James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The public love the idea of politicians from different parties working together to fix difficult policy problems. In any focus group that deals with Westminster politics you’ll hear people ask “why can’t they all just work together?”; or “why do they always oppose each other for its own sake?” They usually have a point, and it’s strange more British politicians don’t make an effort to reach across party lines on issues. And this is why the Prime Minister’s decision to engage with the Labour Party on Brexit will likely be immediately superficially popular with the public as a whole.
I haven’t been able to track down the full tables, but according to the Sunday Times a “snap” Labour poll is said to show significant topline support for their engagement with the Government on this. Why then would such a move only be superficially popular and not generally wildly popular? There are a series of problems with this decision, which can be put into short-term and long-term categories.
Let’s consider the short-term first. The most obvious problem is that, while people like the idea of political cooperation between parties, it’s ultimately not the process that they like but the potential outcome. On most issues, but on Brexit above all, people like the idea of the parties cooperating to deliver what they personally want to see: cooperation to leave more quickly; or cooperation to hold a second referendum, or to remain. The sheer exhaustion amongst voters will also make cooperation more immediately popular. But this will not ultimately be more powerful than their desire either to clearly Leave or clearly Remain. What they will not say is: “I didn’t agree with the outcome, but the Prime Minister gets my vote because she listened to her opponents”. One side at least will be disappointed by the process and immediate sympathy is likely to lead to short-term irritation.
Now let’s look at the longer-term – and here the decision was fraught with extreme political danger. Others have pointed out that meeting Corbyn in this way – effectively “as an equal” – has made him look Prime Ministerial; this is true, and this is a problem, but there are other problems too. Corbyn not only looks moderate by engaging in such talks, but he also looks like he’s working in the national interest – which completely undermines the Conservatives’ messaging over the last few years. Furthermore, and most concerning of all, it sends the message out that the Conservatives are willing to publicly negotiate with someone that they have spent the last year saying is trying to frustrate the Brexit process.
At just the time when the public were finally starting to hear that it wasn’t just opposition parties whose MPs were trying to undermine Brexit, but in fact many such opponents came from within Conservative ranks, and at just the time when the public started to question the Prime Minister’s seriousness in seeing Brexit through because of the announced delay, the Government announces talks with an apparent enemy of the entire process of leaving. The decision therefore cannot but have sent the message to many voters (not all, but a growing number) that this Government is no longer serious about delivering Brexit.
The whole decision was therefore potentially a giant electoral mistake. The polls are already showing the Conservatives dropping to the low 30s – and they surely have further to drop.
This Prime Minister is not a politician with a clear political or electoral philosophy; she doesn’t seek to change things rapidly on her terms; she prefers to wait to make decisions until she actually has little choice. In other words, she prefers not to make decisions at all. This no doubt explains the negotiating debacle. Her next “decision”, as ever, will likely be calculated on a belief that she has little to no wriggle room in the Cabinet, in Parliament, or indeed in negotiations with the EU. However, for the future electoral viability of the Conservative Party, she must also accept that she has no wriggle room with voters either. So what are the electoral fundamentals she must accept?
There are three. One: as I wrote last week, Conservative ratings have been held up in the high 30s mainly because of Brexit; they’ve had practically no other policies of note in the public domain in the last year, so what else can it have been? Two: the Party’s vote share was so high last time because they attracted new supporters from the Labour Party that defined themselves by Brexit; and these voters will disappear as quickly as they appeared. Three: while UKIP are a disgraceful outfit these days, most people will not have clocked that they’ve gone all Tommy Robinson and therefore there’ll be little barrier to a massive UKIP surge; and the Brexit Party will take more discerning/informed voters anyway.
Together, these fundamentals mean that her decisions to delay and water down Brexit – in cooperation with Labour – are electorally crazy. Luckily, no one has seriously yet raised the prospect of watering down the commitment to ending free movement; were such a proposal to be made, the Party’s ratings would be heading into the 20s.