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27 April 2017

The problem with Theresa May’s Brexit message is that it isn’t true

By refusing to come clean with the public, Theresa May is storing up Blair levels of disillusionment for the future.

By Stephen Bush

You can get an idea of how low-wattage the election is so far from the amount of attention being paid to Boris Johnson, who has returned to the scene, not to talk about the ongoing tensions between the United States and North Korea, but to call Jeremy Corbyn a “mutton-headed mugwump” in a column for the Sun

It’s the classic Johnson gambit – a colourful way of appearing to be off-message while reinforcing the central message of the Conservative campaign: that this is an election about Brexit, and that the bigger the majority, the greater the chances that Britain will get a good Brexit deal.

It has the added benefit of punching Labour’s biggest bruise: the thumping lead that Theresa May enjoys over Jeremy Corbyn as Britain’s preferred Prime Minister. IpsosMori, Britain’s oldest pollster, have a poll that sums up the scale of May’s advantage: she’s currently the most popular PM we’ve had since IpsosMori started polling: more popular than even than Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair at the peak of their powers. “Poll: May most popular leader in FORTY years” is the Metro‘s splash. And all of the evidence suggests that it is working, with the Tory lead extending since the election was called.

There’s just one small problem, really: May’s message isn’t true. EU leaders feel the same way about other people’s elections as most people do about other people’s pets or children: they’ll try to accommodate them, sure. But ultimately, they take a distant back seat to their own. There is not a Brexit dividend to be unlocked simply through getting a bigger Conservative majority. Whether May’s majority is one, ten or 100, she will face the same trade-offs and the same partners with the same incentives.

There is a bit of excitement this morning about the fact that the Times/YouGov tracker shows that more people (45%) say that Brexit is not working than say it is working (42%). The truth is that the margin of error in all polls is plus or minus three, so that shouldn’t be seen as anything more than noise. Every other poll and focus group shows that the bulk of people still have sky-high expectations of Britain’s Brexit deal.

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Brexit may be a success, but it will involve concessions to our partners in the EU and won’t be the cure-all that many people who voted to Leave believe that it will. By refusing to level with the public, May is storing up late-period Blair levels of disillusionment for the future. Not that it matters as far as she is concerned; if the polls are to be believed and I see no reason to disbelieve them, she’s headed for a win that means the next time the Opposition could even hope to competitive will be 2027 – by which time she’ll be 71 and likely contemplating retirement and the speakers’ circuit.

But if you look at everything that’s happened to Labour since their promise to have “ended boom and bust”, her successors at the top of the Tory party will live to regret her lack of candour.