Party conferences offer no respite from Brexit, as Boris readies his offer

Britain’s Conservative party has its annual conference in Manchester this week. Planes, trains and automobiles are on standby to rush MPs back to London if there is any action in Parliament.  And on Wednesday, PM Boris Johnson is expected to set out the Brexit offer he will be making to the EU, and in particular, his proposals for the status of Northern Ireland.  

It’s a good time to explore some detailed polling, undertaken by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft, to see how the government’s polarising strategy is playing out with voters.

  • First, Johnson seems to be consolidating the leave vote under his policy of exiting the EU on 31 October with or without an agreement.  His party is attracting support from about 70% of leavers, 60% of its 2017 voters, and 50% of leave-supporting Labour voters. Meanwhile only half of Labour’s 2017 voters say they will now support the party.
  • Secondly, the country remains resolutely divided on the principles, though with a clear bias to leave, if you believe the numbers: 36% support the Johnson policy, 15% would be willing to delay a bit more if it meant a good leaving agreement, while nearly 40% would prefer to remain in the EU.  Selective publication of focus group discussions is used to suggest that growing numbers of voters just want an end to the process. 
  • Thirdly, it’s looking promising for Boris if voters are forced to make the sort of binary choice he is angling for.  For example when asked to choose between leaving without a deal (48% supported) vs a Labour government lead by Jeremy Corbyn (35% opted for this).

But the polling also showed how narrow the gaps are and threw up findings to encourage those who hope that Brexit can still be outmanoeuvered.  For example, there was a thumping majority for the (British) Union when voters were asked to choose between Brexit (32%) vs keeping Scotland and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom (53%).

The data confirms Brexit is voters’ principal concern. Dealing with Brexit in the right way topped the list of the most important issues facing the country, with 62% putting it in the top three.  

But it’s not clear what becomes most important, if Brexit is achieved, and how the voters and parties will then align.  A cleavage between those who want Britain to move further away from Europe (predominantly in the Conservative party) and those who support closer alignment with Europe (mainly in Labour and the Liberal Democrats) could be the faultline of British politics for some time to come.  That would tend to reinforce the shifts in voter loyalty and the new political coalitions being generated by Brexit turmoil.

But despite all the polarisation, it’s hard to believe that the government – indeed any government – could not sell a compromise which extracted Britain from the EU but maintained close trade and economic links.  That is precisely what the EU has not offered so far (at least in a form generally accepted as achieving Brexit). We may know as early as the end of the week whether they think Boris’s compromise plan is a runner.

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