Have Voters Lost Patience With The Brexit Process?

The Brexit negotiations have now entered the endgame. Boris Johnson’s government has put forward proposals to replace the Northern Ireland backstop that was the principal reason why MPs rejected the withdrawal treaty that Mrs May had negotiated. The government hopes that its proposals will form the basis for a revised agreement that will enable the UK to leave the EU with a deal at the end of this month. But if not, the UK government is determined that the UK should leave the EU at that time anyway.

In adopting that stance, the government argues that voters have lost patience with a Brexit process that has failed in over three years to deliver Brexit. It is suggested that even those who voted Remain would like the saga to be brought to a swift conclusion, thereby enabling the country to unite and move on to a domestic agenda that has been badly neglected during the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, it is a theme to which the Boris Johnson returned in his party conference speech yesterday.

But how valid is this claim?

There has, in truth, been relatively little polling that addresses this issue directly. Probably the question that comes closest to doing so comes from Opinium who on a number of occasions this year have asked people to choose which of the following three options best describes their view:

I don’t care how or on what terms Britain leaves the European Union as long as we leave as soon as possible

I want to make sure that Britain get the best possible deal when it leaves the European Union, regardless of how long it takes

I am opposed to Brexit and want to see it reversed no matter what deal Britain gets

The first of these options would seem to reflect the sentiment that the government claims is widespread among voters.

The pattern of answers to this question suggests that the desire to leave the EU as soon as posible is indeed quite widely felt. On average across eight readings taken since February just over one in three (35%) have picked the first option. In contrast, slightly less than one on four (24%) say that they are willing to wait to get the best possible deal. Just under three in ten (29%) say they want to see Brexit reversed.

Still, just over a third is considerably less than a majority. It is hard on this evidence to argue that most voters are impatient to get Brexit done.

There is also little sign that voters are any more impatient now than they were last April, shortly after the UK had initially failed to leave the EU.

That said, what is true is that most Leave voters are more concerned to leave quickly rather than they are to get the best possible deal. Across the two readings of their poll question Opinium took in September, on average around two-thirds (68%)of Leave supporters said we should leave the EU as soon as possible while only one in five (20%) indicated a willingness to wait for the best possible deal.

Conversely, however, there is no evidence that anything other than a small minority of Remain supporters simply want Brexit to be done and dusted as soon as possible. Just one in ten (10%) of them picked that option. While 29% of Remainers were willing to wait for the best possible deal, rather more than half (52%) said that Britain should remain in the EU irrespective of whatever deal is negotiated.

Apart from this question from Opinium, there a number of other questions that address the issue of whether the UK should be leaving the EU at the end of October and which might also be thought to provide evidence of the public mood on the need for an early end to the Brexit impasse. Though variously worded, they all paint much the same picture. Those who voted Leave are keen for the October deadline to be met, while those who voted Remain take the opposite view. As a result, supporters and opponents of an exit by the end of the month are more or less evenly matched in the electorate as a whole.

The pattern of response to four such questions is summarised in the table. Two come from the same poll conducted by ComRes in which, first of all, voters were asked whether they agreed or disagreed that it would be better for the UK to leave without a deal than to extend beyond October 31st and, then, whether they agreed or disagreed with the opposite proposition. It did not matter which way round the question was asked. While in both cases just over seven in ten of Leave voters expressed the view that it would be better to leave without a deal than to delay, at the same time exactly seven in ten Remain voters took the opposite view.

Meanwhile, two questions (see here and here) posed on two different polls by Survation put Remain and Leave voters even further apart on the issue. While over eight in ten Leave voters said that Brexit should not be delayed and should take place on October 31st, the balance of opinion among Remain supporters was almost exactly in the opposite direction.

As a result, all four polls suggest that overall supporters and opponents are more or less evenly matched, an impression also conveyed by a further reading from Ipsos MORI for which a breakdown by how people voted in 2016 is not available.

There appears then to be a substantial body of voters who think that the UK should leave the EU at the end of October come what may. But they are – unsurprisingly perhaps – mostly those who voted Leave. There is little evidence that frustration with the Brexit impasse has persuaded many Remain voters that it is time to call time on the process. This suggests that leaving at the end of October might not provide as helpful a backdrop to the subsequent task of bringing the country together as the government appears to anticipate.

Not Whether to Vote But How To Vote – That is the Question

Often ignored and sometimes heavily criticised, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act has finally come into play. It stipulates that a General Election can only be held before the five-year term of a Parliament has concluded if either (i) the government is defeated in a vote of no confidence and no alternative administration can be formed, or (ii) if two-thirds of MPs vote in favour of a dissolution. As a result of the Act, a Prime Minister can longer call a ballot at a time of his or her choosing. Rather, he or she needs the Leader of the Opposition to acquiesce in an early election – and while Jeremy Corbyn did precisely that when Mrs May proposed an election in 2017, this time around he has so far at least refused to do so.

That has led to criticism from the government that the opposition is intent on maintaining a ‘dead’ parliament that is incapable of making a decision about Brexit  – other than to block leaving without a deal – while being reluctant to be held to account by the voters. Holding an election, the government anticipates, would pave the way for the creation of a parliament that would back it in delivering Brexit. The opposition parties, however, are disinclined to allow an election to take place until the Commons has had the opportunity to vote – and potentially block –  whatever deal – or no deal – emerges from the European Council in the middle of October.

However, holding an election is not the only possible way of consulting the public with a view to ending the Brexit impasse. An alternative would be to hold a referendum in which whatever package for leaving the EU is proposed by the government is pitted against the alternative of remaining in the EU. Holding some such ballot is now the preferred stance of all the opposition parties (albeit as a second preference in the case of the Liberal Democrats) and also seems to be backed some by some of those former Conservative MPs who backed the anti-no deal legislation passed at the beginning of September and now find themselves denied the Conservative whip. The government, however, are opposed to holding such a referendum.

So, in truth, the debate about holding a vote on Brexit is not simply about whether or not a ballot should be held. Rather, it is a debate about what form any such ballot should take. It is, perhaps, not surprising that, given it enjoys a substantial lead in polls of election vote intentions, the pro-Brexit Conservative government thinks it could well win an election held under the single-member plurality system. On the other hand, given that on average the polls put Remain ahead of Leave by six points (as well as ahead of leaving without a deal), it is equally unsurprising that the predominantly anti-Brexit opposition parties think the future of Brexit should be decided via a referendum. The two forms of ballot could produce very difficult outcomes.

However, the debate about whether to hold an election or a referendum is not simply one between government and opposition. Which of them should be held first is a source of division within the opposition. Some are happy for an election to be called once the Commons has voted on the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU – and paved the way for an extension of the Article 50 process if necessary. The SNP, well ahead in the polls and mindful of the forthcoming trial of their former leader, Alex Salmond, in the New Year, appear particularly keen for an election to be held as soon as possible and not delayed until after a referendum. In contrast, an early ballot would not seem to be in the interest of those former Conservative MPs who now face the difficult prospect of having to defend their seats as independents.

But where the debate appears to be particularly important is inside the Labour Party. Some, such as the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, have suggested that a Brexit referendum should be held before any election. In contrast, others, including most notably the Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appear minded to allow an election to be held first.  The former group are perhaps less sanguine than those in the latter camp about Labour’s prospects in an early general election.

