Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is on course for victory in the European elections as the Tories and Labour suffered a backlash from voters.
The pro-EU Liberal Democrats have also piled on votes, indicating that the deep divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum continue to dominate British politics.
In an extraordinary tirade against the campaign run by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said Labour was suffering a “kicking” for not having a clear enough message.
On the Conservative side, with Theresa May already heading for the exit having said she will quit as Tory leader on June 7, the vote will be an indication of the scale of the challenge facing her successor.
Foreign Secretary and leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt said it was a “painful result” and there is an “existential risk to our party unless we now come together and get Brexit done”.
In the results announced:
– In London, the Lib Dems came top with three MEPs, Labour and the Brexit Party each won two and the Greens picked up one seat – in 2014 Labour won four, the Tories two and Greens and Ukip one each.
– In the North East, Labour went from two seats down to one, while the Brexit Party won two seats (2014 Ukip one, Labour two)
– In the Eastern region, three Brexit Party MEPs were elected, two Lib Dems, one Tory and one Green (2014: three Ukip, three Tory, one Labour)
– In the West Midlands the Brexit Party won three seats, with the Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and the Tories picking up one each (2014: Ukip three, Labour and the Tories two each)
– In Wales the Brexit Party won two seats, with Labour and Plaid Cymru each taking a seat (2014: Labour, Ukip, Conservatives and Plaid Cymru each won a seat)
In a sign of how embarrassing the night was for Labour in the capital, the Lib Dems topped the poll in Islington – where both Mr Corbyn and Ms Thornberry are MPs.
Ms Thornberry told the BBC: “We should have said, quite simply, that any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum and that remain should be on the ballot paper and that Labour would campaign to remain.”
Instead, the party would get a “kicking” because “we went into an election where the most important issue was ‘what was our view on leaving the European Union’ and we were not clear about it”.
Mr Farage said he was expecting a “big win” for his party.
Arriving at Southampton Guildhall for the South East count, where he is standing, Mr Farage said: “The intelligence I get is that the Brexit Party is doing pretty well, the Lib Dems on the Remain side are doing reasonably well.
“It looks like we have a big win for the Brexit Party which I’m pleased about.”
Ms Thornberry’s comments about Labour’s campaign echoed an earlier warning from deputy leader Tom Watson.
He said the party must “find some backbone” and fully commit to a second referendum on Brexit to have any chance of winning the next general election.
Mr Watson said: “Our performance (in the European elections) is a direct result of our mealy-mouthed backing for a public vote on Brexit when it is being demanded loud and clear by the overwhelming majority of our members and voters.
“Polls show Labour has been losing up to four times more voters to parties giving full backing to a people’s vote than to Farage.
“And those same polls show we would have beaten him by a country mile if we had unambiguously backed a public vote on any form of Brexit.”
He added: “Never again can we find ourselves hedging our bets when we needed to make an historic choice about which side we’re on.”
A Lib Dem source told the Press Association the party was expecting to give the Tories and Labour a fright.
“Results are likely to make for very worried people in CCHQ (Conservative campaign HQ) and Labour HQ about how many seats we could pick up in a general (election),” the source said.
It is a remarkable turnaround from 2014, when the Lib Dems were reduced to a single MEP as voters punished them for joining the coalition government.
Seventy-three MEPs will be elected to represent the UK, with England, Scotland and Wales using a form of proportional representation called the D’Hondt system and Northern Ireland using the single transferable vote method.
The vote only took place because of the delays to Brexit, which should have taken the UK out of the European Union before polling day.