You can see it now: the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, prompting the Conservatives to pledge to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) after the next election. It’ll be the issue that wins over disaffected Leavers and defies forecasts of a Labour victory. It will be Brexit 2.0: the empire strikes back.
This might sound plausible (even to opponents of the Rwanda plan) but there’s a hitch: it’s a strategy divorced from the median voter. In 2016, immigration led polls as the defining issue for most people and, consequently, Leave won the referendum. In 2019, Brexit was the priority as voters craved an end to the interminable saga of leaving the EU. As a result, Labour was cast aside as it tried – and failed – to change the subject.
Showdowns on Rwanda, refugees, immigration – and the ECHR – are not at the top of the agenda for most voters. Differences in opinion in marginal seats is currently negligible. It wasn’t quite as negligible as before partygate, when Boris Johnson was more favoured than Keir Starmer, but the scandals eradicated this advantage. That isn’t to say most voters don’t have an opinion on immigration and related matters, but it isn’t as motivating as it was in 2016, or the 2015 or 2010 elections.
Strategies for reopening the Europe debate increasingly fail to grasp just how marginal it has become. Britons might want to talk about Europe one day, but not this day. There are far more important and immediate issues to discuss: such as the cost-of-living crisis, or the permanent crisis in public services. Labour’s own supporters are split on whether there should be a second referendum on EU membership this year. And on having one in the next five years? The country, likewise, is split.
The politics of the past two years have rapidly reshaped the Leave/Remain divide: the median voter is now something less politically defined – exhausted. This is why we saw Labour advance in Leave-voting areas by just as much as it did in Remain-voting ones at the 2023 local elections. It’s why safe Tory shires could swing to the same degree as marginals. (There is cause to think this will change when the Tory base rallies for the general elections. But there’s also evidence to suggest it won’t.)
Attempting to refocus the political debate away from the cost-of-living crisis towards more contentious Leave/Remain territory won’t work, or rather won’t have as much sway with voters as some think. Strategists would be pitching at a country that’s after something else, something a little more concrete: stability. Leavers prioritise the cost of living, so too do Remainers. And while immigration sits higher up the agenda for Leavers, campaigning hard on it, or the ECHR, or whatever David Frost writes about next, is not going to prevent a heavy swing against the Tories at the next election.