Our latest ConservativeHome survey – responded to by around 1,200 Party members – has found 71 per cent of members still do not support the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, with 25.9 per cent in agreement with her proposal. That result shows remarkable consistency from the November survey, which found 71.7 per cent against and 24.94 in favour. An optimist might see a very slight improvement there for Theresa May, with one per cent switching their view in her favour. But realistically that is such minimal movement that it would be reasonable to declare “nothing has changed” in members’ views on the principle of the matter.
Of course, disagreeing with the Prime Minister’s deal and wanting it voted down are not necessarily one and the same view. In November’s survey we asked a supplementary question – did respondents think MPs should vote for the deal or not – and doing so identified a gap between principle and practice. While around 25 per cent of members supported the deal, around 30 per cent thought MPs should vote for it.
That phenomenon offered Downing Street a slim hope, but a hope nonetheless, that if outright support was too much to ask then it might be possible to build at least some kind of reluctant acceptance among Eurosceptic Party members.
We’ve seen the Government press hard on exactly that angle since then. The deal is “not perfect”, ministers concede. Indeed, the Prime Minister openly seeks to secure additional reassurances about the limitations of its most glaring flaws. But it is “the best deal available”, and – what’s more – the alternatives would, we are told, be worse. “The choice would be between no Brexit at all and a no deal Brexit,” as Theresa May told the Conservative Friends of Israel. Whitehall has produced doomsday scenarios to raise alarm about No Deal, big Tory beasts have been wheeled out to denounce disloyalty and encourage unity, and even the spectre of a Corbyn government has been raised.
In short: having implicitly accepted that it is a tall order to encourage people to learn to love the deal, the Prime Minister and her advisers have put a lot of effort into the less demanding (but also less compelling) line of appealing to begrudging practicality. A bird in the hand, and so on. Particularly after the failed attempt by MPs to unseat May, Downing Street hoped a good number of critics would accept that she had asserted a right to fulfil her programme and duly come back into line.
Among our panel of Conservative Party members, however, that approach has produced only limited change. 30.8 per cent of Party member respondents are now of the view that MPs should approve the deal – a rise of 1.1 percentage point on last month, while the proportion who believe MPs should not approve it stands at 65.1 per cent, down 2.7 percentage points since November.
So the lead of opponents of the deal has narrowed slightly, to a still large 34.3 per cent, and ‘Don’t Know’ gained more ground than the idea of MPs approving the deal. The numbers still imply that only about five per cent of members occupy that interesting space of not supporting the deal but wanting MPs to vote for it.
Thus far, the Government’s campaign does not appear to be working very well among its own grassroots. What change there has been is nowhere near fast enough to reverse the situation by March.