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14 June 2017

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

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

By Julia Rampen

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.

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“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.