Are the Conservatives under threat electorally if they implement a soft Brexit? That’s the claim that a number of pro-Brexit commentators are making and it is part of why a series of MPs in marginal seats – including most recently Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield – have quit their posts at the foothills of the government.
The academic Matthew Goodwin has also sounded a note of warning, telling Conservative MPs that they run the risk of losing Leave voters, either through defection or abstention, from a “soft sell-out deal”.
Is this fear true? It is certainly true that the Conservatives are only in office thanks to Leave voters. Their “small town firewall” of Swindon, Stafford, Nuneaton and so on, which also prevented them from being truly embarrassed in the local elections this year, are why Theresa May is in Downing Street and not Jeremy Corbyn.
But I am not convinced that a “soft” (or “sell-out” if that’s your thing) deal is necessarily that big of a problem. Ask yourself a simple question: imagine that you are the average Leave voter: i.e., you are a retired 60something living in a small town without much immigration. What does a “sell-out” Brexit look like to you? Indeed, what does a “successful” Brexit look like to you?
Focus groups consistently show that it means very little to do with the institutional relationship the United Kingdom has with the European Union: the big priorities are more and better jobs (for their children and grandchildren), control over immigration and crucially delivering on the promise of £350m extra a week for the NHS. This is why the planned spending increase to the health service is so important for the success of Brexit as a political project, and by extension the party who are identified with it (i.e. the Tories).
So it’s not clear to me how, if you are a Leave voter, anything in May’s Chequers proposals is going to immediately spell “sell-out” to you. And indeed it is not clear to me full-stop how a soft Brexit makes itself felt on the day-to-day life of the average Leave voter.
What Leave voters will actually base their impression of how Brexit has worked out will be cues from trusted members of the political elite, or, in other words, from prominent politicians, media outlets and public figures who backed a Leave vote.
Which puts the Conservatives in a difficult position. You can see how it is in the interests of both the present government and the Labour leadership to broadly declare May’s soft deal a satisfactory resolution of the Brexit issue so they can fight the next election on a platform of “Isn’t Corbyn awful?” and “Our economic model is broken” respectively rather than having to focus on the European Union. But it is not in the interests of many individual politicians in both parties, let alone other political actors.
If you are Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg you want to have a continued political existence as the face of “real Brexit”. If you are the Telegraph you want to outflank your rivals among the pro-Brexit press.
There is an interesting countervailing force here which may help the Conservatives: voters also take their cues from publications, public figures and politicians they don’t like, and enough pro-Remain public figures will be loudly disappointed that it may bail out May’s deal.
But whatever deal Theresa May strikes, enough people will have an interest in describing it as a “betrayal” or a disappointment for the detail to be irrelevant. Which is an electoral problem for the Conservative Party, but it does at least free her from worrying about whether the policy detail is an electoral drag.