Brexit is a far bigger problem than the Conservative Party realises

As a result of Brexit, many people who voted Tory in 2015 did not vote for them in 2017, and won't in 2022 either. 

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Why did the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority? The party has correctly identified most of its problems: that it lost ground with the socially liberal, with affluent ethnic minorities, and with voters aged under 55, and that it suffered as a result of growing political resistance to austerity , particularly the public sector pay freeze and the planned cuts to school budgets.

Not all of the proposed solutions look likely to be effective, but the party can at least comfort itself that it is looking in the right place. But there’s another problem that the party struggles to articulate out loud: it was essentially absent from the party’s numerous post-mortems. That problem is Brexit.

Brexit means that a large number of people who voted Conservative in 2015 did not vote for them in 2017. Yes, the Conservatives got many more votes than they received in 2015, but the British electoral system isn’t about vote share. It’s about how many constituencies you win. As Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative peer and Brexiteer concludes in his excellent book The Lost Majority, the votes that the Tories gained from leavers were predominantly useless under first past the post.

(A good illustration of the problem: the Conservatives gained 7,000 extra votes, predominantly from people who voted Leave, in Iain Austin’s Dudley North seat, but fell short of winning it by 22 votes. They lost 2,000 votes in Kensington, predominantly among people who voted to Remain – and lost the seat by 20 votes.)

Brexit lost the Conservatives’ votes in two ways: firstly, it lost them votes because the Leave vote had decreased the strength of the pound against the Euro and the dollar. This is great news if you are a business that sells to the European Union or the United States, as the money you make abroad now goes further at home. This is bad news if you are a household which buys good from the European Union. As businesses don’t have votes, but households do, this is obviously a problem, electorally speaking.

More importantly, it lose them votes among Remain voters who hadn’t lost out because of the Brexit vote but for whom the issue was a proxy for a wider cultural divide. One of the things people get wrong about Labour and the Remain vote is that the bulk of people who voted for Cameron in 2015, Remain in 2016 and Corbyn in 2017 don’t have a particular affection for the treaties of the European Union – their relationship to the EU speaks to a wider sense of who they are.  That shifting vote proved instrumental in seats the Conservatives failed to win, like Wirral South, and ones they lost, like Brighton Kemptown.

That element is also fundamentally misunderstood by people who talk about Brexit being “over” by March 2019. As I’ve written before, Nafta, an American trade deal largely agreed to have been successfully by economists, and agreed in principle before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a vote-moving issue in the Democratic primaries and the general election in 2016. Brexit will not lose its cultural power to damage Conservative standing with people who backed a Remain vote, who are a larger chunk of the electorate during elections as they are more likely to vote, and they are also the chunk of the electorate that is going to get bigger, not smaller, as time passes.

And even a successful Brexit will create winners and losers. Not every winner will thank the Conservative Party but you can be certain that almost every loser will blame them.

In any case, the Conservatives’ cultural problem isn’t going to go away if Brexit is a success. But what if it’s a failure? The cultural opposition to Brexit among Remainers means that if a slowdown in Japan causes the next recession, Britain’s Leave vote, and by extension the government that did it, will be blamed. If the next recession actually is caused by Britain’s Leave vote, not only will opposition to the government among Remainers increase, but Leave voters aren’t going to blame their vote for it. They will blame the government’s handling of it.

Whatever happens, to win a stable majority, the Conservatives are going to have win more votes from people who backed a Remain vote in 2016. Not only do they have precious few solutions – most of the party isn’t even aware they need one.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.