James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Theresa May grasps the power of the 52 per cent of the public that voted Leave. To the extent she’s commented, she’s made it clear that pro-EU politicians can say what they like – we’re leaving.
May knows that seeming to give an inch on our exit will finish her off politically. Which explains the Government’s immediate reaction to today’s news from the High Court.
While a small number of other politicians hold the same view as May, it’s extraordinary how many others think nothing of apparently disregarding the result and publicly questioning the sanity of those that voted Leave. Some may see today’s ruling as the beginning of a campaign to dilute or reverse June’s decision.
It’s extraordinary how little fear there is of the political power of provincial England – even though it always decides who takes power.
Certain political parties and personalities oppose the result for their own ends. It makes sense for the SNP to use the referendum as a wedge between England and Scotland – and also for Lib Dems to rally around an issue that’s important to activists when they’re barely surviving.
But the dismissal of the eurosceptic provincial English electorate goes further than this. It’s reasonably common in the Tory Party and endemic elsewhere. Why?
Thinking about the immediate term, there’s been little organised campaigning by eurosceptics since June. Paul Goodman and I have discussed the vacuum left by Vote Leave’s closure, which is now encouragingly being filled by Change Britain. UKIP’s implosion has also removed a major eurosceptic voice that was previously heard loudly.
Fundamentally though, politicians don’t fear provincial England politically because they don’t get it. The parties have ignored the provincial English lower middle class for the last decade and a half.
As I’ve discussed previously, politicians have preferred to focus – in policy and campaign terms – on smaller groups of voters that are more interesting to the media and that have lobby groups campaigning loudly for them.
Politicians’ lack of interest in provincial England is more than matched by much of the British media. Some commentators think nothing of drilling into the mindset of Trump voters in West Virginia, but they don’t take the same interest in voters in West Yorkshire.
Provincial England has historically been very, very quiet. If the Tory Party aren’t campaigning on their behalf, as they once did, they have no one to do it for them.
But those politicians that think the silence of the provincial English reflects a lack of interest in the referendum result – and a commitment to it – are making a mistake. Those that apparently disregard the result risk a backlash at the ballot box next time.
And if the provincial English believed that the result was actually being disregarded or unpicked, the demonstrations of The 48 would be completely dwarfed by those of The 52 – who ultimately care much more about the result.
This isn’t to say that those that oppose the result should simply shut up. An orderly and effective Brexit requires an extremely lively debate that puts every decision under the microscope. This is the best way to avoid mistakes. Historically pro-EU voices have an important role to play here.
But professional politicians – who speak and campaign for a living and know the power of their words – will find themselves out of office or their party in deep opposition if they continue to treat provincial England with contempt. They should tread very carefully around today’s ruling and its aftermath.