Dr Sarah Ingham is a former Deputy Chairman of Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.
If any conclusions can be drawn from Thursday’s local election results, it’s that the great British public isn’t actually too bothered about Brexit.
UKIP has not just stumbled but crumbled: having previously voted in their millions for them, it looks like voters are thinking ‘job done’ and have moved on. Similarly, the lacklustre performance of the LibDems is hardly a ringing endorsement for continuing the battle to Remain, let alone for the Party’s demands for EuroRef2. North of the border, with the SNP’s supremacy dented, Scotland’s voters have shown themselves to be more interested in retaining the Union than in the European Union.
Maybe, just maybe, the pollsters, the pundits and the politicos who overwhelmingly got it wrong when it came to predicting last year’s Referendum result, have been equally mistaken to have focused on Europe to the exclusion of almost every other aspect of public policy since 23rd June.
Unlike politicians, voters don’t view everything through the prism of Brexit: they have more important things to worry about.
The public made up its mind about the EU almost 11 months ago: they’re off. They are now in the position of airline passengers at 37,000 feet. They trust the pilots will bring them safely into land, even if there’s a bit of turbulence along the way. Rather than considering how the plane flies, they’d prefer to watch an inflight movie. And alarmist talk about disaster isn’t particularly welcome.
Traditionally, Europe has always been a minority interest, way down the list of priorities for most voters. Repeated surveys showed that it was always trumped by concerns about the economy. Even in the 2015 General Election, health was the number one issue for more than two-thirds of the electorate, according to one poll. This finding was echoed by Lord Ashcroft. His survey in the immediate aftermath of the election also revealed the economy and jobs came second. Europe had salience for voters only in the context of ‘controlling immigration’ rather than ‘defending Britain’s interests in Europe’.
Perhaps worried about their mortgages, student loans or the lack of housing for their grand-kids, Brexit wasn’t uppermost in most voters’ minds in the polling booths on Thursday. But, if they tuned in to the post-poll analysis, it was business as usual: the interviewers and the interviewed banging on, and on, and on, about Europe.
It seems not to have occurred to broadcasters that, over recent months, the many Brits identified as Just About Managing are just about managing to stay awake as the latest – and ultimately trivial – twist in the UK-EU divorce battle leads the news bulletins. And formal negotiations haven’t even started.
All parties should now reflect on how useful their Euro-obsession has been and wonder whether it isn’t viewed by voters as displacement activity. Grandstanding about a soft/hard, extreme/moderate Brexit takes up a lot of time that could be filled with coming up with, for example, a meaningful policy on child care.
The Conservatives can take satisfaction in Thursday’s results which have highlighted how voters view the shambles that is the Corbyn-led Labour party.
The affluent on both sides of the Brexit debate might consider the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe to be the most important political question of their lifetime. But for many less financially-advantaged voters, social justice is a tad more relevant to them than the European Court of Justice.
With the impending launch of the Conservative manifesto, it is to be hoped that the Party lifts its eyes from Europe and focuses on issues that are closer to home.