In the early part of 2019, it would appear that Theresa May (without any apparent effort) has effectively sundered the Conservative Party into two irreconcilable groups. The first group is of the party in Westminster, including all MPs, peers, journalists, special advisers and so on. The second is the party in the constituencies – the holders of coffee mornings, bring and buy stalls, the posters of leaflets through doors. These are the volunteers who do all the leg-work without payment; and the people who ensure that their chosen candidate actually wins his or her seat. These are also the people who many of the first group view, sometimes with ill-concealed contempt, as being mere donkeys who are expected to turn out when their MP demands a photocall or some such; and who are patronised dreadfully in return.
It is not just the Conservative Party that is split. Labour are also split on the issue of Brexit. The country as a whole is divided and increasingly polarised by the apparently endless succession of cock-up and rumour emanating from No. 10 Downing Street and the rest of the Westminster establishment.
How on Earth did we get to this place?
In an idle moment, some time in 2016, I foolishly logged into the “Better In” campaign – to see what they get up to over their lattes and EU-approved vegan sausages. This was a mistake, because my email address has been transferred over to the “Stronger In” and now the “Peoples Vote” campaigns. My details have been seamlessly transferred from one campaign to another. I am an entry on a database owned by Roland Rudd. I should have known better.
Ever since, and particularly in the last year or so, I have been regaled with anxious and sincere letters from Chuka Umunna, Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry and the like. I have been thanked for my support (not given) and urged to attend meetings and demos (didn’t go). To cap it all, within the last few days, I have been invited to an evening of scintillating entertainment provided by Andrew Adonis. Doubtless he will be there to talk to an audience of septuagenarians about how vital it is that they give up their votes to sixteen year-olds “because the future is theirs” and that they, the audience, are soon going to pop off anyway. Doubtless he will also be wearing his bright blue jacket to cheer them up (they are badly depressed because of Brexit). This jacket and its juxtaposition with the white-haired audience has been unkindly likened to the ones worn by the stewards at Pontins – apparently they wear blue jackets instead of the red ones used by Butlins. Whatever, an evening of fun and Olde-Tyme-sing-a-long-with-Andrew is guaranteed.
It would seem that the the campaign to reverse the result of the 2016 referendum is continuing unabated – or at least it is if you believe the constant messages emanating from the ‘People’s Vote’ headquarters. Unfortunately for the campaign, there were reports of splits and disagreement over when their carefully crafted campaign should be launched. HQ were at odds with the actual MPs. HQ wanted it to kick off nearer the time for exit, but the MPs (Chuka Umunna, Dr Philip Lee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie) wanted it now – and so they all piled in with an amendment to allow a second referendum to decide the issue finally and for the very last time. Anyway, it would seem that these MPs actually bottled it, done a reverse ferret and have withdrawn their amendment. To the public irritation of Owen Jones and the Peoples Vote campaign.
All these ins-and-outs, amendments to government legislation, votes, defeats for the government and so forth should have left the rest of the country dying of boredom. The country is crying out for our political classes to just get on with it because we are all sick to death of hearing about it. This, of course, is precisely what the government want – so that something nasty can slipped in between the endless attacks, counter-attacks and Parliamentary ambushes.
Except that the rest of the country has not quite gone to sleep and switched over to Netflix. In fact the rest of the country seems to have sat back and watched the interminable machinations with increasing disgust. Many have concluded that our political masters are either completely inept, or are openly betraying the country.
One of the many arguments that has been put forward by the Continuity Remainers is that there is a public groundswell of support for remaining in the EU; that we are moving towards a majority for Remain. Hence the tortuous campaign described above to have another referendum. This idea is repeated ad nauseum and is used to justify all manner of iniquities – a “soft” Brexit, a “Norway option”, an “EEA option”, a “backstop” to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, and so on. All these options mean that in fact we would not be leaving the EU at all; we would be a ruler-taker; and would continue to have our trade deals interfered with by the EU and cost us billions. The nastiest, and least discussed, part of Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement is that it is a treaty with no get-out clause. In other words, it would lock us into an insane deal for perpetuity.
In fact most of the public are increasingly aware that these alternative options are merely ruses to keep us within the rule of the EU institutions. We have seen through the fog of political obfuscation and do not like the way things are developing. Impatience is growing. Despite the efforts of the media, many of us are aware of the way in which the gilets jaunes movement in France is being treated by the French authorities. We have watched, appalled, at the economic disaster zone that is Greece and much of the rest of southern Europe. We are seeing the devastation in Sweden caused by untrammelled immigration from the Middle East and Africa. We are waking up to the damage that the EU is doing to its own peoples.
Despite the EU looking increasingly like a basket case, the argument from the Continuity Remainers is their repeated references to opinion polls which are showing a gradual shift in public opinion towards Remain. It is true that a number of polls have started to show Remain taking the lead. As if to overcome my principal criticism of opinion polls for having a very small sample size, one was conducted with a sample size of 20,090 – and this has shown Remain in the lead. Fair enough, but there are a whole bunch of biases which distort even large surveys of this kind, and which can result in misleading results. This is why nearly all of the pre-referendum polls got it wrong – and even those that got the outcome right, probably only did so by way of random chance.
In the most general sense, what we are looking for is a sense of where public opinion is going in the country vis à vis Brexit. One of the few pundits who is worth listening to on the subject of opinion polls is Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University. In this article, he points out the growing divide between Leave and Remain, and suggests that Remain are increasing their apparent lead. His evidence for this is drawn from a series of standard questions asked by YouGov which go all the way back to August 2016 after the referendum. In this series of polls, the question asked was: “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the EU?” In the chart below, “Wrong” is the green line and “Right” is the blue line. The bottom grey line is “Don’t know”.
But this series of polls, splendid though it is, suffers from the sample size in each poll being a tiny 1,700 or so. Furthermore, that sample is drawn from YouGov’s online panel. Like all such opinion poll panels, it suffers from the intrinsic biases of a group of willing, self-selected respondents who are themselves more confident of (and anxious to share with the world) their opinions about everything from what brand of baked beans they buy, to how they might vote in an election. They are also willing to share with the pollsters details of their employment, age, sex, address, education levels, home ownership and incomes. This makes them a very unusual group of people and therefore likely to be unrepresentative of society as a whole.
In his article, John Curtice makes two important points. The first is that much of the change in attitude towards Remain is coming from people who did not vote in the Referendum. The turnout in the 2016 Referendum was 72.2%. In other words: 27.8% (or 13 million) people who were eligible to vote did not do so. This may seem a lot, but the referendum turnout was actually very high by modern standards – the 2017 General Election only enthused 68.8% of voters to turn out. Asking respondents to an opinion poll how they might vote in future, when they were members of the 13 million who did not vote in the referendum, may be enough to sway the results of the opinion poll in a direction which would not have been reflected by the actual vote. Given that these respondents are also unusual for the reasons given in the previous paragraph, we can see that their reponses need to be viewed with caution when interpreting the results of the opinion poll. Indeed, Curtice very gently suggests that there might be a problem with these ‘new’ Remainers actually getting out to vote in a second referendum.
The second of Curtice’s points is this statement:
“One point immediately stands out. The responses given by Remain and Leave voters were almost an exact mirror image of each other. In both cases, no less than 88% said that they would vote the same way again. And while 7% of those who voted Leave said that they would now vote Remain, they were matched by the 8% of Remain voters who stated that they would now back Leave. In short, at this point movement in and out of the Remain and Leave camps had had more or less no impact on the overall balance of support for the two options. It appeared that if only those who voted in 2016 were to vote again, the outcome would be very much the same as that in the first referendum.”
In other words, opinion amongst those who voted has not shifted. Furthermore, the country is still very polarised (a point he makes in other articles).
But all this still leaves us with the question: “What is the mood of the country and how will Brexit affect the next election?”
To try to answer this using information that is not based upon standard opinion polls with all of their methodological baggage, we can turn to another informal, self-selected set of public opinion which is freely given by the respondents. And that is a number of petitions which have been submitted to Parliament for their considered debate.
In terms of intrinsic bias, a petition is just as problematic as a “scientific” opinion poll. Pollsters would argue that it is worse, because there is no alternative for petitioners to select. In other words, a petition represents only one strongly held opinion of one group of society. But we can still justify the use of petitions in this context by saying that, whilst they have a different set of biases from opinion polls, they are still very much a reflection of opinion within part of society. Neither polls nor petitions are likely to be accurate for use in predicting the outcome of an election, but both are a test-bed of opinion and should not be ignored.
The first online petition we should look at is a recent one which which was submitted to the official Parliamentary petitions website. Petitions on this website are extremely well documented because each signature is allocated to the Parliamentary constituency in which the signatory lives. The petition “Leave the EU without a deal in March 2019” has attracted over 351,000 signatures. This is the largest ever e-petition which has been dealt with by the Parliamentary website since its inception in 2006. The mapping of these signatures for the whole of the UK is as follows:
This version is coloured according the number of signatures expressed as a percentage of the number of constituents. Amongst other things, this version enables an MP to see the strength of feeling about an issue in his or her constituency. The darker the colour, the more signatures there are.
There are stark differences between England and Scotland, and England and Northern Ireland. Conversely, the differences between England and Wales are not as pronounced. However, if we assume that elections are won and lost mainly in England, and then look in more detail at England, we see the following:
This close-up of English constituencies shows that even in England, there are stark differences. The rural and bigger constituencies have a much higher percentage of signatures compared with the inner city areas of London, Manchester, Birmingham and so on. A closer look reveals that there are some very small pale patches which coincide with cities such as Cambridge, Exeter, Bristol, Bath and so on. This gives us an indication of the way in which the country is divided. The more rural areas are mostly for getting out of the EU without an agreement, and the cities are much less enthusiastic about this option.
Leavers are not the only people who produce petitions. Remainers too have had a go at whipping up support. In the “Grant a People’s Vote if Parliament rejects the EU Withdrawal Agreement” petition, the supporters of Anna Soubry, Lord Adonis and others managed to get 137,784 signatures to produce this map:
This is produced on exactly the same colour scale as the previous one and shows two stark differences: firstly that there are nothing like the number of signatures; and secondly that the ‘hotspots’ of support are London and university cities like Cambridge, Oxford, Bath and Bristol. This map is almost an exact negative of the previous one.
Very broadly speaking, the differences between these petitions would appear to be much the same as in the 2016 Referendum: the Town voted for Remain and the Country voted for Leave.
To check this hypothesis, the 2016 Referendum Leave vote in every constituency in the UK has been plotted against the number of signatures for the “Leave the EU without a deal in March 2019” petition in the same constituency, to give the following:
The Correlation Coefficient (r) for this is 0.86, i.e. very close to 1.00. That is, the relationship between the actual Leave vote and the Leave-related petition is very strong indeed. This confirms John Curtice’s view that the Remain and Leave votes are largely unaltered and that the country remains polarised. If anything, the petition suggests that attitudes have considerably hardened in the Leave areas, to the point whereby there is very strong (and growing) support in the country for leaving the EU without a deal. Two years ago, nearly everyone would be saying that it should be possible to strike a mutually acceptable deal with the EU. But now it would seem that leaving without one is favoured by a very large number of people.
You can play about with the data above in many ways. But the take-home message is that whilst Labour seats are rather widely spread between Leave and Remain (most Labour seats are in urban and inner city areas) Conservative seats are much more tightly clustered around Leave. And the correlation between Leave votes and petition signatures is very tight indeed. In other words, opinion in Conservative seats is hardening rather than softening. Doubt is being replaced by certainty.
Whilst attitudes are hardening in the rest of the country, Westminster is embroiled in a chaotic series of move and counter-move, rumour and counter-rumour. Parliament has roundly rejected the government’s Withdrawal Agreement and so this is being re-presented with a series of minor alterations in order to make it palatable to Parliament. The ‘backstop’ has been fiddled with and presented to the EU, who have rejected it. As we all knew they would, but it was presented to them anyway. Gradually, the process is edging towards a ‘no deal’ scenario.
Or so the ‘Hard Brexiteers’ would like to think.
The problem is that Theresa May is a well-known Remainer. She has surrounded herself with Remainers – from fellow Cabinet Ministers such as Philip Hammond, David Liddington, Claire Perry and others – to her close advisors Olly Robbins and Gavin Barwell, who are both die-hard Remainers. The whole of the Downing Street operation has been geared towards Brexit as if it was a problem to be managed by compromise; and where the idea of ‘managing’ it is in fact to engineer staying in the EU, whilst telling the public that we are out of it. Apparently, we the British public are too thick to realise that if we are still constrained by EU law, if we are hobbled by EU regulations when negotiating trade deals, if our soldiers are marching into Europe with EU badges on their shoulders and our fisheries are still being plundered by EU fishing boats, then we have not actually left the EU. But this is what the Withdrawal Agreement says. The Irish backstop has been put in as a Trojan Horse which is designed to keep us in the Customs Union and therefore still under the monstrous yoke of the EU.
