Expert View

Middle classes and business balk at Tories’ Brexit mess

by Peter Kellner | 01.10.2018

Peter Kellner is former president of YouGov.

The Conservatives are facing a middle-class electoral crisis thanks to Brexit, new YouGov polling has revealed.

In last year’s election, middle-class support for the Tories stalled. As a result, they lost seats, especially in Remain-voting constituencies. Since then it has dropped a further five points, from 44% to 39%. This should terrify a party whose support among ABC1 voters (white collar workers, generally with more education and higher paid jobs) never fell below 50% before the Blair landslide in 1997.

This is not all. Fears about Brexit are now acute among the men and women at the heart of wealth-creation in the UK’s economy: middle-class workers in the private sector.

ABC1 employees in the private sector are more anti-Brexit than workers generally, favouring staying in the EU by 61-39%, a new YouGov poll showed. And if we look at the narrower group of senior staff with professional and managerial jobs in private companies, the gap widens further, to 63-37%.

The UK’s middle-class private sector workers are also appalled by the way the Brexit talks are going. 86% of them think the Brexit process has been a mess. By three-to-one, they think Brexit will weaken rather than strengthen the economy

If their Brexit strategy goes wrong this autumn, the Conservatives risk a lasting rupture with their natural allies – the very people that have sustained them in power for so much of the past century. There is a way out, however. Of those who take sides, 61% want a public vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

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The party of business?

This is just the latest research to add to Tory woes. Last week another YouGov study questioning 1,000 directors and senior directors of the UK’s private sector businesses revealed that 59% now back staying in the EU while only 41% back leaving.

Large or small businesses, those running them tended against Brexit. The most marked differences are between businesses exporting to the EU and those that do not.

  • Those which had no trade with the EU were split 50-50
  • Those whose EU sales form a small part of their turnover (less than 10%) are split 58-42% in favour of staying
  • But when more than 10% of sales were exported to the EU, it was 70-30% in favour of staying.

This is bad news for the government if they can’t do a deal that really does preserve frictionless trade across the Channel.

But there is worse news still. When asked if the Conservatives were pursuing Brexit policies that “increase prosperity and help well-run businesses”, just 31% of business leaders say they are, while more than twice as many, 69%, say they are not.

In his speech today to the Conservative Party conference, Philip Hammond said: “The Conservative Party is, and always will be, the party of business. That means we listen to business.”

To which the verdict of the great majority of the UK’s directors and executives is: “no you don’t”.

On the few occasions in its history when the Conservative party has not just lost power but been roundly thrashed, it has been when wealth-creators and ideologues have fought each other: over the Corn Laws in the 1840s, imperial preference in the 1900s and the EU in the 1990s. Each of these internal splits led to ten years or more in the wilderness.

Today’s Conservatives must conclude the Brexit drama in a way that repairs their relations with the UK’s business leaders, and recovers the confidence of their natural supporters – middle-class employees in the private sector. If they can’t, then they risk not only defeat at the next election, but for at least a decade after that.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Middle classes and business balk at Tories’ Brexit mess”

  • The conservatives lost power after the spate of privatizations when Tony Blair came to power (and disappointed many by cheerfully privatizing some more). It occurs when the conservatives let ideology run away with their common sense. As is at present clearly happening again on a major scale.

  • May is reported to be setting out her immigration policy today, highlighting cuts in unskilled workers coming to the UK. How many business owners are going to kiss goodbye to their firms in consequence? Hospitality and catering, care for the elderly, many farmers in the fruit and vegetable sector are all going to be hit.
    The UK birth rate has been below replacement rate for 45 years now. Were it not for immigration we would by now probably have a shrinking work force, and be facing a real demographic crisis as the baby boomers start to retire and age. Who is going to actually do the work?