This debate about the relative merits of holding a referendum or an election may now be beginning to be reflected in the pattern of public opinion. It has long been the case that most Leave voters, unlike their Remain counterparts, do not want the principle of Brexit to be reopened via a referendum. That stance has been confirmed by polling in the past month. For example, Deltapoll have reported that while 71% of Remain voters back ‘a second referendum on British membership of the European Union’, 75% of Leave voters oppose the idea. Similarly, while 75% of Remain voters told YouGov that they supported a public vote on Brexit, 72% of Leave supporters indicated they were opposed.

That said, polls that have asked voters during the last month whether there should be an early general election have found Remain and Leave voters, and Conservative and Labour supporters, to be largely at one in their level of support for the idea. For example, Survation found that Labour voters (64%) were just as favourable as Conservative voters (61%) to the idea of an early election, while Remain voters (66%) were only a little more supportive than backers of Leave (58%). Still, given that all parties are in favour of an election in principle, this lack of disagreement perhaps is not surprising.

Nevertheless, when the question of when an election should be held is introduced, a division does emerge. According to YouGov, 46% of Leave voters back holding a general election before October 31st, while only 23% favour one afterwards. Conversely, the equivalent figures among Remain supporters are 30% and 64% respectively. A similar pattern is found if we compare the views of Conservative and Labour voters.

However, it is not clear that Remain voters – and Labour supporters – are keen on an election at all. In a first attempt to ascertain whether voters would prefer a referendum or an election, YouGov have reported that voters as a whole were evenly divided between those who would prefer a referendum (32%) and those who would like to see a general election (31%). (In addition, 17% opted for a third option of forming a cross-party government.) However, whereas 53% of Leave voters would prefer a general election, 56% of Remain supporters favour a referendum. Similarly, while 66% of Conservative supporters prefer an election, 53% of Labour voters are keener on a referendum. In short, voters appear inclined to prefer whichever ballot the polls suggest would be more likely to produce a favourable outcome from their point of view.

The aim of Brexit is meant to be to implement the will of the people. Trouble is, there is seemingly little agreement about how their will should now be ascertained.

Do Voters Back the Possibility of Leaving without a Deal?

The arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing St has resulted in a marked change of tone in the debate about Brexit. The new administration has signalled that, if it is unable to secure a new Brexit deal by the scheduled date for the UK’s departure of 31 October, it will leave the EU without a deal. It hopes this stance will persuade the EU to change its mind about reopening the agreement that the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, had reached with the EU but for which she had been unable to secure the support of MPs. However, some MPs are hoping that they can stop the government from pursuing a no deal Brexit should it be unable to reach an accommodation with the EU.

But what do voters think about the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal? Is this an option that has widespread public support? And might, as the Prime Minister hopes, such a step bring an end to the divisions created by the Brexit impasse? These key questions are addressed by a new analysis paper published by The UK in a Changing Europe.

Drawing on data from a wide variety of published polls, the paper reports three main findings:

  1. There is widespread support for a no deal Brexit among those who voted Leave. At least half would probably prefer such an outcome come what may, while another quarter would probably regard it as acceptable – and especially so if the alternative is further delay or if the EU were thought responsible for failure to reach an agreement.
  2. However, at least three-quarters of Remain voters are opposed to leaving without a deal, whatever the circumstances, and many appear to be antipathetic to the idea. At the same time, those who did not vote in the EU referendum are more likely to oppose than support a no deal Brexit.
  3. As a result, most polling suggests that the balance of opinion among voters as a whole is tilted somewhat against leaving without a deal. Meanwhile, so far at least, there is no evidence that the new government’s backing for leaving without a deal has resulted in an increase in support for taking such a step.

Given these findings, the paper concludes that the government’s stance is largely in tune with the mood of those whose instructions it is seeking to implement, that is those who voted Leave in 2016. However, leaving without a deal could serve to perpetuate the division over Brexit rather than provide a foundation for uniting the country.

What Has Been The Long-Term Legacy of May’s European Election?

As we noted shortly after the event, not only did the European election produce a dramatic result, but also it had an impact on voters’ preferences for Westminster. Both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a substantial boost in their standing for a general election, the former gathering its support from those who voted Leave and the latter attracting the backing of those who voted Remain. The joint strength in the polls of the two parties that have traditionally dominated post-war British politics, the Conservatives and Labour, was as low as it has ever been.

However, given the experience of previous European elections, we could not be sure how long the boost in the fortunes of the smaller parties would last. Would it, like some previous post-European election surges, be a temporary development that would melt away in the heat of the summer sun – and the advent of a new Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson? Or, did it reflect a fundamental shift in the party system that had been occasioned by the Brexit impasse and which, with Brexit still dominating the news, would likely be more permanent?

As MPs return to Westminster this week, the answers to these questions have become pressing. The stand-off over Brexit between the government and opposition MPs means there is much talk of an early election – either because Boris Johnson tries to precipitate one himself or because his government is brought down in a vote of no confidence.  But to what extent and how is any immediate electoral contest likely to be shaped by the fall-out from the European election?



Table 1 summarises the trend in the level of support registered for the parties in the polls since the European election. The figures for May represent the position in polls conducted in the run up to European election day. The figures for July show the standing of the parties a couple of months later as the Conservative leadership election was drawing to a close. The equivalent figures for the end of August are shown in the final column.

Three key points emerge. First, the rise in Liberal Democrat support has proven to be highly durable. The party has remained on average at just below a fifth of the vote throughout the summer. As a result, the party is now in a stronger position in the polls than at any time since it entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

Second, the increase in Brexit Party support has proven less durable. Although the party maintained its level of support in the weeks immediately after the European election, it has fallen by six points since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Even so, that means the party’s standing is still more or less on a par with the 13% UKIP achieved in the 2015 general election.

Third, the beneficiaries of the fall in Brexit Party support have been the Conservatives, whose average level of support has risen by eight points during the last month or so. Whereas in the middle of July on average 26% of those who said they had voted Conservative in 2017 indicated that they would now vote for the Brexit Party, now the figure stands at just 16%.



As a result, as Table 2 shows, whereas just a few weeks ago the Brexit Party was the single most popular party among Leave voters, now the Tories are ahead among this group by at least two to one. Indeed, the level of support for the Conservatives among those who voted Leave is almost back to the 55% level that the party was enjoying is mid-November last year, that is, at the point when Mrs May unveiled the draft Brexit agreement that she had negotiated with the EU.

In contrast, there is no sign of any revival in support for the Conservatives among those who voted Remain. At 18% the level of support for the party among this group is still much as it was during the course of the European Parliament election, and is still noticeably below the 26% level at which it stood in mid-November. As a result, whereas in mid-November for every Remain voter who was backing the Conservatives there were two who had voted Leave, now there are three Leave voters for every Remain voter within Conservative ranks. The fall and rise in Conservative support during the course of the Brexit impasse has left the party with an electoral base that is even more Eurosceptic than the coalition that was backing Mrs May.

Thus, on the Leave side of the Brexit divide much of the division in the level of party support that emerged in the wake of the European elections has been reversed, though the Brexit Party is still a more substantial force than UKIP were in advance of that ballot. (Support for Labour among Leave voters is, in contrast, some twelve points down on where it stood in mid-November.) The same, however, cannot be said of those who voted Remain. The revival in Liberal Democrat fortunes during the European election occurred wholly among Remain voters and, as Table 2 makes clear, that position has not changed. As a result, the party is still challenging the dominance of those on the Remain side of the Brexit debate that the Labour party once enjoyed. On average, almost one in five (19%) of those who voted Labour in 2017 are now saying that they would back the Liberal Democrats, a figure that has not changed significantly during the course of the last three months. It is, of course, the division of the Remain vote between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that creates the possibility that the Conservatives might be able to win an overall majority despite enjoying no more than a third of the popular vote.

So, the fallout from the European election has not proven to be a seven-day wonder. People’s views on Brexit still have a greater impact on their party preference for Westminster than hitherto. The Liberal Democrats, who have become a party that appeals almost exclusively to Remain voters, have retained their advance. Although the Brexit Party, whose appeal is confined to Leave voters, has lost some of the support it gained during the European contest, it still appeals – exclusively – to a substantial body of Leave voters.  Meanwhile, in so far as some Leave voters have switched (back) to the Conservatives they have helped ensure that the Tory vote has become more decidedly Eurosceptic than before.

Clearly, Brexit continues to shape and reshape British politics – and it is a process that seems unlikely to end any time soon.

Three Years On: Still Divided

Today marks the third anniversary of the EU referendum in which the country voted narrowly (by 52% to 48%) in favour of leaving the EU. Since then, the country has spent much of the last three years debating how the process of leaving has and should be handled, the terms on which we should aim to leave, and even the merits of the original decision itself.  The debate has precipitated a general election and resulted in the downfall of a Prime Minister. The one thing that has not happened is Britain making its exit from the EU – thanks to the repeated refusal of the House of Commons to accept the terms of the withdrawal treaty that was negotiated with the EU by the UK government. Instead the country is awaiting the arrival of a new Prime Minister who will be charged with the task of solving in three months a Brexit riddle that Theresa May was unable to solve in three years.

One might imagine that the difficulties that have beset the withdrawal process would have had an impact on support for the principle of remaining or leaving the EU in the first place. But of that there is remarkably little evidence. Our poll of polls of how people would vote in another referendum continues to report that the country is more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave, much as it was three years ago.

True, as has been the position ever since our poll of polls series began at the beginning of 2018, the balance of support is now tilted in favour of Remain rather than, as in the referendum, in favour of Leave.  Indeed, the current average of Remain 52%, Leave 48% is the exact mirror image of what emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016.

However, this does not mean that there is a discernible, key group of Leave voters who have changed their minds about Brexit. That much becomes clear if, as in the table below, we examine separately the current vote intentions of those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave. In both cases over 85% say they would vote exactly the same way as they did in 2016. The sound and fury of the last three years has left the vast majority of voters unmoved. And although 8% of those who backed Leave say that they would now vote Remain, they are counterbalanced by 8% of Remain supporters who indicate that they would now support Leave.

The principal reason why public opinion is now tilted towards Remain is because, as we have noted before, those who did not vote three years ago prefer Remain to Leave by around two to one (if they express a view at all). In part, at least, this reflects the fact that this group of abstainers consists disproportionately of younger voters who in general are more likely to back Remain. However, it also suggests that, far from being certain to produce a majority for Remain, the outcome of a second referendum could turn on the ability or otherwise of the Remain side to mobilise the support of a group of voters who cannot necessarily be relied upon to vote at all.

Meanwhile, we should note that, in so far as there has been any change in recent weeks, it consists of a slight narrowing of the lead for Remain. The latest figures of Remain 52%, Leave 48%, contrast with ones of Remain 54%, Leave 46%, that had hitherto pertained for most of the time since the beginning of this year. Still, this movement could be the product of chance variation or the possibility that more recent polls have been undertaken disproportionately by companies that tend to produce relatively narrow leads for Remain anyway.

However, this seems to be an inadequate explanation. Of the four companies that have polled vote intentions in a second referendum since the beginning of May and who also did so in January this year, three (BMG, Survation and YouGov) have registered clear drops in support for Remain, on average by three points, while only one (Kantar) has not.

The principal explanation for this change appears to be that there has been some ‘hardening’ of the Leave vote in recent weeks. At the beginning of the year we reported that while 89% of those who voted Remain said that they would vote the same way again, the equivalent figure among Leave supporters, 83%, had become somewhat lower. Now the two figures are almost identical. Recent events have, it seems, simply reinforced Leave voters in their original views rather than encouraged them to think again.

The Spill-Over Effect: Brexit and Prospects for Westminster

Today’s Westminster by-election in Peterborough is taking place in the immediate wake of a Euro-election in which voters left both the Conservatives and Labour in droves, switching instead to parties that were backing clearer if more polarising options on Brexit. The timing of the by-election thus switches our attention rather rapidly towards what might be the fallout from the Euro-election for the parties’ Westminster prospects.

Three polls of Westminster vote intention have been conducted and published since the Euro-election results were unveiled. With one poll putting the Brexit party ahead, and another suggesting the Liberal Democrats are in front, they hardly suggest that the Euro-contest has left the regular rhythms of Westminster politics undisturbed. Indeed, rather than looking like a two-party system, they suggest that British politics now resembles more of a four-party one, with, on average, the Brexit Party on 25% narrowly ahead of Labour on 22%, while both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are not far behind on 19% apiece. Meanwhile, the Greens have also registered a respectable 8%.

These figures are not simply a flash in the pan. That the Euro-election was having a knock-on effect on voting intentions for Westminster was evident well before the ballot boxes were opened ten days ago. At the beginning of April, when the prospect of the Euro-election first came into view, Labour were on average on 34% in the polls, four points ahead of the Conservatives on 30%, while UKIP and the (yet to be formerly launched) Brexit Party enjoyed 11% support between them, and the Liberal Democrats just 9%. However, by the time we had reached the week before Euro-election polling day, polls of Westminster vote intention were putting Labour down at 30% and the Conservatives on 25%. Conversely, they reckoned the Brexit Party was now on 18%, while the Liberal Democrats’ support had risen to 13%.

In short, the standing of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats in the latest Westminster polls does not simply represent a reaction to the outcome of the Euro-election. There was already clear evidence before the result was known that the Euro-election was having a spill-over effect.

That said, the success of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats (and indeed the Greens) in that election has evidently pushed yet more voters in their direction than was the case immediately before polling day. Some of the support that they are registering in the latest Westminster polls may therefore represent little more than a reaction to favourable publicity

We might note too, that even the latest polls of Westminster vote intention do not put any of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens in as strong a position as they achieved in the Euro-election. The spill-over effect evidently has its limits, and not all those who voted for these parties a fortnight ago would do the same thing in a general election, when the ties of traditional party loyalty are likely to prove stronger than they did in the Euro-poll.

Meanwhile, this year’s Euro-election is far from being the first to have had a spill-over effect. The Greens’ success in winning 15% of the vote in the Euro-election in 1989 saw the party rise from not being identified separately in the polls to registering 9% in Westminster vote intentions. UKIP’s success in coming second in the 2009 Euro-election was accompanied by a doubling in the combined tally for Others (a tally that includes UKIP) from 10% at the end of March to 20% in the fortnight or so after the election. Interestingly, UKIP’s subsequent success in coming first five years later had less of an effect, though the party’s average support still edged up from 12% in the last week of March 2014 to 16% at the time of the Euro-election.

Past experience suggests that much of the sudden boost that a party secures on the back of a strong Euro-election performance can disappear within a matter of months. By the end of 1989 support for the Greens had fallen back to 4%. The combined tally for Others was back down to 12% by mid-October 2009. Even the relatively modest growth in support for UKIP in 2014 had eased somewhat by the end of July that year, with the party by that point running at 14%.