It is becoming apparent that the majority in Parliament are terrified of ‘no deal’ and will agree to anything as long as it does not look like ‘no deal’. As the same parliament has rejected, unconditionally, the backstop within the Withdrawal Agreement, this means that the government can remove the backstop from any bodged WA, and Parliament will accept it. It means that we end up with an abortion of an agreement which will be presented to the EU. Of course many will say that this is a draft and the EU will not agree to anything without the backstop. This is true, because that is precisely what has happened so far. But as we all know, the EU likes to keep plenty of things in reserve so that they can ‘negotiate’ at the last minute a cobbled up travesty – and then pass it off as a ‘victory’ for both sides. When that happens there will be a legally binding treaty which will most likely keep us tied to EU apron strings in perpetuity – and the clear instructions of the peoples of the United Kingdom will have been utterly betrayed.
What has led us to this point is that MPs (70% of whom voted Remain) are like rabbits caught in the headlights of the government. Like rabbits, these MPs have their eyes on the sides of their heads and so whichever way they turn, they see a headlight coming for them. They are endlessly caught up in the minute manoeuvrings of a government which is itself constrained by the narrow, steep sided lane into which Theresa May’s juggernaut has mistakenly driven.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party constituency associations, along with the public at large, look upon this scene with utter astonishment. Never has our once proud nation been treated to the spectacle of crass incompetence that is currently exhibited by our entire political leadership. Theresa May is obsessed with stopping freedom of movement for EU citizens and immigration for non-EU citizens because she thinks that’s what the Leave vote was all about. Michael Gove (for instance) has gone from campaigning for Leave, to campaigning for Theresa May beause he is terrified of the consequences of ‘no deal’. And other ministers and MPs are simply out to preserve their own short term interests which they are dressing up as “respecting the vote” but engaging in Jesuitical convolutions in order to keep us in. For the first time in many generations, we are witnessing with considerable clarity the ineptitude, intellectual corruption, pusillanimity, vanity, hypocrisy, deceit, treachery, duplicity and self-serving instincts of our political classes.
Eighty years ago, this country stood on the brink of European and Asian calamity. We didn’t have a plan, except the very broad one of knowing that we had to fight for our very survival; and then having survived, turn the tables and fight for the unconditional defeat of our enemies. We sent our sons (and not a few daughters) into danger from which many did not return. We bent the whole of our efforts to one purpose – that of winning. We endured years of rationing and the loss of homes and family as we were bombed. We fought with courage and tenacity and nearly bankrupted ourselves. But we carried on until we won. And then, with scarcely a pause for breath, we geared up for another war – not with Germany or Japan, but with the Soviet Union. Fortunately, and because of our willingness to sacrifice everything, that war did not happen.
We are now regaled with the revolting spectacle of our politicians lining up to give the EU £39 billion and hand back control to Jean-Claude Juncker, Guy Verhofstadt and Martin Selmayr, even though the public has explicitly instructed the government to do otherwise. And all this because our political classes are too cowardly to walk away without a deal.
Thus the country has been irrevocably split from the Westminster classes, because the country has the courage to do what is necessary, whilst the politicians do not. Thus also has the Conservative Party been sundered into two factions – the politicians and the constituency party. The only reason for this divide is that Theresa May is obsessed with her own idea of what it is all about, whilst simultaneously trying to appease both the EU and the Parliamentary arithmetic. The decision of the public is being ignored.
In 1945 the masses, who had stoically borne the brunt of the war, returned a Labour government in a landslide victory in the General Election of that year. In 1997, John Major’s government was divided under his weak leadership and the country returned a Labour government, whilst also hammering the Conservatives into opposition for thirteen long years. Theresa May has divided her own party and the country with her incompetence, dithering, vacillation and saying one thing whilst clearly working for the exact opposite. She has brought herself and her party into utmost disrepute, whereby few members of the public can bring themselves to trust anything she and her government says.
The result of the next election will be an ugly affair.