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by Tom Freeman
03 June 2019
June begins with the end of May

Theresa May retreats into Number 10 - PA

June begins with the end of May

The EU election map, showing which party won in each local authority area, seems to provide a stark visual representation of Scotland’s different political priorities.

However, as always, the context behind it was more complicated.

The day after the vote, finally, after years of refusing to compromise with a House of Commons which clearly favours a softer Brexit, Theresa May admitted defeat and announced her departure. 

The outgoing prime minister’s intransigence had been her downfall. 

Her insistence in following her own interpretation of Brexit, her failed gamble on a snap election which weakened her hand, her threat to MPs that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, all of these things paved the way for her own failure and she was the last to come to terms with it.

In her resignation speech, May oddly chose to list the things for which she has been most criticised. It was surprising enough that she used the quote, ‘Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise’, when indeed, May had urged her colleagues to compromise but refused to do so herself.

But what was more surprising was that the advice had come from Sir Nicholas Winton, famous for saving hundreds of children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the Kindertransport, when under May’s watch, only nine unaccompanied child refugees were accepted into the UK. 

This had been the home secretary who had pushed the hostile environment, deported hundreds of the Windrush generation to a country they didn’t know and had authorised vans to drive around London telling immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

But if May had been the roadblock to a Brexit compromise, there was little sign that her departure would change anything. The damage had been done to relations between MPs.

Any hope that her successor would reach across the Commons and find compromise with the majority of MPs faded quickly, when those who spoke out most strongly against a no-deal, like Amber Rudd, ruled themselves out of the race.

“I am conscious that the Conservative Party wants to have someone who they believe is very enthusiastic about Brexit,” Rudd told The Telegraph. “I still think it is a difficult job to do, but we can do it, we can make a success of it.”

Even Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, a passionate Europhile and longstanding critic of the favourite, Boris Johnson, dismissed the notion she would act as a moderate ‘kingmaker’.

“I will work with whoever the Prime Minister is,” she told the Scottish Daily Express.

Front runners Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey all talked up the idea of crashing out of Europe with no deal in October, which would see tariffs on imports and exports ramped up in the short term at least.

Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart were less enthusiastic about the prospect, while current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said a no-deal exit would be “political suicide”.

At the time of writing, Sajid Javid, Kit Malthouse, James Cleverly, Mark Harper and Sam Gyimah - who wants a second referendum and brings a remain voice to the contest - bring the list of contenders up to 13, in a crowded field. This prompted former Chancellor Ken Clarke to call the contest a "shambles".

The Conservative Party had, like Labour, suffered badly at the European election.

Punished by both sides of the Brexit argument, the main parties seemed well aware of their fate before the election.

Reports in Scotland suggested neither party had spent much time door knocking, with polling stations in some places not even carrying placards for the two parties.

However, the Scottish Conservative vote did not collapse as far as it had in the rest of the UK, while Labour’s plummeted to below ten per cent of the vote share.

The SNP dominated with 37.7 per cent of the vote, electing three MEPs for the first time.

Scotland’s other three MEPs were taken up by the Brexit Party, who received 14.8 per cent, the Liberal Democrats with 13.8 per cent and the Conservatives with 11.6 per cent.

The electoral fates of the UK’s two newest political parties provided perhaps the biggest story of the result. The impact of the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s single-issue outfit and Change UK: The Independent Group, formed by Labour and Tory MPs to pursue a second Brexit referendum, could not have been more different at the election they were more or less set up to contest.

Both the Brexit Party and Change UK were established to represent a side of the Brexit debate, neither produced any other policies and both came under scrutiny for where their funding came from.

But it was Farage’s party which swept the board, gaining 31.6 per cent of the vote, consolidating and building on the performance of his previous vehicle, UKIP, by winning 29 MEPs across the UK, including one in Scotland.

Farage told the BBC: “With a big, simple message – which is we’ve been badly let down by two parties who have broken their promises – we have topped the poll in a fairly dramatic style.

“The two-party system now serves nothing but itself. I think they are an obstruction to the modernising of politics... and we are going to take them on.”

By contrast, Change UK failed to win a single MEP. Not even Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth, the former Conservative MEPs who had joined the party before the election, retained their seats. 

The party recorded just 3.4 per cent of the vote across the UK, and only 1.9 per cent in Scotland. 

This was an election where strong constitutional positions gained the most votes, with the Liberal Democrats’ ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan winning a remarkable turnaround in fortunes – the party went from one single UK MEP to 16.

In Scotland, of course, the constitutional question has another dimension, and the question for the SNP is whether to interpret its high vote share as a shift towards support for Scottish independence.

Speaking to journalists in Dublin on the day after the results came out, Nicola Sturgeon said: “Scotland said no to Brexit in 2016. This result makes clear: we meant it.”

Draft legislation on a framework for a second independence referendum is underway. But although the EU election result clearly shows further divergence between England and Scotland’s political priorities, there will be some voices of caution within the SNP.

Turnout in Scotland was 39.9 per cent, which although higher than the 37 per cent across the UK, is still well under the European average for the election, at 50.8 per cent. 

Also, given the SNP had campaigned on a ‘stop Brexit’ ticket, it is unclear how many unionists may have lent the party its vote to send the clearest signal on that particular issue.

Scotland’s longest-serving MEP, David Martin, who had collaborated with the SNP and Scottish Greens in the court case which won the right to revoke Article 50, was very clear about who he blamed for losing the seat he’d held since 1984. 

“We lost not because of lack of effort but lack of clear message,” he tweeted.

Clarifying the comment later, he said: “Strangely on the ground, it was quite a good campaign, but on the other hand, I thought our message was poor, we didn’t really communicate our position and some people might say that is because we don’t have one.

“In fairness to Corbyn, I think he genuinely thinks he has to deliver on the result of the national referendum, but on the other hand, he has seen over the last few years how damaging Brexit is going to be to the country.

“He is trying to ride two horses and it has, of course, proved impossible.”

Now the question for Scotland is whether it can ride two horses simultaneously at subsequent referendums. In 2014, Scotland decided to remain in the UK and two years later, said it wanted to remain in the European Union. 

With the staunchly pro-Brexit Conservative membership deciding the UK’s next prime minister, Scotland’s choices will be watched by many.

However, if the EU election vote share is divided in terms of the Scottish constitutional question, the independence-supporting SNP and Scottish Greens recorded 45 per cent between them, while the other parties recorded 55 per cent – we arrive at the exact same division as the 2014 indyref result.
Perhaps Theresa May was at least right on one thing: “Nothing has changed.”

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