Will Britain Exit the European Union? The Rise of a Small Party Makes that Scenario More Likely

Why a rising protest party in Britain could have momentous consequences for the country’s government – and the rest of Europe.

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Lidove Noviny / Viktor Chlad / isifa / Getty Images

Nigel Farage gives an interview during a June 18, 2012 visit to Prague.

When Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his much-anticipated speech on the European Union later this month, his audience at home and abroad will be listening intently. Euroskeptics hope he will signal a radical redrawing of the U.K.’s relationship with Europe. Others, including 10 leading British businessmen such as Richard Branson, signatories to a Jan. 8 open letter in the Financial Times, fear “wholesale renegotiation” could “create damaging uncertainty for British business” or lead to Britain exiting altogether. Such a scenario once seemed remote, but increasing  numbers of Britons would apparently cheer such an outcome, according to opinion polls. Riding that wave—and driving it—is Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP). Until recently, UKIP was a small political party in Britain with seemingly no chance of making political waves. “We are a very important catalyst for change in the national debate on a wide range of subjects and a completely alternative view,” Farage boasted to the Guardian this week, after months of watching his anti-Europe party gaining in popularity.

A Jan. 5 opinion poll by Survation/Mail on Sunday showed UKIP currently in third place among Britain’s political parties with 16% support. That puts the right-wing fringe party ahead of the Liberal Democrat party, the Conservatives’ junior partner in the U.K.’s governing coalition. Though people often tell pollsters they’re likely to go one way and then vote the other, UKIP has recently done well in real elections too. On Nov. 29, the party came second in two parliamentary by-elections, beating the Conservatives and the LibDems, and prompting Farage to tell reporters at the time, “We’re connecting with people and that’s not going to go away.”

UKIP has yet to win any parliamentary seats and, until 2012, hadn’t made much of a political impact at all. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, in 2006, dubbed UKIP members “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”; now he needs to woo the people he disparaged.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections slows the rise of small parties. But according to Anthony Wells, a pollster for YouGov and UK Polling Report, UKIP is now in an excellent position to capture the protest vote that’s no longer going to go to the LibDems.  A vote for UKIP, Wells says, is “an anti-immigration vote, it’s a protest against the government vote, it’s a general I’m-uncomfortable-with-the-status-of-modern-Britain vote. A vote against the status quo.” And with those votes coming “predominately from former Conservative voters,” UKIP’s popularity is effectively splitting the right.

Which means that Conservatives are left facing the very real possibility that Labour could beat them in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015. The prospect has left the Tories grappling with their own response to the Europe issue, with euroskeptic Conservatives urging the party down the same road as UKIP.

Euroskeptic parties are enjoying a boost across Europe, as the debt crisis rages. A 2012 TNS Opinion and Social poll for the European Commission found that throughout Europe only 31% of those polled trusted the EU. In Britain, trust is particularly low at only 16%. And as austerity bites, UKIP’s political messages have found new resonance. The party advocates not only for Britain’s exit from the EU, but also for severely restricting immigration.

“Lots of Conservative MPs on the right-wing of the party, who want a tougher policy on immigration and who want to be more anti-European, see the UKIP rise as a good way to convince the leadership to move in that direction,” says Wells, who also warns that such a move could also repel “the center voters they need to appeal to.”

Cameron argues against holding an “in or out” referendum and in a Jan. 6 BBC interview said that he wants to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe, not sever it. But as he seeks to pacify the euroskeptics in his own ranks and to battle the threat from UKIP, he has done little to articulate the dangers to Britain of leaving the E.U. His speech on Europe, which he is tipped to deliver in the Netherlands as early as next week, may seek to redress that balance as anxieties mount in Britain and among its allies. “Other countries are waking up to the fact that the conversations [about leaving the EU] are even taking place,” says Dr. Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House in London, adding that Britain hasn’t been cast in a favorable light because of it. On Jan. 9, the Obama administration warned that a British exit of the EU would run counter to American interests. “More than most others,” said assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip H. Gordon, “[Britain’s] voice within the European Union is essential and critical to the United States.”

But there’s another British voice that’s being heard increasingly loudly, and it makes a case for splendid isolation.  Farage is confident that the headway his party has made in the national political scene will have a lasting impact. “Five years from now, UKIP will have changed the face of British politics,” he told the Guardian. While five years down the road is hard for anyone to predict, at least one of Farage’s forecasts has already proven itself true.  UKIP has successfully changed the national debate – and maybe Europe’s political landscape.