Leader: Lord Ashcroft’s public service

In the demonology of the left, Michael Ashcroft ranks somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. The Conservative peer is still loathed by many as the man who sought, in the words of Peter Mandelson, to “steal the election” in 2010 for David Cameron. Yet since standing down as deputy Tory chairman that year, the self-made billionaire, profiled by Andrew Gimson on page 30, has emerged as a complex figure who defies easy caricature.

A prolific pollster, Lord Ashcroft has published detailed research in the past year on Ukip, the Labour Party, the Corby by-election and the lack of support for the Conservatives among ethnic minorities. Rather than reserving his findings for his own party, he makes them freely available on his website. As he wrote in the introduction to It’s Not You, It’s Them, a recent collection of his psephology, he publishes his research because he likes “to offer new evidence as to how voters see things, and to provoke discussion and debate”. It is a public service for which all parties are grateful.

With a better understanding of voters’ opinions than most elected politicians, the peer now specialises in delivering uncomfortable truths to the Tories. On the day Mr Cameron made his promise of an EU referendum, he warned that Europe “barely registers” on the public’s list of concerns and that it was time to “move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss”. During last year’s Conservative conference, he denounced a poster featuring the slogan “Labour isn’t learning” as “daft” and “juvenile”.

Besides serving as the nation’s pollster-in-chief, he funds ConservativeHome, the website edited by Tim Montgomerie, the non-partisan PoliticsHome and Biteback Publishing, which issues many good books from both left and right. While those Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates who fell victim to his marginal seats operation may never forgive him, he remains a businessman dedicated to reminding politicians that, however much they might wish otherwise, they cannot dissolve the people.

 

Michael Ashcroft. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.