The Conservative share of the vote has risen at five successive general elections, as follows: 31.7 per cent (2001), 32.4 per cent (2005), 36.1 per cent (2010), 36.9 per cent (2015) and 42.3 per cent (2017). Until very recently, there seemed little point in treating the national opinion poll as any kind of guide to the next poll (and not only because of their well-advertised weaknesses, at least in 2015). Very roughly, they have showed the Tory vote hovering consistently at about 40 per cent or thereabouts since 2017. This year, Anthony Wells’ YouGov table shows the Party dropping pre-March as low as 35 per cent only once, in a Kantar poll on January 24.
Over the weekend, three polls for the European elections found the Conservatives at 13 per cent, 14 per cent and 16 per cent. For the sake of the argument, let’s treat these elections as sui generis, since the Party polled only 23.9 per cent in 2014 and 27.2 per cent in 2009. Though even then the levels of support suggested by these polls, and others, for these coming Euro-elections is alarming for it.
Now turn to Wells’ table of general election voting intention results. It records the Tories as last scoring above 40 per cent on March 11. Their ratings since March 15 have been as follows: 38 per cent, 35 per cent, 35 per cent, 35 per cent, 34 per cent, 38 per cent, 34 per cent, 38 per cent, 36 per cent and 33 per cent: that final poll’s publication date was March 24.
The days leading up to Friday March 15 saw the second “meaningful vote” in the Commons, its defeat by 149 votes, the passing of the Spelman amendment “to take no deal off the table”, and the announcement of a forthcoming vote on extension.
It takes no genius to work out that the bulk of the lost Tory votes have gone off to the Brexit Party, which is broadly being presented in the media as UKIP minus the extremism. The key event seems to have been the Theresa May’s decision in principle to seek extension.
Blame the ERG, if you like, for sinking her deal, the defeat of which was followed by the extension announcement. Or instead point the finger at Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, David Gauke et al for defying the Conservative whip to abstain on the Spelman amendment. In our view, that second reading of events is more accurate.
You may or may not back the deal, or believe that part of that lost seven per cent or so would return to the Conservative fold were it now passed. But you will have a very hard time arguing that this slice of the vote doesn’t care about extension. The long and short of it is that a significant percentage of the former Tory vote believed that the UK should leave the EU as promised on March 29 – deal or no deal.
Tory optimists will claim that these voters will come back to the blue corner, sooner or later. And that David Cameron won a majority in 2015 despite UKIP winning 12.6 per cent of the vote. They will add that first past the post is a killer for smaller parties. We are not so sure. The Conservatives have no divine right to these voters. And the EU referendum has shaken up traditional allegiances and loyalties even further.
Tory MPs have a choice. They can sit out the local and European election results, and hope for the best, with Parliament, in all probability, inching towards a second referendum, and risk the seven per cent or so who have left for the Brexit Party going for good.
Or they can change their leader as soon as possible, recast a Brexit policy around the Brady amendment or a time-limited backstop, prepare fully for No Deal – and take their case to the voters.
Neither option is palatable, to put it mildly. But the road on which the Conservatives are presently set leads towards a 1997-style wipeout. Spain’s electoral system and culture is very different from ours. None the less, the fate of the People’s Party, with its number of seats halved and a new challenger to its right is worth pondering, as Spain readies itself for a new socialist government.