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Most Tory party members would choose No Deal over May's Deal, new survey finds

Theresa May

A new survey of Conservative Party members and voters offers little hope they’ll help the PM persuade her MPs to support her Withdrawal Agreement.

An ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) has today (Friday 4 January 2019) published findings from a survey of 1,215 ordinary Conservative Party members, together with a representative sample of voters, finding they are in no mood for compromise.

The three-year project is run by Professor Paul Webb from the University of Sussex and Professor Tim Bale and Dr Monica Poletti from Queen Mary University of London. They released findings earlier this week on the mood of Labour party members and voters towards Brexit.

Some 77% of Conservative party grassroots members, compared to 68% of current Tory voters, voted Leave in 2016. Findings show that Tory grassroots are still consumed by Brexit. The PMP study asked all voters to list the three most important issues facing the country, and 60% of them ranked Brexit number one.  That figure rises to 68% among Tory voters and a whopping 75% among Tory members. And they haven’t changed their minds on the merits of leaving the EU.  Some 79% of Conservative Party members think voters made the right decision in the 2016 referendum – and that includes a quarter (26%) of the (23%) minority of them who voted Remain two-and-a-half years ago; 97% of those who themselves voted Leave maintain the country made the right call.

No surprise there, perhaps: after all, two-thirds (68%) of voters who currently support the Conservatives think the same. But what is really striking is how little support there is at the Tory grassroots for Mrs May’s deal. Generally, Conservative Party members, like most voters of whatever ilk, think the government has made a mess of negotiating Brexit.  Among voters as a whole, some 71% feel as much. That drops to 56% among those currently intending to vote Conservative. But it actually rises again when we look at members: 68% of them think the government is doing badly at negotiating the country’s exit from the EU.

And that dissatisfaction extends to the Withdrawal Agreement itself.  One might expect Conservative partisans to be more supportive of the deal than the electorate as a whole; some 49% of whom say they oppose Mrs May’s deal, with only 23% saying they support it. Among those intending to vote Conservative, that is indeed the case: some 46% say they support her deal with 38% opposing it. However, among actual members of the Conservative Party opposition to the deal negotiated by their own leader outweighs support for it by a margin of 59% to 38%. Furthermore, more of them (53%) think May’s deal does not respect the result of the referendum than think it does (42%).

Moreover, the Tory rank-and-file, it seems, are convinced that No Deal is better than May’s Deal. The PMP survey asked ordinary members of the Conservative Party, as well as voters, what their first preference would be in a three-way referendum where the options were remaining in the EU, leaving with the proposed deal, or leaving without a deal. Among voters as a whole, some 42% of them plump for Remain, with 13% going for the PM’s deal and 25% for No Deal. The respective figures for Tory voters, however, are very different: 23% Remain; 27% Deal; and 43% No Deal. Among Tory Members, support for No Deal is even higher: 57% of them say that leaving without a deal would be their first preference compared to just 23% whose first preference was to leave on the basis of the current deal.

Mrs May can perhaps clutch at the straw provided by the response of Tory members to being asked for their second preference: some 40% said it was leaving with the proposed deal. That said, some 33% said they would not cast a second preference. This strong dislike of the PM’s deal also came out when the academics asked about binary referendum choices. Faced with having to choose between Remain and Mrs May’s proposed deal, some 20% of Tory members (like 11% of current Tory voters) said they wouldn’t vote and 18% (and 25% of Tory voters) said they’d vote Remain.

Tory members’ dislike for the PM’s deal, however, really comes out when they were asked about a referendum in which the choice came down to her deal or No Deal. Only 29% of Tory members would vote for Mrs May’s deal, compared to 64% who would vote to leave without a deal.

The third referendum put before voters and members was Remain vs No Deal – and it reveals quite how strong support for the latter is at the Tory grassroots.  Faced with those two options, the electorate as a whole splits 45% Remain – 35% No Deal (with the rest either saying they wouldn’t vote, didn’t know, or refusing to answer).  Current Tory voters split 27% Remain – 63% No Deal.  But that’s as nothing to Conservative Party members: faced with a referendum offering just two choices – Remain or No Deal – some 76% of them would plump for No Deal.

Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, Paul Webb, comments: “This new research confirms that the Conservative Party membership has become progressively more Europhobic in recent years. We know from previous work we did at the time when David Cameron was negotiating new terms of UK membership of the EU, that over 60% of members were willing to listen to those terms before deciding whether to vote Leave or Remain. It is now evident that they were not only unimpressed by Cameron's deal, but by Theresa May's post-referendum deal as well. That’s despite the fact that many would regard this as a form of 'Hard Brexit', as it does not envisage future UK membership of either the Single Market or Customs Union.  If the Prime Minister does manage to get her deal ratified by Parliament (by no means a given), it seems likely this will alienate a majority of her own party's members further: many of these will settle for nothing less than a no-deal Brexit. This bodes ominously for her leadership, and the longer term state of the Conservative Party as well.”

Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, Tim Bale, comments: “David Cameron’s crucial failure in the run-up to the EU referendum was to convince even his own activists, let alone the country, to back his stance.  Where he was then, Theresa May is today.  If Theresa May is hoping that her MPs will return to Westminster having been persuaded by their Constituency Associations to back her Brexit deal, she’s going to be disappointed.  Their reasons for doing so – and for preferring No Deal to May’s Deal obviously have a lot to do with their underlying Euroscepticism, but we can tease out some more proximate explanations from their answers to other questions we asked.”


By: Alice Ingall
Last updated: Friday, 4 January 2019