Opinion: Brexit Fundamentalism Spurns Tory Voters, Values

by Barnaby Towns

As Parliament begins to assert itself in opposition to a no-deal Brexit, the nation awaits the result of the Conservative Party’s leadership election.  The party’s 21-year-old experiment in membership democracy—exercising the final choice when Tory Members of Parliament forward two candidates for members to choose between—has never before been used in government and hasn’t always covered itself in glory.

            The first time that members chose the leader, in 2001, they elected Iain Duncan-Smith, despite polls showing the more experienced and charismatic Ken Clarke more popular among the public.  While Tory members backed the more electable David Cameron over David Davis in 2005, their decision followed three bruising general election defeats.  

            Now the signs are that the litmus test members will apply to the two remaining candidates is, as in 2001, their views on Europe.  Back then, Duncan-Smith had made his name as a rebel backbencher opposed to the integrationist Maastricht Treaty pushed through Parliament by John Major.  But that strain of Tory nationalism is yesterday’s news.  

To be viable with true-believer members, today’s candidates must back not only Brexit but also be prepared to countenance a no-deal crash-out.  No wonder the party which once championed Britain’s role in the European Project now chooses between a candidate who compared the European Union to the Nazis and one who likened the EU to the Soviet Union.

           Even the architect of members’ enfranchisement, William Hague, notes that they are “not remotely representative of society at large or even of their voters.”  Tory members’ average age is 57—compared to 40 among the population as a whole.  Nearly three-quarters are male.  More than half live in London or the south of England, according to Queen Mary University of London data.  They constitute just 0.25% of the population .

            Two-thirds of party members favour a no-deal departure from the EU—far higher than 30% among the electorate, and a higher share than all Leave voters, YouGov finds.  Six in 10 members supported Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the European Elections, according to Lord Ashcroft Polls.  Nearly half of members would be happy to see Farage as Tory leader and two-thirds back a Tory-Brexit Party general election pact, YouGov research records.

            Shockingly, traditional Tory touchstones are far less important to members than Brexit. Almost two-thirds of Tory members are prepared to accept Scottish independence to get Brexit, while six in 10 would support Brexit even if it meant a united Ireland.  Six in 10 also would not be deterred if Brexit caused “significant damage” to the UK economy.  

Further indicating entryism, more than half of members are prepared to contemplate the party’s complete destruction to achieve Brexit, YouGov research reveals.

            A mere 5% of party members back another referendum on EU membership, per YouGov’s data, while only 15% support Remain—compared to 30% of 2015 Tory voters in a recent Survation poll.  More than half of all 2015 Tory voters aren’t prepared to suffer any financial loss at all as a result of Brexit—the general election when Tories secured an overall majority for the first time in 27 years.

            This growing gulf between Tory voters and members spells trouble for the party’s electability and the Brexit fanaticism of most members has created a chasm between the party and the electorate as a whole.  YouGov and BMG polling show that 54% of the electorate wish to remain in the EU and divide evenly on support versus opposition for a new EU membership vote.

            Such divergence extends to support for the two Tory leadership contenders among voters versus members.  In a mega-poll of 8,000 voters conducted by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, 34% of all voters back Jeremy Hunt, and 27% support Boris Johnson, with 39% undecided.  Yet members favour Johnson by between two and three to one, according to YouGov and Tory party activist website, ConservativeHome.

            Among all voters, Tories poll 22% with Hunt as leader compared to 24.5% under Johnson in Ashcroft’s polling—a far cry from 2017’s 43% that was insufficient for an overall Tory majority.  Johnson takes more support from the Brexit Party, while Hunt attracts more Liberal Democrat votes.  Hunt enjoys a 28-point lead over beleaguered Jeremy Corbyn as preferred prime minister compared to an 18-point Johnson advantage.  

Alarmingly for the traditional party of the Union, a Johnson premiership would hike support for Scottish independence to 53% north of the border, Panelbase finds.

            Brexit fundamentalists likely will deliver Johnson the Tory leadership—but not the electoral success that has eluded Conservatives since embarking upon this journey.

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Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser