On the morning of 24 June 2016, Brexit opponents heralded the birth of a new movement: “the 48 per cent”. Those who voted Remain in the EU referendum would seek to block withdrawal or at least secure the softest version.
Almost a year on, Theresa May is pursuing a “hard Brexit” (the Prime Minister prefers “clean”) and is on course to secure a landslide election victory. But Remainers hope that tactical voting by “the 48 per cent” against anti-EU candidates could yet thwart the Conservatives. Their ambitions, however, are likely to be disappointed. The truth, which few have recognised, is that “the 48 per cent” no longer exist.
After voting Remain, they ceased to act as a unified political bloc. The crucial figure for understanding May’s decision to pursue Brexit is not “the 48 per cent” or “the 52 per cent” but the 69 per cent – the number who believe the government has a duty to leave the EU (more than a third of whom voted Remain). A mere 21 per cent agree that the government should either block Brexit or seek to prevent it through a second referendum.
“The 48 per cent” are not even united on the desirability of a “soft Brexit”. Only 24 per cent, according to YouGov polling, believe it is more important to enjoy tariff-free trade with the EU than it is to control immigration (16 per cent believe the reverse, while 40 per cent, like Boris Johnson, want to have their cake and eat it). Fifty two per cent believe May’s proposed Brexit deal would be “good for Britain” (only 22 per cent believe it would be bad) and 61 per cent believe it “respects the referendum” (only 11 per cent believe it does not). Far from believing the government has no mandate for a “hard Brexit”, 64 per cent believe this version respects the vote and only 12 per cent believe it does not. Finally, 55 per cent support May’s assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, while only 24 per cent oppose this stance.
The Richmond by-election last year, where the pro-Brexit Zac Goldsmith was defeated by the anti-Brexit Lib Dems, was cited by some in favour of a “48 per cent strategy”. But by-elections are rarely a reliable guide to general elections and the south London seat, where 69 per cent voted Remain, is highly atypical. Only 35 per cent of parliamentary constituencies backed Remain and even fewer would do so now.
Politics, of course, is about leading opinion, not following it. But to grasp their predicament, Remainers most recognise that they enjoy the support not of “the 48 per cent” but “the 25 per cent”. These figures help explain why the Conservatives enjoy a mammoth poll lead (leading among Remainers in yesterday’s ICM poll), why the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats have not surged and why promising a second referendum would not be an electoral panacea for Labour or a new party. At Labour’s general election campaign launch earlier today, Jeremy Corbyn stated: “This election isn’t about Brexit itself. That issue has been settled.” Based on the polling, it is hard to argue with him.
The UK has barely begun negotiating its departure from the EU and few economic consequences have been felt. But as long as Remainers speak as if there is a nascent “progressive majority” built on “the 48 per cent”, they will repeat the very mistake that led to Brexit: misreading the electorate.