So, should we expect the spill-over effect of the European election to melt away in the heat of summer, as memory of the outcome begins to fade? Not necessarily. For there is a vital difference between the most recent Euro-election and its predecessors. The principal reason for the success of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens and the collapse of the Conservatives and Labour in this year’s contest – the Brexit debate – is not going to disappear from the political agenda any time soon. Rather, voters are going to be reminded continuously of the arguments that impelled them to vote in the record-breaking way they did in the Euro-election.

Indeed, the role that Brexit has played in reshaping voters’ Westminster preferences, and not just those that were expressed in the Euro-ballot boxes, is quite clear in the latest polls. Nearly all the support for the Brexit Party in Westminster vote intentions comes from those who voted Leave, nearly half of whom (on average, 47%) say they would vote for Nigel Farage’s party in an immediate general election. Equally, nearly all the support for the Liberal Democrats (and all of the increase in their support since early April) comes from those who voted Remain. Indeed, following upon the Liberal Democrats’ success in coming first in the Euro-election among those who voted Remain, it appears that the party is now also challenging Labour for the title of the most popular party for Westminster among Remainers, with (on average) 33% of them currently supporting the Liberal Democrats and 31% backing Labour’.

In short, support for the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats has none of the hallmarks of an inchoate protest vote against the traditional two-party system. Rather, it appears to reflect the very distinctive views of voters on opposite sides of the Brexit debate, a debate that seems set to dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. In contrast, both Labour and the Conservatives, more comfortable as they are with the politics of left and right than the debate between social liberals and social conservatives that underpins Brexit, find themselves trying to straddle the Brexit divide. Though the Conservatives are more popular among Leave (25%) than Remain voters (13%), a pattern that does contrast with the position in the Euro-election, it is still among this group that the party has lost most ground since Mrs May first unveiled her deal last November. In the case of Labour, which enjoys just 12% support among those who voted Leave, the balance of support for the party is (as in the Euro-elections) in the opposite direction.

As a result, the difficulties the Conservatives and Labour faced a fortnight ago in trying to hold their electoral coalitions together are also clearly in evidence in the battle for power at Westminster. The Conservatives’ principal problem, by far, is that as many as 40% of those who voted for the party in 2017 now say they would vote for the Brexit Party in a Westminster contest. Labour, which has lost 11% of its support in that direction, is not immune to the challenge from that quarter either, but the party’s losses in that direction are heavily outweighed by the 19% of the party’s vote that has switched to the Liberal Democrats and 11% that has moved to the Greens. How these parties resolve the internal debate about Brexit currently raging within them could well play a vital role in determining whether the challenge they now face as a result of Brexit does eventually melt away or not.



Fracture and Polarisation? Lessons from the Euro-Election

The outcome of the European election in Britain was truly remarkable. Record after record was broken. The Conservatives secured their worst result ever. Labour suffered its biggest reverse since it first started fighting elections as a wholly independent party in 1918. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP enjoyed their highest share of the vote in any Euro-election, while the Greens’ performance was second only to their remarkable result in 1989 when they won 15% of the vote. There must surely be some important lessons to learn from such a dramatic outcome?

Indeed, there are – though only if the results are examined with care and circumspection. Alas, this sometimes seemed in rather short supply in the immediate wake of the declaration of the results as those on all sides of the Brexit debate attempted to argue that the results showed that most voters supported their outlook on Brexit. They could not, of course, possibly all be right.

Indeed, perhaps one question to address straight away is whether any such claims could conceivably be supported given that, as in previous European elections, most voters did not vote at all. While, at 36.7%, the turnout in Great Britain was a little higher than at most European elections (indeed it was second only to that in 2004 when turnout was boosted by holding the election in some regions using an all postal ballot), it still only registered the views of a minority. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that those who did vote were not entirely representative. The two-point increase in turnout on the last Euro-election in 2014 was far from uniform across the country. Rather, the higher the Remain vote in a council area in 2016, the more that turnout rose as compared with five year ago. As a result, the increase in turnout averaged as much as five points in those areas where more than 58% voted Remain, while it actually fell back a point on average in those areas where less than 38% supported Remain. Much the same pattern is also in evidence if the comparison is made with the 2009 Euro-election.

As a result, what had previously been no more than a four-point difference between the most pro-Remain and the least pro-Remain areas grew into as much as a ten-point difference. Meanwhile, polling undertaken by Lord Ashcroft on polling day and the day after suggests that the Remain side had been ahead in 2016 by 53% to 47% among those who voted in the Euro-elections, whereas, of course, only 48% backed Remain in the referendum itself. This, perhaps, tells us something about the strength of feeling about Brexit among those who voted Remain in particular, but serves as an initial warning about trying to use the results to argue that they showed that the balance of opinion about Brexit among voters has tilted in one direction or the other.

Not that this stopped people from trying. On the one hand, it was argued that the Brexit party’s success in coming a clear first (with 32% of the vote) demonstrated that the public were determined that the UK should leave the EU on October 31st come what may, deal or no deal. To that it was countered that whereas a total of 35% had voted for a party (that is, the Brexit Party or UKIP) that was willing to leave the EU without a deal, as many as 40% had supported one of the parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists) that were campaigning for a second EU referendum – and thus it was clear that was the direction in which voters wished to go. Both arguments blithely ignored the fact that neither tally approached anything like 50%, and that there was more than one way of adding the Conservative (pro-Leave, anti-second referendum) and Labour (pro-Leave but not necessarily opposed to another ballot) tallies to these totals to argue either that most voters still back leaving the EU or that most would contemplate a second referendum.

Even leaving aside questions about differential turnout between Remain and Leave supporters, the difficulty with such arguments, of course, is that they assume that those who voted for a particular party were necessarily expressing support for that party’s stance on Brexit. In truth, many were. Just before the election, Number Cruncher Politics reported that as many as 49% said that they would be voting in order to express their view about Brexit, while Kantar published a similar finding in its pre-election poll. Equally, Lord Ashcroft’s post-polling day poll ascertained that around a half of voters (51%) gave as their principal reason for voting the way they did either that the party for which they voted had the best policy on Brexit or that they wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the UK government’s stance on Brexit.

However, a half is not everyone, and while some parties were drawing their support almost entirely from either Remainers or from Leavers, others were not. So far as the Eurosceptic parties are concerned, there is little doubt about the orientation of the vast bulk of their voters. Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that the Brexit Party enjoyed the support of 64% of those who voted Leave, but only 4% of those who backed Remain, while the equivalent figures among those who backed UKIP were 6% and 1% respectively. Equally, no less than 90% of Brexit Party voters either want to leave the EU without a deal (67%) or on the basis of a different deal than the one negotiated by Mrs May (23%), while the equivalent combined tally among UKIP supporters was 70%.

