The Conservatives and Brexit: the election and after

The main narratives emerging about the 2017 general election are that it was a ‘Brexit election’ and that the Conservative campaign was disastrous. But the two are not closely intertwined.

Brexit was the dominant issue in the Conservative campaign yet we learned little about their position and rival parties only made limited headway in probing it. Still, Brexit did not deliver the votes the Conservatives expected. They gained some ground in constituencies that registered a large Leave vote in 2016, but the greater than anticipated numbers of 2015 UKIP voters switching to Labour helped unseat some Conservatives and deny them gains in the Midlands and North. Labour significantly increased its vote share in areas with large Remain votes.

As in 1997 and 2001, a Conservative campaign built around the EU issue did not bring great reward – but back then, Conservative divisions had been a key reason. David Cameron lowered the salience of the EU issue at the 2010 election and his referendum pledge kept a lid on dissent in 2015. In the referendum, 186 Conservative MPs voted Remain and 141 voted Leave (3 did not disclose their vote).

Yet Brexit, and internal divisions on it, was not the cause of the Conservatives’ campaign calamity. There was no major Conservative dissent on Brexit during the campaign. Hard Brexiteers were relatively quiescent, buoyed by Theresa May’s embrace of parts of their agenda. Nine Remain Conservative MPs had voted against the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill and seven others deliberately abstained. They did not dissent from the party line during the campaign, but a softer position on Brexit could not save Ben Howlett (Bath) and Tania Mathias (Twickenham) in heavily Remain constituencies.

Of the Conservative candidates standing in England and Wales, online searches reveal that 248 (43%) had voted Leave and 233 (41%) Remain. Among those who were not MPs in 2015-17, 109 voted Leave and 57 Remain. But most candidates rehashed the central party message rather than highlighting their own vote. There was no readily accessible public statement of how 91 candidates (16%) had voted. Many of these had not campaigned actively in the referendum (or the election itself). Some refused to disclose their vote and/or removed online evidence of it. Remainers may have been particularly reluctant to reveal their vote now that Brexit was party policy, but candidates from both camps may also have been wary of disclosing their position if it was contrary to the referendum result in their constituency.

The 2017 Conservative parliamentary party consists of 169 MPs who voted Remain, 138 who voted Leave and 10 (6 from Scotland) whose referendum vote was undisclosed. But many of the former were ‘reluctant Remainers’ and have accepted the Leave vote with few qualms. The trend since 1979 of each cohort being more Eurosceptic than the last continues. Considering seat losses and gains plus retirements and replacements since the referendum, there is a net loss of 18 Remain-voting MPs and 2 Leave MPs. Neil Carmichael, chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, lost his seat as did persistent Eurosceptic rebels David Nuttall and Stewart Jackson.

The EU issue wrecked the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron. Theresa May now faces her own perfect storm on Brexit:

(i) a minority government with a wounded prime minister at its head, propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party which has its own Brexit demands.

(ii) the EU issue will dominate the new Parliament as negotiations with the EU get underway and the government tries to get the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and other Brexit-related legislation through parliament without having a majority in either House.

(iii) a group of some 60 hard Brexiteers associated with the European Research Group who will insist upon leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, oppose a ‘divorce bill’ and lengthy transition period, and who would not hesitate (indeed, might relish) to walk away from negotiations without a deal. Among their ranks are a core of Eurosceptic rebels who have mastered the art of using parliamentary procedures to make life difficult for the government.

(iv) a smaller group of Remain MPs who will be emboldened by what they interpret as voters’ rejection of hard Brexit and will not shy away from rebellion and will seek to forge cross-party alliances to extract concessions from the government. Twelve new Scottish Conservative MPs will seek greater recognition of Scotland’s distinctive interests.

Theresa May hoped that by strengthening her personal authority and increasing her parliamentary majority, a general election would give her a mandate for Brexit and afford her more room for manoeuvre. Instead it has made the most difficult single challenge facing any post-war government even more formidable.