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For the Tories, this was the Brexit election – and Brexit won

Theresa May attracted Leave voters, but lost Remain Tories at the same time. 

Speaking in Nottinghamshire at the start of the 2017 election campaign, Theresa May declared that Brexit was an opportunity “to build a stronger, fairer, better Britain”. She continued: “Conservatives in government will get on with the job of delivering Brexit.”

Voters listened. At least, a significant proportion of Leave voters did. According to analysis of ICM polls by the pollster John Curtice, a senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research, at the start of the campaign, 53 per cent of Leave voters planned to vote Conservative. At the end of the campaign, 58 per cent did.

In Curtice’s analysis of constituencies where less than a quarter of voters backed Brexit, the Conservatives saw their average change in vote share slip by 2 percentage points. By contrast, in constituencies where more than half of voters backed Brexit, the Tories enjoyed an average vote share increase of 10 percentage points.

Lord Ashcroft’s polling, too, shows a six percentage point fall in support for the Tories among Remain voters, compared to 2015, but a 14 percentage point boost from those who backed Leave (the comparative boost for Labour was five points).

Curtice told me the election “was more Brexit than you might imagine at first glance”, although he believed Labour and its popular manifesto also played an important part in changing the tone of the debate.

“It is more clearly so on the Conservative side than Labour,” he said of the Brexit theme. “Labour was taking ground amongst Leave voters – it just wasn’t taking so much ground.”

Crucially, the beleaguered Tory leader Theresa May lived up to one part of her promise – that she would turn blue-collar voters into blue-party supporters as well. According to Curtice’s constituency analysis, in seats where less than a quarter of voters were professionals or managers, the Ukip collapse meant there was an average increase in vote share to the Conservatives of eight percentage points, but only a 2.4 percentage point increase for Labour.

By contrast, in seats dominated by this better off group, Labour was the bigger beneficiary. The Ashcroft Polls also show Conservative support slipping among the AB income group, but growing most significantly among C2 and DEs.

If Labour and the Tories seem to be playing swapsies with their voter bases, there is an explanation – age. Curtice estimates up to two thirds of young voters chose Labour: “Age is important in a way it has never been before.” It has, he believes, replaced class as the key determinant of how someone will vote. Young voters were also the most likely to vote Remain.

So what does this mean for the new parliament? The Brexit case has been made and unmade. Made, by the fact May now relies on a diminished Tory party supported by Leave voters, which explains why she has appointed Steve Baker, up until now mainly known for his arch-Leave WhatsApp group, a Brexit minister. And yet also unmade by the defection of Tory Remain voters expected to put up and shut up rather than accept the previously unpopular Jeremy Corbyn.  

The data we have so far on the election result is torchlight in the dark, rather than microscopic vision (much of Curtice’s analysis is based on polls conducted throughout the campaign), but nevertheless it suggests that the divisions created by Brexit will haunt this parliament, or - if the internal Tory contradictions prove too much for May to govern - the next.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear