This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.
What a night, eh? The Conservatives turned in their worst electoral performance since 1832. Labour managed to finish third in Wales and a remarkable fifth in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have rediscovered their mojo and the Brexit party has taken on and beaten all comers from a standing start.
What a night, and yet – whisper it quietly – it’s quite likely that nothing much at all will change.
Let’s start with what happened before speculating about what might transpire. The picture is relatively clear. The two big parties – those same parties, remember, that hoovered up more than 80% of the vote at the 2017 general election – haemorrhaged votes.
The Tories attracted a vote share in single digits – 8.8% (down 15% from 2014). As for Labour, it was only the second time it had failed to win a national contest in Wales since 1918, and being wiped out in Scotland is really astonishing.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats triumphed in the constituencies of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, while picking up an impressive 20% of the vote – their best ever European performance.
And last but not least was of course the Brexit party. Whatever one thinks of its leader (or, rather, CEO) it is hard not to be impressed by the way Nigel Farage propelled his troops to outright victory on the back of a platform accusing the “political class” of betrayal and insisting on the need for a “clean” (no-deal) exit from the EU.
So apparently a political earthquake, but in no sense a decisive one. For insofar as the tectonic plates have shifted, they have done so in a way that renders the Brexit dilemma harder, rather than easier, to solve.
What the poll underlines is that we are a country divided. Claims to the contrary on Twitter notwithstanding, neither Brexit tribe secured a clear advantage. What is more, there is no easy way for the large parties to respond. As Will Jennings has argued, both Labour and the Tories lost votes to both sides of the Brexit divide, meaning a shift towards one extreme or the other would not be costless in electoral terms.
So clarity will not come from the big parties. Nor, it must be said, will it be provided by parliament. Because when all is said and done, we will, when MPs come back from their recess, be confronted with the same hopelessly divided House of Commons as when May was trying and failing to get her Brexit deal through.
If anything, polarisation will now be greater and possible solutions thinner on the ground. The outcome of the election will strengthen those on the extremes arguing either for a referendum or a no-deal exit. So do not expect some new spirit of compromise to be in the air after half-term.
The shocking performances of the two big parties also means that one possible way out of this bottleneck – a general election – is less likely than it was. The one thing that Conservative and Labour MPs want less than Brexit gridlock is an early encounter with the same electorate that just issued them such a severe punishment beating.
So, as before, there are a number of possible outcomes to this process – all of them apparently highly implausible. We could leave with no deal, but it is hard to see how parliament would let that happen. In extremis, I’d expect sufficient numbers of Conservative MPs to bring their own government down via a vote of no confidence rather than risk a “clean Brexit”.
Alternatively, we might see moves towards another referendum. Here, too, there are formidable obstacles. For one thing, the parliamentary numbers remain stubbornly as they were. And, what is more, Conservatives will be more wary than ever of seeming to resile on their promise to deliver Brexit.
Meanwhile their Labour counterparts from leave-voting areas will be wary of the damage Farage could do to their hopes of re-election were they to back a people’s vote.
And finally, there is the deal. The deal that has failed on three separate occasions to garner a majority in the House, but which remains the only deal on the table. It is conceivable that a new Tory leader might traipse to Brussels and secure cosmetic changes – a word here or there, maybe a subtle change in font – then come back declaring triumph.
Conceivable, too, that his or her colleagues would be wary about dealing a grievous blow to their newly installed leader and might rally behind them to an extent they simply were not willing to do for May. Yet here again, it is hard to make the numbers add up.
So brace yourselves for a last week of October that looks uncannily like the last week of March.
By Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe.