The Tory rank and file wants Brexit and it wants it to be as hard as possible, is the predictable result of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project’s latest survey of Conservative Party activists. Large majorities are in favour of a no-deal Brexit and just 14 per cent would support a second referendum in the event that Theresa May’s deal is voted down.
As is so often the case, the useful thing about this survey is that it quantifies what we already know: that the Tory party grassroots are committed to Brexit, and that most simply don’t believe that an unnegotiated exit would trigger economic harm.
More importantly is that it tells us how much Conservative members care. Labour members are overwhelmingly pro-European, but they have been consistently willing to prioritise other issues over Europe. In 2015 they voted for Jeremy Corbyn by an overwhelming margin, despite him saying that he had not “closed his mind” to voting for Brexit. In 2016, they again voted heavily for Corbyn running on an explicitly pro-Brexit ticket against a second referendum supporter in Owen Smith. In the 2018 elections to the National Executive Committee elections, most Labour activists did not vote, and those who did voted for the Momentum slate, which ran on an explicit platform of giving Corbyn free rein in all decisions on the NEC.
Before this polling, we couldn’t be sure that Tory members would put Brexit first: when Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the last Tory leadership race, Theresa May, a Remainer, was well ahead of her as far as YouGov’s surveys of Tory members are concerned.
And, true, the polls are not always right.
But we can be a lot more confident about opinion polls of party members because many of the overall trends making it harder to poll people accurately do not apply. It doesn’t matter if your opinion poll sample contains too many politicised people and too many people who are certain to vote: party members are politicised people who are, for the most part, near certain to vote in general elections.
But we do now know that 75 per cent of Conservative activists declare that Brexit is their single most important issue. Again, this is what we’d expect given the behaviour of Tory MPs in parliament. By my count, among Conservative MPs planning to vote against Theresa May’s deal, one in ten is doing so not because they dislike the deal but because they fear what their members will do to them if they don’t. We also know that the pro-Brexit sentiments of the Tory rank and file underpins the decisions of several contenders in the party’s next leadership race.
It provides further confirmation of the difficulty of securing a second referendum in this parliament. We know that a substantial minority of Labour MPs would vote against one even if Jeremy Corbyn were to whip in favour of it, which is in and of itself a pretty big “if”. We know that most Conservative MPs would vote against one even if the government were to facilitate it. We know, too, that unless the executive facilitates the passage of a referendum bill then it won’t happen.
What this poll confirms is that supporting a second referendum means the end of any Conservative with ambitions to lead the party. That makes it very, very hard to see how a Tory-led government would ever facilitate one – or how it could survive long enough to pass it.