James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
Can Theresa May now secure public support for a deal, or will the public now reject anything that comes out from Number 10? Have the Conservatives effectively reached a point where their reputation for trust and competence is so weak they can’t now sell anything at all to the electorate at large? And, by that, I don’t mean to ask whether Theresa May’s Government is irreparably damaged, but whether the Conservative Party’s brand is now damaged beyond repair – and that they’re heading for Opposition, regardless of who leads them.
Let’s look at we know. Understandably, there haven’t been many new polls on the relative attractiveness of the Prime Minister’s deal versus other options. The last public poll I can find was from the middle of last month from YouGov, showing that her proposed deal played much less well, on this divided subject, than either “no deal” or a second referendum. A more recent ConservativeHome members panel suggests that Party members are now opposed to the Prime Minister’s deal – marking a significant change in the direction of travel for members (who appeared to have begun reluctantly to believe the PM’s deal was the only way to avoid a softer Brexit, or none at all).
Relatedly, we also know that the Brexit Party is surging. A recent YouGov poll on voting intention for the European elections shows the Brexit Party leading the Conservatives and Labour by 34 per cent to 16 per cent to 10 per cent. The same poll shows, for Westminster voting intention, the Conservatives neck and neck with Labour in the low mid-20s. And a new ComRes poll also shows the Conservatives and the Brexit Party tied on Westminster voting intention.
All this suggests a deal is going to be a hard sell to the public. Ordinarily, it would be important to draw a clear distinction between public attitudes and member / activist attitudes. Very often, Prime Ministers can, if they’re strong, cast aside activist sentiment and target the public as a whole.
However, the problem for the Prime Minister has is that, given so few people know or ever will know anything about the deal, most of them will only hear about it through some sort of filter. This filter will likely be a hard Eurosceptic one: even soft-Eurosceptics are going to hear about the deal through a hard-eurosceptic filter – given that hard eurosceptics are those most active online and in the media. Most people will hear that the deal is flawed and doesn’t reflect the referendum vote.
Which brings us to the question as to whether the Conservatives can now sell anything at all. Polls that probe hypothetical scenarios are of limited use. And so it is that questions about how people might feel about the Conservatives under a different leader are imperfect. But they would at least reveal whether the public had a strong preference for a new leader; at this point, however, they don’t. A ComRes poll and a DeltaPoll poll both recently suggested there wouldn’t be much uplift if Theresa May was replaced. Again, we should attach health warnings to both.
But we can’t write off the possibility that the Conservatives are now entering an existential crisis. I wrote before about David Gauke’s ludicrously breezy performance just after the Government failed to meet its stated deadline of leaving the EU by the end of March. He gave the impression that he couldn’t have cared less about delay, as if the Government had failed to cut back its spending on biscuits.
Since then, very few senior Conservatives seem to have grasped the scale of public anger and their sense of betrayal – and this includes those now positioning themselves for the leadership. Some of the performances of recent weeks have been laughable. There is now a developing crisis surrounding trust and competence. To be clear, the Conservatives look two-faced and stupid. No one has a prayer of bringing voters back to the Party if they don’t basically get on their knees and beg for forgiveness from the electorate.
Older readers will remember well how the Conservatives lost their reputation for economic competence in 1992 after Britain crashed out of the ERM – even though the economy flourished outside and for nearly five years before the next election. The Government went into the 1997 election with a great story to tell on the economy. But people simply remembered 1992, and believed that the Government was run by idiots. We all know what happened next. It’s too early to tell – but it is at least a possibility that the Party has just experienced another one of these moments. Tory MPs should be thankful their main opponent is a clown.