, representing a northern seat where the Brexit Party won by a big margin, then you’re likely to take a very different lesson from these results.
The same problem occurs in the Conservative Party, which is choosing its new leader after May’s resignation. While Tory Brexiteers will take the 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 to secure a majority at the next general election, and declare a clear mandate to elect a moderate leader.
This ambiguity means the polarization that has caused such deadlock in the UK Parliament is sure 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 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
With British politics set to become even more polarized after these European elections, it is incredibly hard to see a way for the next prime minister to find a way through Britain’s Brexit crisis under this Parliament.
The pro-Brexit nature of the Conservative membership suggests that whoever wins the coming contest for Tory leader will have won through committing to a hard exit from the EU.
But any new leader who attempts to deliver one is sure to be frustrated by Parliament. As the Institute for Government pointed out last week, an ideologically committed Brexiteer could ultimately overrule members of Parliament. But as Chancellor Philip Hammond said on Sunday, attempting this would cost a prime minister the confidence of MPs, meaning the UK would be heading toward 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 2nd referendum could win through
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 be the one that wins through.
Forced to choose between allowing a general election in which his or her party would be favorites to lose an already fragile grip on power or accepting a new referendum that at the very least would delay judgment day with voters, a new Conservative prime minister could have little choice but to accept a second referendum either voluntarily or under duress from a UK Parliament determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
And with the 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.