Lull for Brexit but Tailwind for the Liberals

The United Kingdom between Municipal and European Elections

British Prime Minister Theresa May just received another extension from her 27 European counterparts when the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, issued a warning: “Please do not waste this time”.

With the new withdrawal date being October 31st, the British government has six months to devise an exit strategy that finds majority support in the House of Commons. Tusk’s warning is now more than 20 days old – nothing has happened so far.

For the first time in months, the word “Brexit” barely appears on the front pages of major British newspapers. Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats spokesperson for European affairs in the House of Commons, describes this situation as “phony war”. The two biggest parties Conservatives and Labour are observing each other without commenting on their further strategy, which was mainly due to the local elections on Thursday, 2 May. Around 8,000 new councilors were elected throughout 248 municipalities in England and Northern Ireland.


Liberal Democrats are Winners

In the absence of a political level comparable to the German federal states, local elections in the United Kingdom have traditionally carried great importance. Municipal influence strengthens a party’s profile not only in the constituencies, but further leads to more mandates in national parliamentary elections. In order to achieve an electoral outcome of similar importance, a party would probably need to be elected to several regional parliaments in Germany.

After half of the constituencies have published their results, the winners and losers of the evening are mostly set. The big losers of the night are the two big parties. They suffered heavy losses and lost their majorities in numerous local parliaments. The clear winners of the evening are the Liberal Democrats, who more than doubled the number of their local councilors. They will therefore be the majority party in 18 (instead of the previously eleven) local parliaments.


Punishment after Brexit Policy

The Liberal Democrats achieved their best municipal election result in more than 15 years and can look forward to real tailwind for the first time since the Brexit referendum. Of course, as is often the case with regional and local elections, it is debatable to what extent the local politicians and the general political situation in the country influenced the result.

However, the parties’ representatives largely agree that Brexit and the ongoing political chaos had a significant impact on the outcome. Labour MEP Ruth Smeeth laments about her constituency: “I lost 10 elected officials because of the Brexit situation.” Voters seem to have punished the two major parties for their internal wing struggles and the resulting Brexit policy. For the first time, the Liberal Democrats benefited from their clear stance against the United Kingdom’s exit.

The next few days will be filled again with public discussions on Brexit. Labour and Conservatives will continue their negotiations in search of a bipartisan compromise. Regardless of the success of these negotiations, Prime Minister May will have the House of Commons re-vote on the Withdrawal Agreement later this month, trying to prevent the United Kingdom from holding European elections. This will probably not succeed, therefore lurching Great Britain and Northern Ireland towards a European election with still undetermined significance. Will the new MEPs ever take up their mandates? And if so, for how long?


“Leave” or “Remain”?

The now starting election campaigns will therefore barely concern general questions of European politics, but rather focus on the question of “Leave” or “Remain”. It will be less about sending delegates than about interpreting the results. Some are already talking about a “Preferendum”, a preliminary round on the way to a second referendum.

The Liberal Democrats have had tailwind since the municipal election on Thursday, May 2nd. In the European elections, however, they are dealing with new opponents who have not competed locally. These include, above all, the Brexit party of the British anti-EU icon Nigel Farage, which is currently leading the polls with 30 percent. This is followed by Labour with 21 percent and Conservatives with 13 percent. Among the new opponents is also competition from the Remain camp. Founded by independent MPs, Change UK currently polls at 10 percent, as do the Liberal Democrats themselves.


Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager and Security Expert