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Tories will reap the Brexit whirlwind

Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty

Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty

March 11, 2019   6 mins

Britain’s Brexit voters are disillusioned and fed up. As the country navigates one of the most important weeks in its political history, opinion polls paint a picture of a Leave electorate that is frustrated, angry and keen to embark on what brought us all here in the first place; rebellion.

Here’s what would keep me up at night if I were in the Prime Minister’s research team: nine in 10 Leavers say that most politicians are no longer listening to ordinary people. Three in four say that May and her Conservative government are handling Brexit badly. And nearly the same ratio feel that the main parties no longer offer an appealing choice of who to vote for.

If Britain’s Brexit moment provided an opportunity to pursue national renewal, restore the social contract and bring in voters who had long felt ignored then – as these numbers reflect – it has been squandered. And if one of the original aims of “May-ism” was to bring in to the fold a more working-class, pro-Leave and patriotic electorate who shared the Prime Minister’s ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ mantra, then what should be of serious concern is that today these are precisely the voters who look so thoroughly disillusioned.

This week’s events in parliament are bound to deepen this despair and disillusionment among Leavers. On the one hand, MPs are predicted to again reject something that has proven to be almost universally unpopular among Leavers: Theresa May’s proposed withdrawal deal. Ever since July 2018, when the PM and much of her Party began to huddle around versions of the so-called ‘Chequers Plan’, large majorities of Leavers and Conservatives have consistently registered their unhappiness with the proposals.

Most of these voters have never expressed support for the proposed deal, have said it is unacceptable and have routinely favoured a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Even now, when asked by Opinium whether Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement is a ‘good or bad deal’, only 15% of Leavers say ‘good’. That means that the principal piece of legislation being advocated by a Conservative Prime Minister has always been opposed by a large majority of Conservative voters.

Meanwhile, parliament is also expected to reject something that Leavers and Conservatives do want: a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Ever since the 2016 referendum, much of Westminster, the media and analysts have converged on a consensus that a no-deal Brexit would be utterly disastrous – while at the same time criticising Theresa May and her government for failing to adequately prepare for such an outcome.

There is little doubt that such an outcome would be highly disruptive. The Government this week warned that a no-deal scenario could leave Britain’s economy between 6-9% smaller over the next 15 years, with Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North East being the hardest hit. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) paints a similar picture, warning that a no-deal Brexit would plunge Britain’s economy into recession.

But Leavers don’t seem to have received the message or, if they have, simply don’t believe it. Indeed, one thing that Britain’s mainstream media have routinely glossed over are the considerable levels of support for a no-deal Brexit among the voters who will be central to determining the future fortunes of the Conservative Party. As my colleague Sir John Curtice has pointed out, for some time now, large numbers of Leavers, when presented with what they would like to happen next, favour a no-deal. In fact this is usually their preferred option. Most Leavers and Conservatives have always wanted a harder Brexit than that which is being pursued by most Tory MPs.

When Deltapoll recently presented voters with a long list of options for what could happen next, including a general election and second referendum, the most favoured option among Leavers was “refuse to make any more concessions with the EU and leave without a deal if necessary”. When Survation probed potential support for other alternatives, like a softer Norway-style deal that would keep the UK closely-aligned to EU markets, regulations and retain freedom of movement, once again most Leavers (60%) said they would prefer a no-deal Brexit. Then, only a few days ago, ComRes found that a striking 77% of Leavers feel that if the EU does not make any concessions then the UK should leave without a deal, a view shared by 67% of Conservatives.

Nor do these voters buy the claims made by the OECD, and similar, that a no-deal Brexit would be economically disastrous. The result of anchoring a succession of recent election campaigns in prophecies of economic armageddon is that the potency of this narrative has been seriously diluted. Even if forecasts about the effects of a no-deal Brexit are accurate, they are simply no longer seen as legitimate or credible by much of the public and most Leavers.

When asked whether a no-deal Brexit would result in a major recession, nearly seven in 10 Leavers and six in 10 Tories say they do not expect this to occur. Some commentators suggest that such voters are ignorant or stupid for failing to grasp the effects of a no-deal. But the scepticism of these voters does not exist in a vacuum. It has at least partly been shaped by the collective failure of our media to interrogate past forecasts that turned out to be inaccurate.

Meanwhile, only handfuls of Leavers and Conservatives support another thing that either MPs or Prime Minister will call for this week; an extension of Article 50, which quite plausibly could also pave the way for a second referendum. For the Conservative Party, a delay to Article 50 and/or second referendum would introduce massive electoral risks. Large majorities of their core Leaver and Conservative voters feel strongly opposed to both.

When asked what should happen if parliament were to reject May’s deal, only 8% of Leavers and 12% of Conservatives would favour a second public vote – a finding that is consistent with Opinion who found that fewer than one in five Leavers backed a fresh vote. Similarly, large majorities of both groups feel that it would be ‘unacceptable’ for Britain to delay its exit to hold a second referendum or election.

So the most likely outcomes in parliament will render Theresa May and her party increasingly unable to satisfy the demands of their core supporters. And this really matters for the Conservative Party given how its electorate has changed over the past two years.

The 2017 general election, aside from removing the Conservative Party’s majority, handed the party a following that is far more supportive of a harder Brexit than the one which handed David Cameron the keys to power in 2010 and 2015. As Theresa May scooped up votes from the working-class, non-graduates and ex-UKIP voters, in seats such as Mansfield or Stoke-on-Trent South, her party became more dependent on harder Leavers – most of these will doubtless be extremely disappointed by the events this week and increasingly open to a fresh rebellion against Westminster.

Some Conservatives and analysts think that the centre-Right party could offset these losses by regaining lost ground among the liberal middle-class or millennial students. I think that’s unlikely in the current environment, where Brexit has imposed a new dividing line and many of these pro-Remain voters perceive the Conservatives to be woefully incompetent.

This is why disillusioned Leavers could yet have even more profound effects on our party politics. It was, arguably, the marginalisation of these voters that ultimately brought us to this Brexit moment in the first place; a chunk of voters who felt abandoned by the pro-EU liberal consensus prior to 2010, who then defected to Nigel Farage and UKIP’s revolt between 2012 and 2014, then endorsed David Cameron’s promise in 2015 to cut down on net immigration and hold a referendum on EU membership, and then went on to tick the Leave box at the 2016 referendum.

The vote for Brexit was always rooted – at least partly – in a strong feeling among an alliance of Eurosceptic Conservatives and working-class voters that they were no longer being listened to and respected. Today, though, Britain risks returning back to where this Brexit story started, with Leavers concluding they are being marginalised by a political elite that seemingly has no real interest in shaking up the settlement. Cue the entrance of the Brexit Party or some other populist vehicle, with Britain back where it was circa 2012-2013.

The alternative – apathy – would also spell trouble for the Conservative Party. Disillusioned Leavers deciding to stay home would cause major problems in pro-Leave Tory seats where incumbent MPs are currently sitting on small majorities; seats such as Thurrock, St Ives, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Watford, Mansfield, Broxtowe, Amber Rudd’s seat of Hastings and Rye, Northampton North, Camborne and Redruth and Milton Keynes South.

This could all quite plausibly happen while the Conservative Party fails to win back ground among middle-class Remainers and Millennials, introducing something of a ‘perfect storm’ for the party come the next election – a failure not only to recapture territory lost to Labour but also a failure to retain support from a significant chunk of its core voters. Every election campaign is ultimately about trade-offs. But the new post-2017 reality of the Conservative Party is that it can simply no longer afford to alienate Leavers, even while the events of this week look certain to do so.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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