Meanwhile, those voting for the Liberal Democrats were firmly on the other side of the Brexit debate. The party won the support of 36% of those who voted Remain, thereby displacing Labour as the single most popular party among this group, but just 4% of those who had voted Leave. No less than 90% of those who voted for the party affirmed to Lord Ashcroft that their current preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave on the basis of any possible deal, let alone none at all. With 19% support among 2016 Remainers and 4% among Leavers, the character of the vote for the Greens was not dissimilar, though at 72% the proportion now backing Remain over some form of leaving was somewhat lower. Meanwhile, 78% of Change UK voters indicated a preference for remaining versus leaving, though the ratio of the party’s support among those who voted Remain (5%) to that among those who backed Leave (2%) is not as high as the equivalent ratio for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

However, the vote for other parties was much more heterogeneous in character. This was most obviously true in the case of the Conservatives, who proved to be equally (un-)popular among both those who voted Remain (9%) and those who backed Leave 9%). There was no consensus at all amongst those who voted Conservative about whether they wanted to Remain (28%), leave on the basis of Mrs May’s deal (36%), leave on the basis of an alternative deal (17%) or leave without a deal (14%). Labour was more popular among Remain voters (19%) than Leave supporters (8%), and 63% indicated that their preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave in one way or another, but, even so, the party was still bridging the Remain-Leave divide to some degree. Meanwhile, polling undertaken in Scotland by Panelbase shortly before the election (which accurately anticipated the 38% won by the SNP north of the border) found that while the party was winning the support of no less than 49% of Remain supporters, it was also backed by 20% of Leavers.

There are then very clear dangers in trying to infer the balance of attitudes towards Brexit among voters from the results of the election. Remain voters may well have been more likely to have voted, while not everyone’s choice reflected their stance on Brexit. However, that does not mean we cannot learn any lessons from the election about attitudes towards Brexit. Above all, the election underlines not only the polarisation of attitudes towards Brexit but also the intensity with which those attitudes are held by some voters.

We have written previously about how attitudes towards Brexit have seemingly become polarised between those who would be willing to leave the EU without a deal and those who would like another referendum – or would simply like to revoke Article 50 – and that as a result there is relatively little public support for any of the compromise positions that have been proposed – including Mrs May’s deal and any softer Norway-style Brexit as envisaged by Labour. This pattern is replicated in Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll in which the two most popular options among all voters are either to remain in the EU (40%) or to leave without a deal (27%). Thus, in promoting their respective compromise positions on Brexit both the Conservatives and Labour found themselves at this election attempting to occupy a centre ground on Brexit that has long seemed relatively poorly populated – and was certainly little understood by voters (see, for example, here and here). Given that Euro-elections are often regarded as ‘second-order’ contests in which voters are more likely to vote for smaller parties and to express their views about the EU, this was always a potentially risky position to be occupying.

So, although not all voters used the Euro-election to express their views about Brexit, the fact that many did so laid the foundations for the collapse in Conservative and Labour support. According to Lord Ashcroft no less than 81% of those who voted for the Brexit Party and 68% of those who backed the Liberal Democrats gave Brexit as their principal reason for doing so. Conversely, only 13% of Labour voters and 8% of Conservative supporters indicated that they were making their choice on the basis of Brexit. They were much more likely to be voting on the basis of party loyalty – as many as 36% of Labour voters and 34% of Conservatives gave this as their principal reason for voting the way that they did. The trouble for both of those parties is that for many voters the pull of party loyalty was weaker than the attraction of expressing their views about Brexit. In other words, the election revealed that not only is the electorate polarised between leaving without a deal and remaining in the EU, but also that many on both sides of the argument hold those views sufficiently intently that, in a second-order election at least, they prefer to express those views rather than adhere to their traditional party loyalty.

As a result, the fragility of the electoral coalitions that both the Conservatives and Labour had put together in the 2017 election, when between them they won over 80% of the vote, was cruelly exposed. Although the Conservatives had garnered support most successfully from among those who voted Leave, around a third of the party’s voters had voted Remain. Conversely, although Labour had proven more popular among those who had voted Remain, around a third had backed Leave. Neither party had much success in retaining the support of either part of their coalition.

The Conservatives’ biggest problem was undoubtedly maintaining the support of those of their supporters who had voted Leave. Many of these after all had backed UKIP before the 2017 election and had only switched to the Conservatives in the belief that they were best placed actually to deliver Brexit. Given the failure of the government to deliver Brexit on the original target date of March 29, the return of Nigel Farage to the electoral scene served to make switching to the Brexit Party seem like an attractive option.  Over a half (53%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and voted in the Euro-election voted for the Brexit Party – a figure that equates to around four in five of all those Conservatives who had voted Leave. It is this movement that explains why, in contrast to the position in 2017, at this election the Conservatives were no more popular among Leave voters than they were among Remain supporters.

However, the party was also losing ground among its minority of voters who had backed Remain. According to Lord Ashcroft, 20% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 switched to either the Liberal Democrats (especially), the Greens, or Change UK, most of them people who had voted Remain in 2016. This represented the equivalent of losing around 60% of the party’s Remain supporters. The Conservatives were struggling to retain the support of both parts of their 2017 electoral coalition.

Labour found itself in a similar position. On the one hand, the party lost 22% of its vote to the Liberal Democrats, 17% to the Greens and 4% to Change UK, the vast majority of them people who had voted Remain. These figures mean that Labour lost the support of around three in five of those that voted Remain, much the same proportion as the Conservatives though it represents a much larger share of its total vote. However, at the same time Labour also lost 13% of its vote to the Brexit Party, or around two in five of the party’s Leave supporters. Labour’s Leave support may not have been as willing to switch to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party as the much larger body of Leave voters in the Conservatives’ ranks, but even so the party was also clearly losing ground at both ends of the Brexit spectrum.

None of this seems set to make the Brexit impasse any easier to resolve. The Euro-election has underlined the polarisation of public attitudes towards Brexit. It has strengthened and given momentum both to the ranks of those advocating no deal and of those supporting a second referendum. Meanwhile, the country’s two largest parties at Westminster, already deeply divided on the subject, now seem embarked on serious internal arguments about how they could handle Brexit in such a way that they might rescue themselves from the deep electoral hole in which they now find themselves. Neither would seem to have an easy task. Whoever said that these elections would not matter?

Two Very Different Battles? Pointers from the Final Polls of Euro-Election Vote Intention

A plethora of polls published in the last hours of the campaign have affirmed the likely outcome of one of the key political battles in the Euro-election  – but have left us rather uncertain about the outcome of another. That said, it is clear that Sunday is set to be an uncomfortable night for both the Conservatives and Labour, and will likely raise important questions about the future of Britain’s traditional two-party system.

The battle whose outcome is clear is that between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party for the support of those who voted Leave. That is a contest that Nigel Farage is set to win hands down.  Where the message of the polls is much less certain is in the fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the support of Remain voters.

On average, the seven ‘final’ polls of voting intention for the Euro-elections, all of which conducted at least some of their interviewing during the last week of the campaign, suggest that the Brexit Party is set to win the support of nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who voted Leave in 2016. Although, as one might anticipate, only a handful of Remain supporters are willing to vote for a party whose principal message is that the UK should leave the EU without a deal, that proportion is enough to put the party on 34% among voters as a whole – putting it in first place and suggesting that the party will exceed the 27% of the vote that UKIP won (also under Nigel Farage’s leadership) in 2014.

As a result, support for the Conservatives, the party in whom most Leave voters invested their trust in 2017, has been decimated. The party’s average standing is just 11%. Well over half (55%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and indicate they will participate in the Euro-election say they will vote for the Brexit Party – a figure that rises  to around three-quarters among those 2017 Conservative voters who backed Leave. Instead of being a party that primarily represents Leave voters, the Conservatives find themselves no more popular among supporters of Brexit (11%) than they are among those who voted Remain (13%).

