After a punishing night when acrimonious divisions over Britain’s departure from the European Union were plain to see, contenders for the leadership of the governing Conservatives said the results were a demand to deliver Brexit no matter what.
Taking a different tack, the opposition Labour Party said a public vote – a new national election or second referendum – was the way to reunite the country. It pledged to make sure any new eurosceptic Conservative leader would not take Britain out of the EU without a transition deal to help protect the economy.
But with Farage’s Brexit Party, which prefers a no-deal Brexit, capturing the greatest number of votes for seats in the European Parliament, closely shadowed by a group of fervently pro-EU parties, Conservatives and Labour were under pressure to commit clearly to either side of the debate.
Almost three years since Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU and barely two months after the originally planned departure date, lawmakers remain at loggerheads over how, when or even whether the country will quit the club it joined in 1973.
For the Conservatives, who will name a new leader by the end of July, many of the would-be successors see the European vote outcome as proof they must seek a cleaner break with the EU, with several saying they would leave without a deal – a move some senior pro-EU Conservatives regard as foolhardy.
But what is clear from a vote which many used as a protest is that Brexit – which forced Prime Minister Theresa May to say she will resign on June 7 after failing to deliver Britain’s departure – risks shattering the election prospects of both the main parties.
Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, the favourite to replace May as party leader and prime minister, said the election message was “if we go on like this, we will be fired”.
“We can and must deliver. No one sensible would aim exclusively for a no-deal outcome. No one responsible would take no-deal off the table,” Johnson, who was also London mayor, said in his regular column in the Telegraph newspaper.