For Theresa May, Brexit was supposed to be an electoral elixir. It would justify her demand for a landslide majority and unite former Ukip voters behind the Conservatives. A divided Labour, meanwhile, would be squeezed by pro-Leave parties on one side and by the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats on the other. Jeremy Corbyn, it was said, would never be trusted to negotiate Brexit.
Early opinion polling appeared to confirm this analysis. Ukip’s collapse pushed the Conservatives’ vote share up to 50 per cent, while the Lib Dems gained at Labour’s expense. But more recent polls, all of which have shown a significant fall in the Tories’ lead, challenge this view.
The respects in which Brexit has helped, rather than hindered, Labour are now clearer. Though the bulk of 2015 Ukip voters have embraced the Tories, around 20 per cent have defected to Corbyn’s party. The supposed threat once posed to Labour in the north by Paul Nuttall’s party has evaporated. Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats have struggled to break through and may yet poll below the 7.9 per cent of the vote they received in 2015 (losing seats in the process).
Corbyn’s decision to vote for Article 50 and to oppose a second referendum was shrewder than pro-EU critics suggested. The Lib Dems’ distinctive stance has done them little good. Britain has seen a return to traditional two-party combat, which bodes well for Labour’s future.
On policy, Brexit has marginalised some issues, and magnified others, to Corbyn’s benefit. In 2015, the Conservatives opened a potent dividing line with Labour by pledging to eliminate the deficit by 2020. But Brexit, which led to the postponement of the target until 2025, has made it harder for the Tories to present themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility. The pound’s sharp depreciation, meanwhile, has led to a renewed living standards squeeze, depriving the Conservatives of the feel-good factor they enjoyed in 2015 (owing to low oil prices and rising wages).
At the last election, Labour was harmed by its opposition to an EU referendum and its confused stance on immigration. But Brexit has answered the former question and made the latter easier to address. “Free movement will end when we leave the EU,” Corbyn replies when challenged on immigration. Having vowed to acquire significant control over migration, the Tories have been left struggling to explain where the cuts would fall. Brexit, as I have written before, has forced cabinet ministers to acknowledge that Britain needs immigrants.
Though formal negotiations are due to begin just 11 days after the election, the specifics of EU withdrawal have been little discussed. Rather, the focus has returned to issues such as the NHS and education, where Labour is strongest. As the referendum demonstrated, there is a large electoral appetite for populist offers such as “£350m a week” for the health service. Corbyn’s interventionist manifesto, which promises the abolition of tuition fees, universal free school meals and the renationalisation of the railways, is well-crafted for a country “taking back control.” This is a collectivist moment, not an individualist one.
Yet Labour’s task on 8 June remains a forbidding one. The mass defection of Ukippers has helped keep up the Tories’ vote share above 40 per cent. Even if Labour matches the 35 per cent of the vote secured by Tony Blair in 2005 it may fall short of victory. Most of the party’s candidates continue to expect a comfortable Conservative majority. But as the campaign has shown, Brexit creates opportunities, not just risks, for Labour.