A lot of attention is being given to an eye-raising YouGov poll of the Conservative party membership which shows they would prefer Brexit to happen even if it meant the end of the United Kingdom, the death of the Conservative party, or the return of cholera to British streets. (I made that last one up.)
Faced with a series of dire trade-offs, large majorities of Conservative party activists say they would be willing to stomach economic harm, an independent Scotland, a united Ireland or even the break-up of the Tory party itself if it means Brexit goes ahead. There is just one eventuality that makes Conservative activists think better of Brexit: if it means that Jeremy Corbyn ends up in Downing Street.
It’s being taken as a sign that the Conservative party is chock full of diehard Brexiteers who would rather see their own families skinned and eaten than abandon Brexit. But the actual findings are more complicated than that.
YouGov’s polls of party members are consistently reliable and there are good reasons to give these polls more credence than regular polls, as many of the factors that make regular polling – a difficulty in finding enough non-politically engaged people, accurately gauging turnout – so difficult do not apply.
They are a reminder of the story throughout the polls, which is that for most voters, their referendum vote is more important than their party one. The challenge for the Conservative party is that to win an election they have to have a Brexit position that retains and wins back the Leave voters who backed them in 2017: while finding a way to broaden the geographic and political breadth of their 2017 coalition, which was insufficient to win a parliamentary majority.
There are two tedious clichés that get exchanged in the Brexit debate. The first is that “nobody voted to be poorer”, and the second is that “Leave voters knew what they voted for”. There are a variety of problems with the “no-one voted to be poorer” line. The first is that, of course, people vote to be worse off all the time. Some people earning in excess of £70,000 voted in 2017 for a Labour party pledging to put their taxes up. People in receipt of in-work benefits voted in 2015 for a Conservative Party promising to cut them. The second is that most people who voted to leave did not believe they were voting to make themselves poorer, and still don’t. The Conservatives’ 2015 election victory is instructive here: people happily voted for welfare cuts in 2015 and then very rapidly turned against the idea when George Osborne attempted to take away their welfare. The poll tax, which ended Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was written in black and white in the 1987 manifesto and was used as a talking point to excoriate the wastefulness of leftwing councils.
The problem with the “Leave voters knew what they voted for” line is essentially the same: history is littered with people voting for things that they like in theory, or, or don’t believe, or haven’t really understood and then opposing them when they are presented with the reality.
The crucial thing about this poll of Conservative members, as we know from every survey of Tory party activists and indeed any conversation with Conservative activists or MPs, is that they don’t believe that Brexit will lead to economic catastrophe, or the break-up of the United Kingdom. It should be taken about as seriously as me saying I would pay £100 for a film of the critically acclaimed sitcom Community: it’s a sign that I enjoyed the programme and am greatly invested in it, but by no means a guarantee that if the show’s producer turned up with a begging bowl tomorrow I would chuck 100 quid in it.
What is striking in this poll is that the one thing that Conservative activists actually believe might happen as a result of Brexit – a victory by Jeremy Corbyn – is the one thing that they would sacrifice Brexit for.
That suggests that far from being an implacable mass of frothing Brexiteers who will crown Boris Johnson no matter what there is room for an astute campaign to spring an upset if they can successfully prosecute the argument that Johnson’s Brexit plans mean an election that the party would lose. But that would require capabilities that, so far, have been in short supply.