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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The energy with which committed Remain voters have voiced their opposition to the Brexit process, and the relative quiet of Leave voters, who were previously considered rowdy, seems to have convinced many that the latter regret their choice in June 2016. Not only is this wrong, but taking decisions on this basis, and significantly softening the settlement that the public is expecting, risks sparking a massive backlash against the mainstream parties.
In his blog last week, Dominic Cummings, the former campaign director of Vote Leave, wrote about what, in his view, will happen if the Government (this one or a future one) backtracks on Brexit – by perhaps, say, insisting on a second referendum. “Further, I’m told many of your committee support the Adonis/Mandelson/Campbell/Grieve/Goldman Sachs/Financial Times/CBI campaign for a rematch against the country. Do you know what Vote Leave 2 would feel like for the MPs who vote for that (and donors who fund it)? It would feel like having Lawrence Taylor chasing you and smashing you into the ground over and over and over again.”
Whether you like Cummings’ style or not, it’s hard not to judge that he’s right. Leave voters haven’t expressed remorse for their vote, even amid the backdrop of apocalyptic media coverage over the last couple of years. The number of people that think it was right to leave the EU has been stable for two whole years. This is extraordinary – and is certainly my experience from my own focus group research, in which people express bafflement that things are taking as long as they are, rather than any sort of remorse.
As I’ve written many times, the immediate forces that propelled lLave voters to the polling stations last June were, chiefly, concerns about immigration and the financial costs of membership. But the backdrop to all of this was, and is, the existence of an anti-politics culture in Britain – a weariness of the political class and a general scepticism of the merits of what these people say. This has been growing since the early 1990s.
This made the Remain campaign’s arguments much less powerful. When the warnings of a Prime Minister, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Bank of England Governor and even President of the United States are all discarded as if they came from B-List celebrities, you know that there’s a problem with trust. Michael Gove was widely mocked for saying that people had had enough of experts. But the line played so well because it had a fundamental ring of truth to it. People are fed up with being told what to do by people with no record of success (as these voters see it).
If Brexit doesn’t play out as people have been led to believe that it will, this anti-politics sentiment will move from being an important part of the backdrop to British politics to its central defining feature. Certain sections of the London and South East electorate might be pleased, but provincial England will be a scene of political chaos. Not only will the recent gains made by the Conservative Party in the Midlands and North be vulnerable, but its very status in these areas will be vulnerable, too. Every single opposition campaign, regardless of whether it was linked to the EU or not, will lead with two words: “you lied”.
Politicians in Westminster think UKIP is dead and buried. Not true, as Dominic Cummings implied – or, rather, not exactly true. People haven’t turned away from UKIP because they don’t believe in the message, but because they think the job has been done: that the country is taking back control of its borders and finances. (This is why immigration is dropping down the list of public priorities too). If this looks as though it’s no longer the case, votes will come flooding back into UKIP and, perhaps more importantly, to independent candidates that campaign on the “You Lied” platform. Every town North of Watford will find one of those that can make that case well.
Established party candidates will find themselves under challenge everywhere. In every single interview with a public audience and at every single hustings, they’ll spend most of their time explaining why they haven’t betrayed the electorate. They will struggle to make people believe any promises on any issue again. Anyone that spent any time in the 2000s and early 2010s researching public attitudes to the EU will remember the comments from older voters about Britain joining the EEC. “We were told it was just about trade”. If there was anger then, it will be mild compared to what will come.