Jeremy Corbyn’s party won Peterborough by-election by just shy of 700 votes in what was seen as a bellwether of the country’s feelings on Brexit.

Britain’s opposition Labour party has narrowly held on to a key constituency in a byelection widely seen as gauging the country’s feelings on Brexit.

Peterborough voted 60 percent in favour of leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the bloc.

Despite its emphatic vote for Brexit, the Cambridgeshire town voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in parliamentary elections the following year, displacing its leave supporting Conservative MP.

Given its voting history, many pundits in the UK framed the by-election context as a referendum on the major parties’ approach on the most important political issue in recent British history.

As it turned out, the insurgent Brexit party, led by right-wing populist Nigel Farage, almost claimed its first parliamentary seat, gaining 9,801 votes to Labour’s 10,484 on a 48 percent turnout.

Set up just two months ago by former UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party is leading national opinion polls.

In a recent YouGov survey, the party had 26 percent support, followed by Labour and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats on 20 percent each.

The party have eaten into the ruling Conservative party’s vote share, with outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s party trailing on just 18 percent.

Farage’s success reflects the divisions tearing British society and politics apart. 

Speaking before the by-election, Farage said: “Let’s get a voice in Westminster (parliament) that believes in Britain, that believes in Brexit.”

In the 2016 referendum, 52 percent of voters chose to leave the EU, while 48 percent wanted to remain. Since then polls on support for Brexit have shifted little but the leading parties have haemorrhaged support over their lack of decisive action one way or the other. 

Both Labour and the Conservatives are torn between those who want a complete break with the EU, a so-called ‘hard Brexit’; those who want to leave the EU but maintain a considerable level of cooperation with the organisation, a so-called ‘soft Brexit’, and those who want to stay in the bloc.

Appeasing all those strands has been a challenge for both May and Corbyn, and many voters are turning to those who have clear positions on the topic. The main beneficiaries have been Farage’s Brexit party, which advocates a hardline Brexit, and the Liberal Democrats, who have taken up a pro-Remain platform.

Corbyn’s Brexit woes

There’s no escaping the reality that Brexit has been a major conundrum for opposition leader Corbyn.

From the get-go he was attacked by remainers in his own party for purportedly not campaigning hard enough to stay in the EU and was accused of harbouring a secret desire to leave the bloc.

On the other end of the spectrum, Britain’s tabloid media have presented Corbyn as a saboteur hell bent on staying in the 28-member bloc.

Labour’s woes lie in the fact it traditionally draws support from the pro-EU young in urban centres, as well as white working class voters in smaller towns who largely voted to leave.

Tilting too heavily one way or the other on Brexit is likely to cost it support within one of these key voter blocs.

Labour’s own version of Brexit is one that sees the UK leaving the EU on terms that maintain a large degree of cooperation, such as participation in a customs union, and regulatory alignment on issues like workers rights.

The party has also proposed holding affirmatory second referendum to approve any deal struck with the EU.

Corbyn has also gone to great lengths to stress that the key issue affecting the UK is not Brexit at all but rather the impact of almost a decade of government austerity measures, which have led to a weakening of the welfare state, and led to widespread poverty in the country.

While congratulating Labour candidate Lisa Forbes on her victory, Corbyn said: 

“This result shows that despite the divisions and deadlock over Brexit, when it comes to a vote on the issues that directly affect people’s lives, Labour’s case for real change has strong support across the country.”

Conservative bind

The main losers of the Brexit party surge have been the ruling Conservatives. Brexit has already claimed one scalp, in the form of Theresa May, but her successor will face the daunting task of having to find parliamentary approval for their preferred Brexit deal.

May’s deal to leave was roundly defeated in consecutive votes for its failure to appease enough those leaning towards remain, and a hard Brexit. Any successor would also face the same challenge. 

The only way such a mandate could be obtained is if whoever wins orders a new election. 

But with uncertainty over whether they would be elected back into Downing Street, the question is which of the Conservative party’s ambitious prime ministerial hopefuls would be willing to take the risk.