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BARNABY TOWNS: Two years on since the referendum and the tide is turning

Former justice minister Phillip Lee. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Since the referendum politics have taken an anti-European turn. But, asks BARNABY TOWNS, what has shifted in political and public opinion?

Few, in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, would have foreseen that the government – so keen to trigger Article 50 – would still lack a negotiating position two years later, or that Britain would have held an inconclusive snap election in the intervening period, resulting in a hung parliament.

More predictable perhaps has been the emergence of a vocal group of pro-European Labour members of parliament, including Chuka Umunna, Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant, who, defying party whips, numbered 48 in a key vote on UK membership in the EU’s single market and customs union.

Labour, of course, was committed to the European project from its 1966 general election manifesto, making six general election commitments through 1979 and a further seven from 1987 to 2015, save one commitment to withdraw, in an ill-judged far-left manifesto in 1983 resulting in landslide defeat.

Scarcely less surprising given the Conservatives’ history – the party supported membership from Harold Macmillan’s 1961 application to join the European Economic Community though 14 general elections before 2017’s – is the emergence of a number of Tory rebels, whom Labour ally Umunna calls the ‘Tory sensibles’. Rather less kindly, the Daily Telegraph christened them ‘mutineers’, identifying 15 prepared to resist the power and patronage of their government on the European issue.

While there are undoubtedly more Brexit-sceptics among the government and opposition front benches, ostensibly bound by the requirements of collective responsibility to their prevailing party lines, resignations have been a rather lop-sided affair. Out of over 100 Labour resignations under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, 16 explicitly involved voting against the leadership on European policy. So far, only one Conservative minister, Phillip Lee, has resigned from the government on this issue.

In terms of public opinion – perhaps the key to this particular political problem – have the ‘young and old, Labour and Tory’ whom the Guardian reported as ‘united in their pro-European passion’ on Saturday’s march, moved the needle since the seismic shock of the referendum vote?

The answer is yes – and no.

The recent idea of a People’s Vote, in which electors choose between a government deal with the EU – assuming one is accomplished at some point – and continued EU membership, has gained traction. Some 48% of voters say they want a vote on a final deal – 35% of Leavers and 66% of Remainers – compared to only 25% who disagree, pollsters Survation found.

Beyond this preference for a People’s Vote, European separatists have failed to inspire confidence. In the last four YouGov polls that asked the question, nearly two-thirds of voters believe negotiations are going badly, while merely one-fifth think they are going well.

This is a sizeable shift from ORB’s 2016 research, in which opinion about negotiations split roughly into thirds saying Britain would get a good or a bad deal, or that they didn’t know.

In YouGov’s latest poll, 47% of voters said the Brexit decision was wrong compared to 40% saying it was right, the lowest number saying it was right yet recorded. But here pro-Europeans have less cause for cheer, as Britain is still more or less evenly divided two years on.

Notwithstanding YouGov’s latest 53% Remain and 47% Leave, with don’t knows excluded, in the last three months, different pollsters have asked the in-out question eight times.

These polls average 51.5% Remain and 48.5% Leave. While this 3.4% swing to Remain from 2016’s result is close to the 3.8% average for swings between parties in the last 10 general elections, it is not much of a pro-Remain swing compared to eve-of-referendum polls that placed Remain narrowly ahead.

Importantly, this shift is not the result of disproportionate buyer’s remorse among Leavers. Some 7% of Leavers have switched to Remain, but 7% of Remainers are now Leave. Rather, the pro-Remain tilt comes from those who did not vote last time. This group now splits 44% Remain to 19% Leave – the remainder say they don’t know. How many would vote in another referendum is anyone’s guess.

Second thoughts about leaving have blossomed in one of the UK’s four national components, however. Worried about a return to a hard border and the adverse implications of that for the fragile peace brokered by the 20-year-old Good Friday Agreement, opinion in Northern Ireland has shifted significantly from 56:44 in Remain’s favour two years ago, to 69:31 for Remain now. This recent Queen’s University Belfast poll represents a substantial 13% swing to Remain.

Delving deeper into national data, the latest YouGov poll finds 31% of Conservatives say the government’s Brexit decision is wrong, compared to 73% of Labour voters and 83% of Liberal Democrats.

The almost three-quarters of Labour voters who think the Brexit decision is wrong should perhaps concern the Labour Party’s currently Brexiteer leadership. Less discussed recently, however, is the significant minority of Remain Conservatives. Here, YouGov’s research backs up polling in March by Survation for a new group, Tories Against Brexit.

Interestingly, this polling company’s questions to 1,507 Tory voters found nearly half would support a People’s Vote, versus a little under one-third against. In pro-Remain London, nearly two-thirds of Tories support such a referendum, compared to only one quarter opposed.

The snap general election which saw a record 10% spike in Labour’s vote was a phenomenon the British constitutional expert, Oxford and London Professor Vernon Bogdanor has described as ‘the revenge of the Remainers’ and a picture emerges of an electoral ‘Brexit dividend’.

This was reinforced at the post-referendum Richmond Park and Lewisham East by-elections that recorded 22% and 19% swings to the Liberal Democrats from Conservatives and Labour, respectively.

Famously, one million marching in London did not overturn the UK’s seven-year bipartisan backing for the Iraq War. But the number of voters feeling unrepresented by the two main parties on Europe is sizeable, and may increasingly make itself felt at the ballot box.

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party adviser and CEO of Pioneer Strategy, a communications firm.

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