Making social science accessible

11 Nov 2019

Politics and Society


Historically, the state of the economy in the run-up to an election has been one of the best predictors of the outcome, and so it is not usually thought wise to call an election when the economy is in the doldrums.

But as Larry Sabato has argued with respect to the upcoming US presidential election ‘[t]here are exceptions … When there is a scandal going on, the scandal can take precedence over the economy.

In this case, Donald Trump the person will take precedence over the economy’. In the British case, for scandal should we read Brexit, and for Donald Trump should we read Boris Johnson?

Brexit will undoubtedly be important to how people vote, as it clearly was in the 2017 general election.

However, it may not necessarily have quite as much impact as might be imagined on swings since 2017 – that is, it might not be as influential in driving people to shift their voting as we might think.

One needs to ask what has changed since 2017, either with respect to public attitudes towards Brexit, or to the parties’ positions on Brexit (and the public’s perceptions of those positions).

Our Brexit panel study has been following public opinion over the last two years (July 2017 – July 2019). In line with other surveys over this period, we have found little sign of major shifts in public opinion for or against Brexit.

However, there does seem to have been some decline in the importance of immigration to the public – remember that the 2016 referendum was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 2015/6 refugee crisis, when the issue of immigration was particularly prominent in the media.

The most significant change in our panel study, however, is that about the Irish border.

At the beginning of our panel study, very few respondents felt that maintaining an open border between the two parts of the island of Ireland should be a ‘red line’ in the negotiations.

As Figure 1 shows, while the proportion has remained small, it has clearly grown considerably (and among respondents in England, not just those in Northern Ireland).

The electoral implications are not entirely clear.

Maybe respondents in England will find Johnson’s proposal of customs checks in the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain acceptable, if that means the border in Ireland can remain open.

On balance, however, one should not assume much change in attitudes to Brexit since 2016, and hence not much likelihood of constituency-level swings on this account.

Of course, what has changed is the leadership of the Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson now the focus of attention.

In our June/July 2019 round of interviews we asked our respondents about how much they trusted a range of politicians who were prominent at the time (unfortunately we did not include Jo Swinson, who was not yet the leader of the Liberal Democrats).

At that time, there was little trust in any of the politicians: 49% opted for ‘none/other’, and among the named individuals, May, in her final days as PM, came first on 11%, followed by Farage and Corbyn. Johnson was in fourth place, only just ahead of Cable, Sturgeon and Davidson.

As might be expected, we found that politicians tended to be trusted more by respondents who identified with the party in question, or with ideologically similar parties.

Thus Farage was trusted by 41% of Brexit Party identifiers; and the equivalent figures were 18% for Ukip, 8% for the Conservatives, and only 4% for Labour and 1% for the Liberal Democrats.

This perhaps suggests that his appeal to Labour voters might not be quite as great as is sometimes imagined.

What about Boris Johnson? Our results make surprising reading.

His highest trust score was for Ukip identifiers with 14%, followed by 12% of Conservatives, 10% Brexit Party, 4% Labour and 2% Liberal Democrat.

We should treat the results with caution given the small sample of Ukip supporters (80 or so), and Conservative loyalists will have given May their trust at that time.

Johnson’s figure among Conservative voters will certainly be higher now.

Nevertheless our results show a strong asymmetry, implying that Johnson’s appeal is much more likely to be to more die-hard supporters of Brexit than to softer Brexiters or Remainers.

So under his leadership the Conservatives may make greater gains from Ukip and the Brexit Party than they do from Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, one other important change since the 2017 election is that the parties have clarified their positions – at least a little bit – on what kind of deal with the EU they are looking for.

In the same survey in the summer of 2019 we asked people what they thought the government should be doing next in relation to Brexit (see Figure 2).

This was before Johnson’s re-negotiation had started, but at that time, 24% thought we should be negotiating something better; of course it is hard to know if these 24% are more satisfied with Johnson’s deal, or if they might be tempted by Labour’s promise to re-negotiate again.

A further 24% thought we should leave the EU without a deal, and this group is likely to be attracted to the hard-line rhetoric of Johnson or Farage.

On the more Remain side of things, we found that 16% think the government should be calling a second referendum on whether to leave or remain, and 16% think Article 50 should be revoked.

Just 7% think we need a referendum on the deal, which is one part of Labour’s promise to its voters.


Finally, it’s worth remembering that in spite of the ‘war’ going on over Brexit, the more traditional political cleavages are not quite dead in the water.

It has been assumed by some commentators, for example, that left-right preferences on the economy no longer matter.

We have found to the contrary, however, that economically right preferences (such as wanting lower redistribution of income) are associated with a preference for a harder Brexit; presumably the appeal is to free Britain of EU regulation.

A further point is that party loyalties, though undoubtedly looser than they used to be, are still more fixed than many imagine.

In short, we shouldn’t assume that Brexit will completely trump traditional cleavages. Indeed Johnson may find it harder to win over Workington man than he imagines.

Traditional party loyalties and left-wing attitudes may play a stronger role among working class voters, even if they voted Leave, than is commonly assumed.

Brexit is not going to be the only game in town.

By Professor Anthony Heath, Dr Lindsay Richards and Dan Snow, all University of Oxford. 


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