Expert View

Tory Brexiters shouldn’t get giddy from success at polls

by Peter Kellner | 21.05.2018

Peter Kellner is former president of YouGov.

Following this month’s local elections, pro-Brexit Conservatives have been adding to the pressure on Theresa May to take a hard line on Brexit. They say the Tories scaled new peaks in strong Leave areas, polarising the electorate more than ever. Therefore, the government needs to stand firm on such issues as the customs union, otherwise many Tory voters will be furious and desert the party at the next general election.

Here are two reasons why they are wrong.

1. The results suggest a more complex picture than that painted by strong Brexiteers.

The best analysis so far is by John Curtice on the What the UK Thinks website. When Curtice compares the results with 2014, the last time comparable elections were held, the Conservatives did indeed tend to gain support most where the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was highest.

There is a simple explanation: these were the areas where Ukip was strongest four years ago. Ukip’s collapse has helped the Tories most. (Note, however, that there are exceptions: Labour gained Plymouth, a Leave-voting city.)

However, the story is different in the 52 parliamentary constituencies where this month’s local elections can be directly compared with last year’s general election. By then, Ukip’s support had collapsed. By comparing this month’s results with last June’s. we remove the Ukip factor. When we do that, we find that Tory support has actually held up better over the past year in Remain-voting areas than Leave-voting areas.

In short, there is no evidence that the recent Brexit negotiations, with Theresa May’s commitment to leave the Customs Union, have increased Conservative support among Leave voters. If anything, the trend is in the opposite direction. So the hardliners’ analysis of the local election results is wide of the mark.

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2. Tory Brexiters’ strategy for the weeks ahead is also flawed.

Unless a crisis this autumn provokes an election before next March (in which case all bets are off) we shall next decide who governs Britain once today’s controversies have long been settled – whether we end up leaving the EU or decide not to.

If that is the case, then voters will be judging the Conservatives not on the details of the customs union and the single market, but whether the government has delivered higher living standards and better public services.

To be sure, if Brexit has happened, some passionate Leave voters will be delighted to have severed links with the EU, however bad the consequences for daily life. But most voters are pragmatic. They stay loyal to policies that work, not those that fail.

To take just one example from recent history: Britons backed the Iraq war in 2003 by two-to-one when Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Within months, those figures were reversed when Iraq descended into chaos and weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise.

All this poses an acute question today to those Conservative MPs who fear that the Treasury, the CBI, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and many others are right: that whatever the precise numbers, Brexit will be bad for Britain’s economy and public finances – and the harder the Brexit, the worse the outcome.

These MPs need to decide now whether they prefer to fight the next election:

a) having prevented a hard Brexit, saying: “We have acted to protect jobs, living standards and public services, and the figures show we have succeeded” or…

b) having imposed a hard Brexit, saying: “Sorry the NHS is crumbling, living standards are down and taxes are up; but we have kept our promise to leave the EU completely”

Good luck to those Tory MPs who plump for the second option.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “Tory Brexiters shouldn’t get giddy from success at polls”

  • One overlooked element in all of this. Registered voters resident outside the UK are able to vote in a general election but not in the local elections. Assuming they are overwhelmingly remain, this could make a considerable difference to the outcome in some electorates where if could not have done so this month.