The reasons for this tsunami of switching from the Conservatives to the Brexit Party among Leave voters are not hard discern. Polling has consistently found that at least a half of those who voted Leave think the UK should leave the EU without a deal. They thus have little sympathy for a party that has failed to deliver Brexit because it has been unable to secure the assent of the Commons to the deal that has been negotiated. After all, in many cases they only switched from voting UKIP in 2014 or 2015 because they thought the Conservatives were best able to implement the decision to leave. Meanwhile, as both Opinium and YouGov have shown, voters are far from clear about where the Conservatives stand on Brexit, while (according to YouGov) as many as 40% of Leave voters have come to the conclusion that the Conservative party is actually opposed to Brexit. In contrast, most voters have little difficulty in understanding where the Brexit Party stands (see also here), thanks not least to Nigel Farage’s high-profile campaigning in favour of the Eurosceptic cause.

Polls conducted at the beginning of the Euro-election campaigned confirmed the by now familiar picture that the Labour was the single most popular choice among those who voted Remain in 2017. On average, as many as 43% expressed that view, while only 14% opted for the Liberal Democrats. Although the latest polls disagree about how far this pattern has changed, they all agree that Labour’s grip on the Remain vote has been eroded. Indeed, on average the latest polls put the two parties neck and neck among Remain voters, with 29% opting for the Liberal Democrats and 28% for the Labour party. Only the fact that the Liberal Democrat vote is almost wholly a Remain vote (and almost all the eight-point increase in the party’s support has come from that quarter, including from among some Conservatives who voted Remain) whereas Labour does have some support among Leave voters (10%) ensures that, on average, Labour is still reckoned to be narrowly ahead among voters as a whole, albeit by only 19% to 17%.

This itself is sufficient grounds to come to the view that we cannot be sure which of those two parties will emerge ahead in the ballot boxes and claim second place. But the uncertainty is even greater thanks to the fact that the polls differ dramatically in their estimate of Labour support. At one end of the spectrum YouGov put the party on just 13%, while at the other end Panelbase put the party on 25%. As a result, while three polls put Labour at least three points ahead of the Liberal Democrats, two reckon that the Liberal Democrats are ahead by at least that amount, and two others put the two parties almost neck and neck. Who will come second has come to be the most intriguing question of the election.

But even if Labour do fend off the Liberal Democrat challenge, unless the party does so convincingly questions are bound to be raised about whether the party should come out more firmly in favour of a second referendum. Certainly, as in the case of the Conservatives, voters are far from clear as to where Labour stand on Brexit, while they are rather clearer about the Liberal Democrats’ position. And in an election where around half of voters say that they are voting on the basis of their views about Brexit rather than because of traditional party loyalty or other issues (see also here), it seems that this contrast matters. On average, nearly one in five (18%) of those who voted Labour in 2017 (and around one in four of those who voted Remain) say they are voting Liberal Democrat in the Euro-election.

Not that the Liberal Democrats are the only one of the pro-Remain parties taking votes off Labour. The Greens have also added to Labour’s difficulties, with some 14% of the 2017 Labour vote heading in that direction, a movement that is helping the Greens on average to match the 8% tally that it secured in the last Euro-election in 2014. In combination, Labour’s losses to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amount to one in three of those who voted for the party two years ago.

However, losses of support to more avowedly pro-Remain parties is not the only source of Labour’s difficulties. During the campaign, the party has lost ground – some six points – among Leave voters too.  Much of that loss has been inflicted by the Brexit Party, to which as many as 14% of 2017 Labour voters have switched, representing at least one in three of those Labour voters who voted Leave. Nigel Farage may not have done anything like as much damage on Labour as he has on the Conservatives, but he may inflict enough to convince those Labour MPs who do not want another second referendum that they should continue to oppose any such move. Trouble is, what does seem to be the case is that Labour’s attempt to retain the support of both sides in the Brexit debate by pursuing a compromise position runs the risk of losing the backing of both Remainers and Leavers.

Still, whatever the travails being suffered by both Labour and the Conservatives, there are two other contenders for whom the prospects look even worse. With an average level of support of just 4%, the Change UK group of former Labour and Conservative MPs look set to lose the civil war with the Liberal Democrats for the pro-Remain vote, an outcome that will doubtless raise questions about what the group’s future relationship with the Liberal Democrats should be. Equally, UKIP have comprehensively lost the battle with the Brexit Party for the Eurosceptic vote. Some of the challengers to the Conservative-Labour duopoly at least look as though they will emerge from this election significantly weakened.

Of course, as soon as the votes are counted on Sunday, the question will be raised as to what might be the implications of the result for the future of British politics. The outcome will not tell us what would happen in an immediate general election. Many voters will vote differently at the Euro-election from how they would in such a ballot. Indeed, recent polls of voting intentions for Westminster put the Conservatives (on 24%) and Labour (on 29%) in a somewhat better (but very far from healthy) position than it is anticipated will emerge from the ballot boxes on Sunday. Moreover, past experience suggests that some of those voters who in the midst of a Euro-election campaign say that they would vote for a smaller party in a Westminster contest often change their minds once the Euro-votes have been counted and the election forgotten. Except, of course, Brexit – the principal source of the difficulties being faced by Labour and the Conservatives in this year’s Euro-election – is unlikely to disappear from the political agenda any time soon.

Cracks Become a Chasm as Brexit Threatens the Conservative-Labour Duopoly

Prompted by the Newport West by-election, at the beginning of April we published an analysis of how support for both the Conservatives and Labour had slipped during the course of the Brexit impasse. The Conservatives appeared to have lost ground among those who voted Leave, while Labour had lost support among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit perhaps rather more among the former than the latter.

Much has happened since then. Not only did the UK not leave the EU on the original target date of 29 March but also did not do so on the next deadline of 11 April. The government initiated talks with Labour with a view to identifying possible amendments to Mrs May’s Brexit deal that might secure the backing of the official opposition. However, so far at least, these talks have not been productive, and the government still seems to lack the parliamentary support it needs to secure the passage of the EU withdrawal treaty. Meanwhile, as a result of the continuing impasse, the UK now finds itself about to elect new representatives to the European Parliament, a body from which it has been trying to withdraw for the last two years.

None of this has done either the Conservatives or Labour any good. The cracks in their domination of the competition for the support of voters in evidence at the beginning of last month have now become a chasm. In the last couple of days, three polls of voting intentions for Westminster (that have also asked voting intentions for the Euro-elections) have on average put the Conservatives on 22%, while Labour stand at no more than 26%. These figures represent a drop of no less than 14 points in Conservative support since the beginning of April, while Labour are down nine points. In short, since the date on which the UK was originally meant to leave the EU, both parties appear to have been haemorrhaging support, such that they now command the support of less than half of those with a current vote intention – a position not seen in the polls since the headiest days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance in late 1981.

However, European Parliament elections are different from general elections. They are often portrayed as ‘second-order’ contests in which relatively few voters bother to vote, and those that do (a) often regard it as an opportunity to protest against the current perceived inadequacies of the government, and (b) are more willing to vote for smaller parties (a pattern that perhaps is further facilitated in the UK because EP elections are held under a system of proportional representation rather than single member plurality). Small, Eurosceptic parties often do particularly well, as attested by the success of UKIP at the last Euro-election, coming first with 27% of the vote (in Great Britain). In short, if, as seems to be the case, voters are unhappy with the way in which the Conservatives and/or Labour have handled Brexit, a European election provides an environment in which voters are particularly likely to make that unhappiness clear.

