Theresa May might have been able to put off a vote on her Brexit deal in the House of Commons yesterday, but that decision has simply precipitated a confidence vote this evening in her leadership of her party. The argument that attempting to change the Prime Minister would upset the Brexit timetable lost much of its force when that timetable was put on hold anyway. Now, doubtless central to the considerations in many Conservative MPs’ minds as they decide how to vote on Mrs May’s future will be both what they think of the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister has secured so far and whether they think Mrs May is the best person to lead the negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU on which the government is due to embark after the UK leaves on 29 March next year.
One piece of evidence that Tory MPs might think relevant to their deliberations is what Conservative voters make of the Brexit process so far. If those who support the party are critical of what Theresa May has achieved then MPs might think that is one reason to vote against her. On the other hand, if the party’s supporters are largely content with her achievements to date, MPs might think she deserves to stay as their leader.
What is relatively clear is that Conservative supporters comprise a predominantly a pro-Brexit group of voters. When YouGov most recently asked people whether they thought in hindsight the Brexit vote had been right or wrong, two-thirds (67%) of those who currently say they would vote Conservative said that the vote had been right, while only around a quarter (26%) felt that it had been wrong. Similarly, in the most recent poll to break down how people would vote in a second referendum by how they would vote in an immediate general election, two-thirds (67%) of Conservatives told ComRes that they would vote to Leave, while just 28% stated they would back Remain. Most Conservative voters are then asking whether May is delivering Brexit well rather than questioning whether she should be pursuing it in the first place.
Moreover, those who currently say they would vote Conservative comprise one group who, on balance at least, are inclined to back Mrs May’s Brexit deal. For example, in a recent poll that BMG conducted for the pro-Brexit organisation, Change Britain, 44% of current Conservative supporters say they approve of the deal, while just 29% stated they disapprove. Similarly, when YouGov most recently asked their respondents whether they thought MPs should accept or reject the deal, as many as 52% of Conservatives said they should accept it, while only 33% rejected it.
Even so, these might well be thought to be rather modest levels of support amongst Conservative supporters for a major policy being promoted by a Conservative leader. Much of it might perhaps also be relatively reluctant support. For example, when YouGov asked the very same respondents who answered the question about what MPs should do whether they themselves supported or opposed the deal, the 44% of current Conservative supporters who said that they supported the deal was nearly matched by 41% who said that they opposed it. Meanwhile, when Ipsos MORI asked whether it would be a good or a bad thing for the UK to leave the EU on the proposed terms, rather more Conservatives (47%) said that it would be a bad thing than reckoned it would be a good thing (40%).
Moreover, even current Conservative supporters are far from enamoured of how well the government has been negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. In their most recent reading on this subject, YouGov found that no less than a half of Conservatives (50%) said that the government had been handling the negotiations badly, while only 42% felt that it had been doing so well. There is evidently some unease among those who back the party about how well the Brexit process has been handled so far.
But perhaps Mrs May’s biggest difficulty is that when Conservative supporters are faced with a choice between accepting her deal and pursuing an alternative course of action, many of them say they would prefer a harder Brexit than the one that she seems to have in mind. For example, when YouGov most recently asked their respondents to choose between leaving the EU on the basis of the Prime Minister’s deal, leaving without a deal, or remaining in the EU, the 41% of Conservatives who said their first preference was to accept the deal was almost matched by the 39% who stated that their first choice would be to leave without a deal. A second YouGov poll found that, although, when faced with a range of options, 41% of Conservatives felt that Britain should leave the EU on the basis of the deal, as many as 36% either said that Britain should reject the deal and either leave without one or else seek a new one.
The inclination of many (but far from all) Conservative voters to pursue a harder Brexit was also in evidence when BMG presented voters with a very wide range of alternative courses of action, ranging from leaving without a deal at one end through to having a second referendum on whether to leave or not at the other. In this instance, as many as 53% of Conservatives chose either leaving ‘the EU and trading on WTO rules’ or pursuing in one way or the other a ‘Canada plus style free trade deal’. Just 14% picked out the government’s deal. Similarly, when faced with a straight choice between accepting the withdrawal agreement on the one hand and ‘leaving the EU and trading on WTO rules’ on the other, slightly more Conservatives (52%) backed the latter course of action than supported the former.
In short, much like the party itself, Conservative voters appear to be roughly evenly divided between those who are willing to back Mrs May’s deal and her approach to the Brexit negotiations, and those who are more critical and would prefer a harder Brexit. That reality will not make the decision that Tory MPs now face any easier.