Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
8 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:18pm

European elections are happening and they will be the most important in British history

By Stephen Bush

It’s official: the United Kingdom will have elections to the European Parliament, almost three years after the UK voted to leave the European Union and the best part of two months after the UK was supposed to leave under the Article 50 process – assuming, that is, that the 27 other member states of the EU accept the British government’s request for an extension.

Whatever happens, these elections are now set to be among the most consequential in British political history, whether the United Kingdom ends up contesting them or not.

Theresa May’s hope is that the prospect of holding European elections will finally scare up a parliamentary majority for her withdrawal agreement. That prospect is, however, slim: that she has already opened up talks with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, increases the political cost to Labour MPs of breaking ranks to back her accord in its current state. May is at or near the maximum level of support her deal can attract from Conservatives and she may even lose ground among Tory MPs next time the withdrawal agreement is voted on.

The bigger political event will be when these elections really begin to come into view. Pro-Brexit MPs, whether they voted to leave or to remain, have long feared that holding European elections would provoke a political backlash. One MP in a marginal constituency recently told me that their constituents would “burn my office to the ground” when they received their polling cards in the mail.

If the European elections are the cause of a political earthquake, whether because the fact of holding them triggers a political storm or because the contests produce two victories for pro-Brexit forces, then that will strengthen the hand of MPs urging a quick deal to take the United Kingdom out of the EU.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

If the EU elections are a political non-event or they result in victories for pro-European politicians and parties however, then that will have the opposite effect, boosting the cause of those who want the softest possible Brexit, or no Brexit at all.