Plunging opinion polls are not the Conservatives’ biggest problem

Plunging opinion polls are not the Conservatives’ biggest problem

Alice was introduced to the concept of an unbirthday party at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. By close analogy, let me introduce you to the concept of an unBrexit day. We have had rather more of these than might have been expected at the beginning of the year, with two, on 29 March and 12 April, being especially memorable events. We look set to have many more unBrexit days in the coming months and there is no guarantee that the current longstop date of 31 October will not be pushed back further.

This surfeit of unBrexit days has driven Leavers, like the hatter, mad. This has not been to the benefit of the government. The Conservatives’ poll ratings have taken a ski jump in recent weeks.  They don’t look to have landed yet and when they do it looks likely to be in an ungainly heap.

This would not matter particularly in the normal scheme of things. Governments are prone to suffer from mid-term unpopularity. So long as the government can turn things around in time for the next election, current opinion polls would be of little interest.

The Conservatives have a much bigger problem, which it is that it is difficult to see how they could turn this around. Far from the polls masking underlying strengths, if anything they have only just caught up with underlying weaknesses.

The Conservatives fought the last election in large part on delivering Brexit. Their voter base then saw itself as being on a promise. However, that promise has turned out to be easier to make than deliver, with different groups in the Conservative party having a radically different view of what that promise entailed – and in any case they did not command a Parliamentary majority even collectively.  

The Conservative party has now split into at least five component parts: Remain resisters, Remain reconstructors, government loyalists, moveable Leavers and purist Leavers. Theresa May failed, despite repeated attempts, to get them to work together.

All of them are now furious with at least two of the other groups (and in some cases all four).  Some MPs have already left the party and some at each end of the spectrum are more or less openly considering their options. All party discipline has broken down.

So the Conservatives simultaneously face a huge failure on a policy that was central to their manifesto (with the potential to be student fees on steroids) and a collapse of their internal coalition. The two are locked in a negative feedback loop: attempting to deliver Brexit undermines the internal coalition and the collapsed coalition makes delivering Brexit so much harder.

How could they solve this problem? They could try to put Brexit in the rear view mirror. That would almost certainly lead to further breakages within the Conservative party in the short term. If the end resolution were not too damaging, however, they could hope that time would heal wounds.

There are only a few problems with that idea. There is presently no approach to Brexit that commands a majority in the House of Commons.  One cannot simply be magicked up. Neither the Remain resisters nor the purist Leavers look ready to back down in relation to Theresa May’s deal (and nor does the DUP).  

Theresa May has to date done her best to stop a majority forming around a different option. She had good reason to (though it betrayed an inability to count). Any different option is going to cause still greater dissent in the Conservative party.  

Many moveable Leavers moved with the greatest reluctance. A deal based around a permanent customs union, in accordance with Labour’s policy position, or with a fresh referendum attached, in accordance with Labour members’ wishes, is going to make them incandescent.  

Ditto any of the softer versions of Brexit contemplated in the indicative votes. Perhaps the damage would be worth it for the prize of securing Brexit. That damage would, however, almost certainly include the shearing-off of a chunk of MPs, quite possibly to join Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

That also assumes that such a change of tack would work.  Labour have no incentive now to help Theresa May – the opposite. From their viewpoint the government’s inability to deliver its promise to its voters is an immensely valuable gift. Why on earth would they give it away again? Given that, my strong expectation is that some insurmountable stumbling block will be found to a cross-party deal. Labour are going to want to leave the Conservatives impaled on their own policy.

Theresa May could try to work with Parliamentarians rather than with the Labour front bench. There are two problems with this idea. First, Theresa May’s past wilful obstructiveness will have left them with no trust at all in her. She is going to have to work extra-hard to put together a deal with them. Secondly, and more importantly, their preferred deal is going to be still closer to a Remain outcome than anything the Labour leadership outwardly aspires to.

Assuming the Conservatives can conjure a Brexit outcome that does not smash their party to smithereens, the Conservatives then need to pray that it will get public acquiescence. That looks doubtful. At least a quarter of the population yearns for Fortress Britannia. At least a third of the population would sign up for the Euro. The country is getting steadily more polarised. It is likely to be getting steadily less inclined to compromise.

Those former Conservative voters who care most about Brexit are currently decamping to UKIP and the Brexit party. They are going to need a good reason to return. On the Mohs scale of Brexit, they’re looking for a minimum hardness of quartz and are not going to settle for talcum powder or gypsum. Does anyone think they’re going to get what they want?

If they did, the Conservatives would be blamed by the unconvinced for every single piece of disruption caused by Brexit. That would be one hell of a gamble to take. Fortunately for the Conservatives, they don’t have the numbers in Parliament to take it.

MPs, however, are focussing most on who succeeds Theresa May. That is the least of their problems right now. Since the new leader would face all the same problems (and would no doubt be penned in by campaign commitments), a successful resolution to their problems would look just as unlikely as under Theresa May.

From all this we can deduce two things. First, since any resolution of Brexit would fracture the Conservatives still further, any leader of the Conservatives is probably going to decide to keep pushing the moment of truth back. And secondly, the Conservatives look set to languish in the polls for quite some time.

All of which explains why I’m continuing to bet against the Conservatives winning most seats. What is their route back with their disaffected former voters? Right now, I don’t see one.

Alastair Meeks

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