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31 May 2019

THE European election results would be hard to interpret, the Bishop of Leeds said last week; but, if it looked likely in advance that the poll in the UK would be a proxy for a second referendum on leaving the European Union, then the results were consistent with this, given the gains for the parties that took a clear line one way or the other. The re-emergence of Nigel Farage under a new banner but bearing essentially the same single-minded message as the smiling scourge of the Conservatives, and the unhappy outcome for Labour, too, of its ambiguous policy that gave many voters the impression of a lack of conviction in its leader, were peculiarly British features of the political picture that emerged on Monday.

In the elections on the Continent, the countries whose upheavals bore closest comparison with the UK’s were Italy and France, where Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (far Right) topped the ballot, in contrast with Germany, where Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (centre Right) still won, although there were large increases for the Greens. Centre Right and centre Left, which have dominated the European Parliament for decades, have lost their majority there, though their power to build a working consensus looks likely to remain stronger than that of the populist and nationalist parties. The latter’s main opportunity lies in drawing other weakened parties’ policies in their direction through political fear or necessity.

The hard reality of simply not having enough seats is what, above all, hindered Theresa May’s ambitions for her premiership. It will be remembered for her disastrous gamble on a General Election in the summer of 2017, and for the tragic combination of weakness and stubbornness which ensued. In her emotional speech outside 10 Downing Street last Friday, she spoke of the necessity for compromise, seemingly unconscious of the irony that her record is as an uncompromising compromiser. Her trademark heels were dug in, but they did not prove equal to a tug of war. Her successor may do no better. Compromise is a word with connotations both good and bad; and what Mrs May might have done better to commend was realism. This is what was notoriously missing from the decision to impose on Parliament, as it stood in 2016, a process over which its members would disagree fundamentally while having to produce a complex agreement on a wide range of issues with the EU. There was too much bravado at the time of the referendum, too much building of captivating castles in the air, and we can expect a revival of it in the leadership campaign. If another Prime Minister is to be appointed without going to the country first, to address a political impasse that is unchanged since last week, it is to be hoped that the Conservatives will not choose a builder of imaginary castles to lay the foundations of their nation’s future.

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