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Poll of polls: Democracy might have another surprise for May

Prime Minister Theresa May - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The Prime Minister thought she knew the Will of the People. But she has consistently misjudged it

A fortnight on from her catastrophically ill-judged election, Theresa May is still trying to repair the damage inflicted on her Brexit agenda by the British voters.

And yet it seems that democracy might yet have another surprise for the Prime Minister: polls are now showing a clear and consistent swing towards a majority in favour of staying in the EU altogether.

As our poll of polls shows today, opinion has fluctuated in the year since June 23, 2016. But recent months have seen a marked advance in the anti-Brexit cause. With negotiations already under way in Brussels, not only is the prime minister hamstrung by newly-empowered ministerial colleagues/rivals and an invigorated opposition, she must now also contend with public opinion turning sharply towards wanting to cancel the whole operation.

It comes at the end of a week in which the Prime Minister has tried desperately – and in vain – to regain the initiative. A threadbare Queen’s Speech shows the depth of the crisis, with election pledges on grammar schools, winter fuel payments, foxhunting and more, jettisoned. All the focus of the speech was on Brexit – well, that and the Queen’s remarkable ‘EU flag’ headgear in which she chose to deliver it.

Even the feeble legislative programme outlined will come to nothing unless an, as yet unstruck, deal can be reached with the intractable DUP, who continue to offer EU negotiators a masterclass in how to use the weakness of others to maximum effect.

There has, though, at last been a change of tone from Downing Street. Now that Jeremy Corbyn is using the ‘strong and stable’ phrase to mercilessly torment the PM, she has moved on to ‘humility and resolve’. Her apology over the response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was another sign of a change of approach, and another indicator of frantic manoeuvring behind the scenes.

In Downing Street, the heavy haemorrhaging of senior staff has continued – always a sure sign of a flailing organisation. Only this week policy chief John Godfrey left Number Ten.

Some of the staffers who have quit – notably communications director Katie Perrior who walked out immediately after the PM called the election – have gone rogue and attacked the chaos surrounding the campaign efforts. Even if that does not continue, the churn of staff is another impediment to her attempts at ‘business as usual’.

It is also another sign of her weakness – something which her members of her cabinet, as well as the DUP, are keen to exploit. With Brexit no longer a done deal, things are shifting fast in Westminster, as well as in public opinion. As things progress, they are likely to go hand in hand.

Because among those others empowered by the result are the pollsters. Before the election, polling firms were in the doldrums. They had failed miserably to predict the Brexit vote and, perhaps even more spectacularly, missed the rising anti-politics tide that swept Donald Trump into the White House.

But many firms proved far more adept than politicians and pundits at detecting the Labour surge and relative Conservative collapse. Still, delicious stories are emerging to show just how much this was the case. At 9.55pm on June 8, one Tory campaign advisor when asked via text message to predict the result said: ‘The campaign has been rubbish. But we will still get a 65, maybe 70, seat majority.’ At 10.01pm he added: ‘Fuck.’

Politicians are now paying more heed to the polls. Especially the three YouGov Brexit surveys produced since the election, which have seen a spike in people claiming they would now vote to remain in the EU.

This has buoyed the Chancellor in particular who is wondering if the will of the people is changing for good now the complexity of the negotiations is becoming clearer and the task ahead blatantly arduous.

If May had nailed that 100 seat majority, like Tories the length and breadth of the land believed she would, Philip Hammond’s Mansion House speech would not have mentioned a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. But now the quiet man of the cabinet – who was expecting to be returned to the backbenches by the new, all-powerful uber May after her crowning – is causing trouble.

And there have been moves by senior Tories to reach out to Labour, to build a grand Brexit coalition. Or, as one Tory put it: ‘Let them share the blame’.

Another aide, now working in a much-weakened Number 10, said: ‘They [ministers] are doing what they want now. Nick [Timothy] and Fi [Hill – former joint chiefs of staff] had them terrified before but now they are doing whatever they like.

‘The Mansion House speech won’t have gone down well. The inner circle still think immigration should be the battle cry on Brexit. But the conversation has moved on. Things have changed.

‘But it doesn’t matter – the prime minister could probably order one line and we’d still hear the opposite the very next morning on Today.’

But it is not just Hammond who is newly emboldened. After a campaign where ministers were conspicuous in their absence they are suddenly everywhere. And for the more Machiavellian among them the tussle for the Tories has begun. First though, what to do with Theresa?

They have two serious options – and factions are forming. The first was the plan agreed immediately after the election: Do nothing and let her take the blast from Brexit.

Even the most ardent Brexiteers in government will tell you privately there will be pain after the UK leaves the EU. And to soothe pain the public tend to retaliate. May would make a perfect human shield.

This is the plan preferred by Brexit secretary David Davis, who is perhaps now the most powerful man in government after threatening the PM that he would lead a procession of ministers to her office that would politely, but firmly, tell her ‘time’s up’. His demands for a restrained reshuffle and the heads of terrible twins Timothy and Hill were met without a murmur from May.

He even managed to rein Boris Johnson in after a frenzied night of back-channel chatter about imminent leadership bids as the results rolled in. Whether he is lining up his own bid post-Brexit remains unclear although one source said she thought he was ‘sincere’ when he claimed he would not stand again.

Davis had settled the restless contenders by gutting May’s vicious cabal and offering the prospect of an 18-month beauty parade. Everyone was happy: Johnson could address his new-found unpopularity within the party and win back some friends, Hammond could build a consensus for a Soft Brexit and the reinstated Michael Gove could reassert himself.

Then came May’s astonishing decision not to meet Grenfell Tower victims and fears bubbled from the backbenches that she could end up doing irrevocable damage to the party. One backbencher – an ardent David Cameron supporter – said: ‘She made us look ridiculous during the campaign and she made us look ridiculous in the immediate aftermath. But after the tower block fire she made us look uncaring. I fear we will lose to Labour if we don’t move to get rid sooner rather than later.’

And so a second option is now being talked about in Westminster: tell her to go at summer recess and lance the boil. This plan is gaining traction outside the cabinet but the big beasts would prefer a DUP deal to be sorted quickly and Brexit out of the way first. The claim there is no appetite for a leadership contest is not true – there is, just not right now. And the reason no-one wants to wrest the tiller from the mortally-wounded May just yet is that no-one wants to go back to the polls.

The Conservatives fear a blood bath at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party wielding that most powerful of political weapons: hope.

Talk of another early election makes most Tories wince. Yet if there was a new prime minister without a mandate to lead the country the pressure to go back to the country would slowly intensify.

Maybe, using Brexit as an excuse, any new premier could put off a return to the ballot box. But the candidates who are now jostling for position at the head of the party want some protection from the inevitable Brexit fall out.

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