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Brexit Party leads, UK Conservatives bashed in EU poll

By JILL LAWLESS, LONDON (AP) — Britain’s governing Conservative Party faced a near-wipeout in the European Parliament election as voters sick of the country’s Brexit deadlock flocked to uncompromisingly pro-Brexit or pro-EU parties.

The main opposition Labour Party also faced a drubbing in a vote that upended the traditional order of British politics. The big winners were the newly founded Brexit Party led by the anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage and the strongly pro-European Liberal Democrats.

With results early Monday from eight of the U.K’s 12 regions, the Brexit Party had 21 of the 73 British EU seats up for grabs and about a third of the vote share. The Liberal Democrats won about 20% of the vote and 10 seats — up from only one at the last EU election in 2014.

The pro-EU environmentalist Greens went from having no EU seats to five. Labour managed to win seven seats and the ruling Conservatives were in fifth place with just two EU seats and under 10% of the vote.

The results reflect an electorate deeply divided over Britain’s delayed departure from the European Union, but united in anger at the two long-dominant parties, the Conservatives and Labour, who have led the U.K. into Brexit gridlock.

Britain is participating in the EU election because it is still a member of the bloc, but the lawmakers it elects will only sit in the European Parliament until it leaves the EU, which is currently scheduled for Oct. 31.

The Conservatives were being punished for failing to take the country out of the EU as promised, a failure that led Prime Minister Theresa May to announce Friday that she is stepping down from leading the party on June 7. Britain’s new prime minister will be whoever wins the Conservative party leadership race to replace her.

Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, said he feared the party was facing “total wipeout.”

Labour is facing a backlash over a fence-sitting Brexit policy that sees the party torn over whether to support a new referendum that could halt Brexit. Labour foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry said the party needed to adopt a clearer pro-EU stance in order to win back voters.

“There should be a referendum and we should campaign to remain,” she said.

Britons voted Thursday, but the results were only announced after all 28 EU nations had finished going to the polls on Sunday.

Farage’s Brexit Party is one of several nationalist and populist parties making gains across the continent in an election that saw fragmentation of the traditionally dominant political parties.

It has only one policy: for Britain to leave the EU as soon as possible, even without a divorce agreement in place.

“If you want Brexit, you’ve got to vote Brexit,” Farage said. “We did it once, they ignored us, so we’re going to tell them again.”

The Brexit Party now faces the challenge of turning its strong result into domestic political success.

Farage’s former party, UKIP, won the biggest share of U.K. seats in the 2014 EU election — 24 — but never managed to translate that into seats in the British Parliament.

Most of UKIP’s European lawmakers later drifted away in fights, firings and defections. Last year even Farage quit the party he had once led, saying it was becoming obsessed with Islam and associating with far-right figures.

British politics has been in crisis since electors voted 52%-48% in June 2016 to leave the EU. But its departure, scheduled for March 29, has been delayed because lawmakers have rejected the divorce terms struck between the government and the bloc.

After three defeats for her Brexit deal in Parliament, May threw in the towel on Friday, announcing that she will step down as party leader on June 7.

The favorites to replace May, including ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have vowed to leave the EU on Oct. 31 even if there is no deal in place.

Most businesses and economists think that would cause economic turmoil and plunge Britain into recession. But many Conservatives think embracing a no-deal Brexit may be the only way to win back supporters voters from Farage’s Brexit party.

(Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage smiles as he arrives at the counting center for the European Elections for the South East England region, in Southampton, England, Sunday, May 26, 2019. AP Photo: Alastair Grant)

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