That, indeed, appears to be precisely what they are minded to do. Polling of how people say they would vote in the Euro-elections puts the level of both Conservative and Labour support even lower than that for a general election.  The Conservatives stand on average at just 11%, as much as eleven points adrift of their rating for Westminster. Labour’s position is not as dire, but, at 21%, support for the party is still five points down on what it currently is for Westminster. (In both cases a further reading published today from BMG Research largely confirms these figures.)

In the case of the Conservatives the principal reason for the drop in their support for Westminster and the fact that even fewer voters are likely to vote for them in the Euro-elections is clear – in a continuation of the pattern that was already in evidence in early April, the party has lost the support of many a Leave voter.

Just 28% of those who said they voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum now say they would vote for the Conservatives in a UK general election. This represents a drop of no less than 16 points on the average poll figure in early April. Meanwhile support for the Conservatives among Leavers in the Euro-election is another 17 points lower, standing at just 11%. This level of support is no higher than the equivalent figure among those who voted Remain – among whom support for the party in a general election has also fallen somewhat since early April, but, at six points, much less so than it has among those who voted Leave. (The further drop-off in support in how people say they will vote in the Euro-elections is lower among Remainers too.)

Most of these sometime Conservative Leavers have been enticed away by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has thoroughly eclipsed UKIP. Nearly three-fifths (58%) of those who voted Conservative in 2017 say that they will vote for the Brexit Party in the Euro-elections. Indeed, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all those who voted Leave are saying they will vote for Nigel Farage’s new organisation. It is very difficult to avoid any conclusion other than that most Leave voters find voting for a party that believes the UK should have left without a deal on March 29 much more attractive than backing one that so far has been unable to facilitate the UK’s exist from the EU.

But what about the loss of support that Labour is suffering? In line with the pattern we identified at the beginning of April, the party’s lost ground has not arisen as a result of an especially heavy loss among those on one side or other of the Brexit divide. Rather, the party has lost significant ground among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit rather more so among the former than the latter. Thus, the party now finds itself standing on average at 36% for Westminster among Remainers, a drop of eight points since early April, while it has the backing of 15% of those who voted Leave, a fall of five points. Meanwhile, the party is suffering a further drop-off in voting intentions for the Euro-election of seven points among Remainers and of five points among Leavers. In short, Labour’s compromise stance on Brexit may well have enabled the party to be more or less equally appealing to both Remainers and Leavers – it has just not been very successful at keeping either group of voters on board.

This pattern of losing ground among both Remainers and Leavers is reflected in the preferences for the Euro-election now being expressed by those who voted Labour in 2017. On the one hand Labour is losing some support to the Brexit Party, albeit on nothing like the scale of the defection being endured by the Conservatives. At present 12% of Labour’s vote at the last election (or around two in five of those who voted Leave) is heading in that direction. On the other hand, the party is also losing support to two of the parties that are in favour of a second EU referendum, that is, the Liberal Democrats (16%) and the Greens (13%). Nearly three in ten of all Labour voters – and thus rather more than one in three of those who voted Remain – have moved in that direction. As a result, between them the combined tally of support for the Liberal Democrats and Greens among 2016 Remain voters (36%) is now higher than that enjoyed by Labour (31%). The dominance that Labour has hitherto enjoyed among Remain voters has, it seems, been significantly eroded.

Moreover, there are signs that both these patterns have intensified since Easter. At that point, Labour’s loss of support to the Brexit Party stood on average at 8%, compared with 12% now. Meanwhile, only around one in six (16%) of 2017 Labour voters intended to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, or little more than half the proportion now.  The one consolation for Labour is that the challenge from Change UK, formed originally by a group of defecting Labour MPs, seems to be waning. Just 4% of 2017 Labour voters now say they will vote for the new pro-Remain party compared with 9% a fortnight ago.  This is part of a wider pattern in which Change UK (average Euro-vote 5%) seems to be losing the civil war with the Liberal Democrats (14%) for the socially liberal pro-Remain vote.

Challenges to the traditional Conservative and Labour duopoly are not new.  One at least – that posed by the SNP – has already destroyed that duopoly north of the border.  Both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have previously had their days in the sun – but not at the same time. UKIP’s initial rise in 2012 occurred after the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote following the formation of the Coalition in 2010. Now, however, in the wake of the Brexit impasse, the challenge is coming from both a Eurosceptic and Europhile direction at the same time. That, alone, might be thought to mean that it should be taken seriously.

Still, the real test of the electoral fallout from the Brexit impasse will come once the Euro-elections are over. Some, at least, of the loss of Conservative and Labour support for a Westminster election in the polls may be a temporary knock-on effect of the proximity of the European election. Previous Euro-election surges for one of the smaller parties have often been accompanied by a contemporaneous increase in their support for Westminster. However, that increase has then disappeared once, a few weeks later, the Euro-election has become little more than a distant memory. But unless the Brexit impasse is resolved soon, maybe this time the memory will remain fresh in voters’ minds – in which case expect to hear very little this summer about either Labour or, perhaps, a new Conservative leader manoeuvring to try and precipitate an early Westminster ballot.

What Impact Did The Brexit Impasse Have on The Local Elections?

There was a ready acceptance among politicians and commentators as the local election results gradually emerged on Thursday night and Friday morning that the outcome reflected voters’ views about Brexit. Not that they necessarily agreed as to what message the electorate were sending. Those of a Leave disposition interpreted the decline in both Conservative and Labour support as evidence that voters wanted the House of Commons to get on with delivering Brexit. Those of a Remain persuasion noted the increase in Liberal Democrat and Green support and suggested that the outcome represented an endorsement of the call that voters should decide the fate of Brexit in a second referendum. Of course, fitting the facts to match prior preconceptions has long become a familiar feature of the Brexit debate.

But what impact, if any, did Brexit have on the outcome of the local elections? In truth, discerning motivation from aggregate election results is always a potentially hazardous exercise. The ballots themselves tell us nothing about why people voted as they did. However, geography can provide us with some clues, especially if our proposition is one that implies that voters will have changed the party they support because of Brexit. If, for example, it is the case that Leave voters are disenchanted with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit and, as a result, were less willing to vote for the party in the local elections, we would anticipate that, other things being equal, the fall in Conservative support would be greater in those areas where more people voted Leave in 2016. Even then, it is not necessarily the case that such a pattern has been occasioned by the behaviour of Leave voters – it may be that Remain voters living in Leave areas were more likely to switch from the Conservatives than were Remain voters living in more pro-Remain areas – though such an explanation obviously seems less plausible. This, perhaps, is especially so given that there is plenty of contemporaneous polling evidence that Leave voters have been defecting from the Conservatives in large numbers.

Mind you, even this approach – looking at geography supplemented with evidence from opinion polls – has its limitations. What if both Remain and Leave voters have defected from a party in roughly equal proportions – as recent polls have suggested has been the position so far as Labour is concerned? Geographically, that should mean that there is little difference between Remain and Leave voting areas in the scale of that party’s losses. And maybe in turn that might mean that its loss of support has in fact nothing to do with Brexit. On the other hand, it could mean that the party’s stance on Brexit has led to a loss of support among both Remain and Leave supporters – perhaps because it backs a compromise that satisfies neither – and therefore has everything to do with Brexit. Distinguishing between these alternative interpretations might be thought near impossible – at least in the absence of polling information that might cast some further light on the issue.

