Can Theresa May sell her proposed deal with the EU to the public? This isn’t the only question that matters at the moment – or indeed the most important question; what Government colleagues and MPs think is more important. However, the Prime Minister has indicated that she is prepared to speak directly to voters about the merits of the deal. And with the possibility of another close election never far from people’s minds, politicians will be thinking hard about what their behaviour means for their own and their party’s (re)election chances. So, what are her chances?
If you look at the small number of published polls to date, things don’t look good. YouGov’s last poll on this, a week ago, showed the public opposed the draft deal by 45 per cent to 23 per cent (with the rest saying don’t know). Remain voters opposed the deal by 50 per cent to 22 per cent and Leave voters by 47 per cent to 28 per cent. Furthermore, YouGov’s latest tracker on the Government’s handling of exit negotiations showed people think they are handling it badly by a massive 75 per cent to 14 per cent. And if you look at the media coverage, things don’t look good either. While the Daily Mail has generally been very supportive of the Prime Minister and her negotiating strategy and record, both the Telegraph and The Sun have come out against the deal. What, and how, these papers report on Brexit issues clearly makes a difference to public opinion.
So there’s no question she starts from a difficult place. But all is not lost, for her. There are five reasons why May stands at least a chance of moving opinion somewhat in her favour.
Let’s deal with the first and most obvious of these: the fact no one really knows much about the proposed deal at all. The Brexit debate has become so polarised that many people will say they oppose it, purely because it makes our exit inevitable. And many Leave voters will say they oppose it purely because they think two years of opaque negotiations amid Leave politicians’ criticism must have ultimately delivered a bad result. While it’s a mistake to think that Governments can always move the polls by closing the knowledge gap, as opposition campaigns also have that opportunity, it is nonetheless an encouraging starting point for the Prime Minister.
The second reason is that most voters are scared or bored or both. May has been saying loudly that the public just want the issue settled. While some in the media and outside have reacted badly to this – as if she’s patronising voters – the reality is she is entirely in tune with the public. I’ve been running focus groups that have touched on Brexit and the negotiation process for the last two years, and it’s clear people are at the outer edges of their patience on the issue. Unrealistic as it may have been, the public thought we’d be out soon after June 2016. It’s only been a couple of years but voters are completely mystified as to why negotiations have dragged on for so long. The delay has brought about a mix of exasperation and boredom – “when will it all end? – but also real fear. Minds are being concentrated that maybe things weren’t ever that simple in the first place. Dangling a deal in front of them where things will finally be settled could be very attractive.
Thirdly, most Leave voters are primarily immigration voters – and May can claim this deal delivers on border control. Leave-minded politicians don’t like hearing it for some reason, and it emphatically doesn’t make Leave voters racist, but immigration was clearly these voters’ top issue. While polls have shown that they wanted to “take back control” above all, what they wanted was to take back control of borders – and Vote Leave’s late stream of effective ads on border control amplified these concerns. Had David Cameron done better initially with his negotiations and secured greater restrictions on welfare to new arrivals, plus having demonstrably reduced immigration from outside the EU, there’s a reasonable chance he would have won the referendum. By saying that she has secured border control for the UK at last, May can claim she has delivered for Leave voters.
Fourthly, Leave voters aren’t driven by national prestige. The point here is that those campaigning against the deal by saying that it’s a national humiliation and that we’ll be a vassal state, and so on, are forgetting why people voted Leave in the first place. Again, in two years of speaking to huge numbers of Leave voters, I cannot recall a single one that talked about how Brexit would bring about a national revival. Leave voters – and the overwhelming majority of voters nationally – couldn’t care less about themes like influence, power, national self-esteem, or the idea of playing a global role. Most would sooner we never fought a foreign war again or intervened in foreign disputes – and many are sceptical about the benefits of foreign trade. They voted leave for entirely parochial reasons like quicker access to GP appointments. As such, appeals to their patriotism in this way are doomed to fail. This strengthens May’s hand in talking about the basic delivery of practical victories.
Fifthly and finally, Brexiteers have failed to unify to offer a credible alternative. While there have been credible and interesting publications on an alternative approach to the Government’s, Brexiteers have ultimately been divided on the best approach – and they haven’t been able to unify behind a candidate. Had Boris Johnson left much earlier and set out his stall, things might have been different but his time has now come and gone. This gives this Government the advantage that successive Governments have enjoyed over Eurosceptics for decades: “this is our plan, what’s yours?”
There are clearly many, many things that could go wrong for the Prime Minister. Allies in the US might start repeating President Trump’s concerns about our ability to do a deal with the US, for example; this could have a negative impact on public opinion – one of the things people actually care about. There might be further resignations. Conservative activists might make a more formal intervention. But, as it stands this morning, Conservative strategists will at least be thinking that they can work with public opinion. And if they can work with the public – with voters – then they will think they might start persuading vote hungry politicians that they ought to listen. It might be a long shot but it’s something.