The Conservative party is in turmoil. Just 32% of Conservative MPs who do not currently hold a government job voted for the government’s Brexit deal. Unless the competing factions of the party can be reconciled, this risks not merely making the Prime Minister’s life uncomfortable, but also splintering her party.
Yet taking a step back and looking at British politics through the lens of public opinion, it is, on one level, hard to see why Theresa May is in difficulty at all. The Conservative Party, if not in rude health, has certainly seen worse days.
Headline voting intention stubbornly puts the Conservative and Labour parties in a near-statistical tie. Public perceptions of Theresa May consistently outrank those of Jeremy Corbyn.
The government’s approval rating looks more like a case of mid-term blues than a party on the verge of collapse.
This is because the Conservative Party’s existential crisis is primarily internal. The likelihood of a split is exacerbated not just by the sheer numbers on each side of the Tory Brexit divide, but its nature.
On Brexit, the instincts of the party’s 124,000 members and 330 MPs run counter to those who have, for the last fifteen years, run the Conservative Party. The views of members and MPs appear irreconcilable with what will be needed in a deal that could command a majority in parliament.
Take first the members of the Conservative Party. 75% of these say Brexit is the key issue facing British politics. As Tim Bale, Monica Poletti and Paul Webb outline in this report, the overwhelming majority of members are intensely relaxed about the prospect of a no deal Brexit.
Two-thirds of them do not think the government’s negotiated deal honours the referendum. As Figure 1 illustrates, more Conservative voters (67%) than Conservative members (51%) think Theresa May is doing a good job as Prime Minister.
More Conservative voters (46%) than Conservative members (38%) support Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal. And, according to YouGov and the ESRC’s Party Members Project, 54% of party members who voted Leave thought that, following the defeat of the government’s deal, Theresa May should have resigned. Ipsos Mori found, somewhat remarkably, that 40% of all voters thought the same, and 53% thought the opposite.
So, a lower share of the wider public felt the Prime Minister should have immediately resigned after losing the meaningful vote than of members of her party who voted Leave.
There is a widespread assumption that Conservative MPs, with one eye on the wider electorate, might act as a restraining force on these members. Certainly, the Conservative Party’s leadership rules give them the opportunity to do so.
However, over half of its parliamentarians either do not believe – or have yet to compute – the economic trade-offs that Brexit is likely to involve. It is remarkable that 85% of Conservative MPs – despite the evidence to the contrary – expect any lost trade with the EU following Brexit to be offset by trade with the rest of the world.
Only 35% of Conservative MPs accept that there are genuine difficulties to finding a solution to the issue of the Irish border. A denial of the hard choices created by Brexit might well be good internal party politics for prospective leadership candidates.
It is not good politics if trying to plot a governing route through Brexit. If the Conservative Party were universally united behind a hard Brexit, a no deal and a change of leadership, then the party would naturally evolve rather than split.
Yet it is worth noting a slim majority of members (51 to 48%) continue to think Theresa May is doing a good job as leader. This is because the Prime Minister has overwhelming support – by a margin of three-to-one – among the roughly 20% of Tory members who vote Remain and are still party members.
For most of its two-hundred-year history, the Tories have been two parties – one whose instincts are broadly protectionist and nationalist, the other free market and liberal – which are united, above all, by a singular desire for office.
If a terminal split is possible Brexit will have been a political event that emanated from the Tory party, but tore it apart.
By Professor Anand Menon and Dr Alan Wager. This piece originally appeared in the report ‘Brexit and public opinion 2019‘.