To these considerations, one other has to be brought to bear – time. If we think that a party has lost ground among a body of voters we need to be clear ‘since when’ that is thought to have happened. In so far as we are interested in the impact of the ‘Brexit impasse’, that is, the failure of the House of Commons to progress the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we should be examining how party support has changed since the EU withdrawal treaty was unveiled in mid-November. There were, of course, no local elections at that time. However, there are local elections in England every spring, and, as a result, it is in many places possible to compare the performances of the party this year with what happened last year. That is still not ideal, but it is potentially more informative than simply comparing the outcome this year with what happened four years ago, in 2015, when local elections were held on the same day as a general election (and enjoyed much higher turnout as a result), even though that happened to be the occasion on which most (though not all) of the seats up for grabs last week had previously been contested. A lot of Brexit and non-Brexit water has passed under many bridges during the last four years, thereby potentially muddying our understanding of the impact of the Brexit impasse. This observation proves to be particularly important in understanding the performance of the Conservative party.

Given these observations, it should be apparent that the most straightforward way of trying to discern the impact of Brexit is to examine whether the change in a party’s share of the vote varied systematically between those areas that voted Remain and those that backed Leave. The following table is based on the detailed results in 720 wards located in 40 local authority areas as collected by the BBC. It shows the average change in the level of support for the three main parties in England since both 2015 and 2018, broken down by the level of support for Leave in 2016 in the council area in which the ward is located. Note that the table is also confined to those wards that each of Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats fought on both occasions – otherwise our figures might be distorted by changes in the pattern of candidature.


If, first of all, we focus on the left-hand-side of the table, on the changes in party support since 2015, we see some very clear patterns, albeit, perhaps, not always ones that we might have anticipated. In the case of the Liberal Democrats it seems quite clear that the party advanced more strongly in places where less than half voted Leave than in places where more than half did so. That would suggest the party’s anti-Brexit stance might have been successful in winning over Remain voters. Conversely, there is an indication that Labour might have performed worse in those places that voted most strongly to Leave, though beyond that there is little systematic difference. Here is a hint – though no more than that – that in the most pro-Brexit parts of the country Labour may have particularly lost ground among Leave voters.

However, the figures in the Conservative column do not support the claim that disenchanted Leave voters in particular have defected from the Conservative party in droves.  The party appears to have lost ground more heavily in pro-Remain areas than in those that voted most heavily for Leave. If this means anything at all, it would seem to imply that Remain voters have defected from the Conservative party because they are unhappy that the party is pursuing Brexit at all.

But then, we already know that that is indeed what has happened previously. It was a feature of the 2017 general election. Equally, last year’s local elections witnessed a tendency for the party to perform better in Leave voting areas than in Remain supporting ones. So, in comparing the results in 2019 with those in 2015 we may simply be picking up a movement that occurred some time ago, well before the Brexit impasse came into view.

That this is the case becomes apparent if we compare the Conservative performance last Thursday with what happened twelve months ago (see the right-hand side of the table). Then we see a very different, if less dramatic pattern. The party performed worse in places with a strong Leave vote, while its vote tended to fall less in more pro-Remain areas, altough the pattern is not an entirely straightforward one. Here is some sign that during the last twelve months the party has particularly lost ground among more Leave–inclined England, thereby partially – but only partially – reversing a previous tendency for the party to advance more strongly in such areas since the EU referendum.

In Labour’s case the link in last year’s local elections between the change in the party’s share of the vote and the outcome of the EU referendum was much weaker than was evident in the performance of the Conservatives. Consequently, when we look at the change in its share of the vote since 2018, the pattern is not dissimilar to that we saw when we examined the change in support since 2015 – again the party looks as though it performed least well in the most pro-Leave parts of the country. It seems then that rather than simply expressing frustration with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit, voters in Leave-inclined England seem to have withdrawn support from both main parties. Here, it seems is some evidence to support the claim that both parties were being punished for the Brexit impasse, albeit, perhaps, more especially by those of a pro-Leave disposition rather than by voters in general.

That said, what the comparison with last year’s local elections also makes clear is that both the Conservatives and Labour have lost ground heavily in both pro-Remain and pro-Leave England. As we noted above, how far such a pattern is a consequence of voters’ reaction to how they have handled Brexit is impossible to tell for sure. What, however, we do know is that both parties have seen their average standing in the opinion polls fall since mid-November, the Conservatives by no less than 11 points and Labour by six. We can therefore say that the results of the local elections are consistent with (and help to confirm) other evidence that both parties have struggled to maintain their support during the course of the Brexit impasse – albeit with the additional twist that perhaps Labour have in fact fallen back just as much as the Conservatives.

But what of the rise in support for the Liberal Democrats? Does this still appear to have been stronger in Remain voting areas when measured across the last twelve months rather than the last four years? To a degree, yes, but the difference is not as sharp as that over the longer time period. As in the case of the Conservatives and Labour what stands out most of all is a relatively poor performance in the most strongly pro-Leave parts of England. Otherwise, however, it is difficult to argue that the results suggest that the Liberal Democrats’ advocacy of a second referendum has brought the party a particular boost in Remain-inclined England in recent months – much, indeed, as the opinion polls have been suggesting.

Much the same has to be said of the Greens, who registered their best local election performance for a decade. Across all the wards where the party stood this time it won an average of 12%, while its vote increased by five points on last year in those wards it fought in both 2018 and 2019. But that increase was just as high in the most pro-Leave areas as it was in the most pro-Remain ones. Most likely the party’s success had more to do with the recent debate about climate change than the party’s stance against Brexit.

Still, at this point, there might be thought to be a bit of a puzzle. If the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were all performing less well in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year (and the Greens no better), then who was performing better?

Part of the answer, at least, is UKIP. The party only fought this year’s local elections on a limited scale, contesting just one in six of the seats.  But where it did stand – which was disproportionately in places that voted heavily to Leave (and seemingly more so than last year) – the party’s vote was up markedly on the nadir to which it had fallen a year ago. In those wards that it fought both this year and last year the party’s vote was up by as much as eight points, a figure that rose to 13 points in the most strongly pro-Leave areas.  This was enough to push the party’s average share of the vote across all the wards in which it stood this year up to 15%. Although this performance was still not as strong as in the local elections held in 2015 and 2016 (on both of which the party’s vote was down on average by four points), it represents clear evidence that the Brexit impasse has instigated a marked revival in support for a Eurosceptic party, even though that party is according to the polls now overshadowed by a newcomer, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. That gives every reason to anticipate that the challenge from that quarter will be greater in the Euro-elections when the new Eurosceptic party will be on the ballot.

Between them UKIP’s advance (missing though it was from the media headlines) and the especially poor performance by the Conservatives and Labour in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year represents the strongest evidence provided by the local elections that the Brexit impasse has had an impact on party support. It suggests that some more Leave-inclined voters at least did take the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with how Brexit has been handled, and that this cost both main parties support – including in the Conservatives’ case some of the gains that the party had previously made among this group in the immediate wake of the referendum. In contrast, caution certainly needs to be exercised in assuming that the rise in Liberal Democrat and Green support represents a markedly greater willingness by Remain voters in particular to switch to a pro-second referendum party in the wake of the Brexit impasse. More difficult to discern, however, are the implications of perhaps the most dramatic feature of the elections, that is, the sharp drop in both Conservative and Labour support on last year irrespective of how an area voted in the referendum. It might represent a cri de coeur from voters about the state of the Brexit process – but whether these voters agree about what they want done about it might be another thing.

A shorter version of this blog is available on the ukandeu.ac.uk website.