Sophie Stowers analyses UK in a Changing Europe’s latest polling on public attitudes towards Brexit with Redfield and Wilton. She highlights that keeping the Conservative Party’s 2019 coalition of voters together will be difficult given that the salience of Brexit has diminished, and the government isn’t seen to have managed withdrawal from the EU well.
The performance of the Conservative Party in 2019 was notable not just for the number of seats won (up 48 from 2017), but where these where gained. In knocking down the so-called ‘red wall’, the Conservatives did not just advance in parts of the country that had been Labour for decades, but brought together a group of voters that, in any other election, would never coalesce.
Boris Johnson’s electoral coalition was socioeconomically disparate, split on social values, and scattered across the country. But they were united by one issue: Brexit. Going into that election, 63% of voters said Brexit was one of the most important issues facing the country. The Conservatives managed to monopolise the support of Leave voters, increasing their vote share in new Leave-voting constituencies, whilst simultaneously keeping hold of almost all the Brexiteers that had supported them in 2017.
Yet the victory was always something of a mixed blessing. As long as Brexit was the issue of the day, the coalition held together. But as Coronavirus, concerns about the cost of living and rising inequality, and an inflationary crisis came to the fore, it began to crumble.
As our last round of polling with Redfield and Wilton showed, the salience of Brexit has diminished. Not only that, but attachment to Leave/Remain identities has weakened.
It is in this context that the divergent economic preferences of the 2019 coalition have revealed themselves, with voters – and Tory backbenchers – split about the path the government should take on the economy. With no Brexit ‘glue’, Leave voters are no longer wedded to the Conservative Party. Indeed, our new polling with Redfield and Wilton shows a declining attachment to the Tories.
With the Conservatives already lagging behind Labour in national polls, reinvigorating the 2019 electoral coalition could be key to the party’s chances of success at the next election. But what can they do to hold on to the ‘red wall’?
The most obvious option is to start banging on about Brexit again. Though the issue has declined in salience for the public as a whole, many Leave voters (57%) and 2019 Conservative voters (63%) cite the issue as either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important when it comes to choosing who they will vote for at the next general election.
Moreover, almost a third of 2019 Conservative voters think Labour wants a closer relationship with the EU (38% even think that Labour wants to ultimately re-join). The (admittedly quiet) noises Labour has made about closer cooperation with the EU could be weaponised during an election campaign.
Yet there are two faults with this strategy. First, while Brexit is undoubtedly important to 2019 Conservatives, it still lags behind healthcare, housing and education: domestic issues are the priority, as with the wider public. To go ‘all out’ on Brexit could simply make the government seem out-of-touch.
Second, many 2019 Conservative voters – and Leave voters in general – aren’t exactly delighted with how the government has handled Brexit. 57% of Leavers either disapprove of, or are neutral about, the government’s approach. Our polling with Public First shows that just 18% Leave voters would say Brexit has gone ‘well’ or ‘very well’.
And, when asked how the UK has changed since we left the European Union, 2019 Conservative voters are more likely to think that the economy, quality of the NHS, and the cost of living in the UK have deteriorated. Drawing attention to Brexit when a sizeable portion of the 2019 coalition do not think it has been a positive thing for the country is hardly likely to bolster support. Brexit is not the political gift it once was.
In fact, our polling reveals that voters who think that a) the economy is weaker post-Brexit, b) that the NHS has got worse after leaving the EU, and c) that the cost-of-living crisis has been worse than it would have been within the EU are all more likely to say they will vote for Labour than Conservatives at the next election.
So, maybe Brexit is not the issue to draw attention to. But it is true that there are other specific policies which motivate 2019 Conservatives, which could be used instead. For example, our polling shows that crime and immigration are two areas of particular concern. The latter, on the face of it, seems an obvious issue for the Conservatives to push to mobilise this group; it was a key theme of the referendum, and more stringent migration controls are seen by 45% as a key advantage of Brexit.
More widely, it’s another issue to beat Labour with; a third of this group think Labour wants to increase immigration to the UK. Exploiting this issue could be a way to pull back the support of those 2019 Conservatives who, post-Brexit, have shifted back to Labour.
Yet, again, the Conservatives don’t necessarily perform well on this issue. 62% of 2019 Conservative voters think illegal immigration – a particular bugbear for Tory voters – has increased over the last seven years. This, alongside continuous blunders on this issue like the failure of the Rwanda scheme, or the evacuation of the Bibby Stockholm, means that for many voters, the Conservatives don’t seem to have ‘taken back control’ of the UK’s borders.
Indeed, our polling shows that this issue is not a vote winner for the Conservatives: 63% of those who think immigration is a ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ important issue are leaning towards voting Labour at the next election.
And unfortunately for the Conservatives, this is a pattern that is being repeated on other issues. Our data shows that, on issues voters find ‘very’ important, there is a preference towards a Labour government over a Conservative one. This leaves very few issues for the Conservatives to ‘snatch back’ and monopolise to reinvigorate their 2019 coalition.
There’s a hard slog ahead for the Conservatives. The electoral coalition that led to their victory at the last election may work to their detriment in 2024. At the next election, it seems unlikely that the 2019 coalition will be sharing the same policy priorities, nor voting for the same party.
By Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.
You can download the August 2023 Brexit tracker data tables in full here.