The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The farce of Britain’s European election

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The world’s second-largest exercise in democracy — after India’s general election — got underway in Europe on Thursday and will conclude by the end of the weekend. In Britain, things were particularly surreal. Voters there participated in an election that, in theory, they were never supposed to have. But three years of unfinished, tortuous wrangling over the terms of departure from the European Union meant Britain had to once more go through the ritual of electing representatives for the country in the European Parliament.

Because of this generally dysfunctional state of affairs, the party expected to sweep the vote is the faction hellbent on ensuring Britain never again elects European parliamentarians.

That would be the Brexit Party, formed this year and led by Nigel Farage, an inveterate Euroskpetic, chum of President Trump and controversial beneficiary of secret donations. Farage is a divisive figure — he was famously barracked by milkshake-lobbing protesters ahead of the polls — who has harnessed popular disaffection and fury at British Parliament’s inability to settle terms of divorce with Brussels. His supporters, knitted together almost entirely by their desire to quit Europe and end the political impasse over Brexit, may view Thursday’s election as a chance to reassert their demands. The Brexit Party is slated to secure a sizable victory, potentially beating the combined vote for the Conservatives and Labour, Britain’s two traditional heavyweights.

To be sure, European elections tend to be low-turnout affairs in Britain that often boost parties on the ideological fringes. Smaller parties that are explicitly against leaving the European Union may pick up a solid number of votes, too. It’s also unclear what Farage may seek to achieve on the back of his new party’s success. But it all adds to the mounting woes of the Conservatives and their politically battered Prime Minister Theresa May.

“For lifelong Tories, the idea of voting for another party is anathema,” wrote John O’Sullivan, editor-at-large at the right-wing National Review. “Most people who think about it never actually get around to doing it. But the Tories have certainly given their traditional supporters and those new supporters who voted for them in order to achieve Brexit good reason to leave them on this occasion. Many will do so this week. And as with adultery, betraying your party for another is much easier the second time around.”

May’s departure from office is now a matter of when, not if. Like a pantomime Sisyphus, she has repeatedly attempted to get her Brexit agreement passed through Parliament, subjecting her public and European officials to protracted rounds of negotiations and fitful debates over “backstops” and customs unions. But she has failed — on occasion, spectacularly so — to win the necessary parliamentary support; and with each failure, she and her dwindling group of allies kicked the can further down the road in the hopes of scoring an illusory goal at a later date.

The latest — and possibly last — blow came this week after May was compelled to shelve a new vote amid a cabinet backlash against her plans. She may confirm a timeline for her departure as early as Friday. Reports on Thursday indicated the prime minister would agree to a leadership contest to pick her new successor within the Conservative Party beginning June 10. According to local news media, May would be allowed to host President Trump during a state visit in the first week of June before stepping aside.

As my colleagues report, Farage’s success in the European elections may influence who seizes May’s mantle next month. Marcus Roberts, international projects director at polling firm YouGov, told The Washington Post that it could be good news in particular for Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and prominent Brexiteer. (Here’s a rundown of the top candidates from my colleagues.)

“The longer [the Conservatives] fail to deliver Brexit, the greater their need for self-flagellation becomes,” Roberts said, adding that the party’s calculation going forward could be to say, “yes, we failed to deliver Brexit, but to make up for that, we’re going to pick the most Brexity-Brexiteer we can find.”

That presents its own perils. Johnson, a buffoonish former London mayor who has morphed into a figure almost as polarizing as Farage, could revive the push to take Britain out of the European Union without a transition deal with Brussels in place. The renewed prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit, taking place by Oct. 31, would raise the same panic about economic chaos and logistical havoc at Britain’s ports we saw earlier this year.

There’s also the likelihood that Johnson or any other putative successor to May will be inclined to call for fresh elections to strengthen their hand. That may backfire — as the 2017 general election did on May — and lead to a government led by the Labour Party whose members are mostly opposed to Brexit and, in part, intent on staging a second referendum. That’s an outcome that, whatever one’s view of Brexit, would only add fuel to the fire of campaigners like Farage and deepen the political polarization that’s already set in place.

Weary commentators argue that this is all a consequence of Britain drinking from the poisoned chalice of the Brexit referendum. The Leave camp sold voters on a bag of goods it could never actually deliver once Britain locked itself in negotiations with the E.U.’s 27 other states over the terms of its divorce. May, the steward of an ill-fated process, could satisfy no one.

“Anyone who thinks decapitating the Government and starting again will magically produce a solution, or a way out of this maze, is indulging themselves in that most ancient of forlorn hopes: the idea that this is a problem of personnel, not one of policy,” wrote Alex Massie, an editor for the center-right Spectator. “It is not a lack of will that has brought us to this broken place but, instead, the irrefutable logic of the Brexit process itself. It is not being done well because it cannot be done well.”

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