7 June 2017

Brexit: the elephant in the polling booth?


This has not been the campaign we were promised. Nor has it been the campaign we expected. When Theresa May called the election on 18 April, she told the country that “we need a general election and we need one now, because we have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin.” And yet, over the past seven weeks, Brexit has faded into the background.

This is partly because of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, which interrupted the campaign and understandably drove security up the list of voters’ priorities.

Another reason for the relative quiet on the Brexit front is what, by all accounts, has been a surprisingly competent Labour campaign. Jeremy Corbyn has exceeded the considerably low expectations most had for him and his team. And because Corbyn has avoided doing badly enough for the result to be a foregone conclusion, the electorate has been too busy sizing up a prospective Prime Minister who falls well outside the bounds of normal to consider the intricacies of the parties’ stances on Brexit.

But if Brexit has not dominated the day-to-day debate, we may yet look back on this as the Brexit election in a deeper sense. Tomorrow’s vote is the first full ballot-box test of post-referendum British politics, and it will reveal the extent to which people’s preference for Leave or Remain has altered their political allegiances more fundamentally.

There are reasons to think it hasn’t. The parties whose stance on Brexit has been most central to their pitch to voters – Ukip and the Liberal Democrats – have performed miserably in the polls, with both expected to win a single-figure share of the vote.

But there is still plenty of evidence that the referendum has complicated voters’ loyalties and Brexit remains the elephant in the polling booth. Take, for example, YouGov research showing that voters think they have more in common with people they agree with on Brexit than those who vote for the same party as them.

If British politics has – under the radar – rearranged itself at this election, with, to borrow David Goodhart’s terminology, the pro-Leave “somewheres” and pro-Remain “anywheres” lining up on opposite sides, then the quintessential “anywhere” constituency would be Cambridge.

The affluent outward-facing city is home to one of the world’s best universities and the high-tech clusters that sprung up around it. It registered a Remain vote of 74 per cent in the referendum – one of the highest in the country.

The Lord Ashcroft election model, which combines national survey results with demographic data to offer seat-by-seat projections as well as a broader picture of a seat’s political disposition, confirms Cambridge’s status as an “anywhere” seat.

The model’s “identity index”, which scores “cultural optimism and acceptance of some of the forces shaping the modern world” (the higher the score, the less likely people are to be enthusiastic about social and cultural change), gives Cambridge a score of 21.83 – almost half the national average of 40.

Another of the model’s claims is that half of voters in Cambridge are what Ashcroft calls “resisters”, meaning they want to reverse the result of the referendum. This statistic should be particularly encouraging for Julian Huppert, the seat’s Liberal Democrat candidate.

Huppert was MP for Cambridge between 2010 – when he won with a majority over 6,000 – and 2015 – when he lost to Labour’s Daniel Zeichner by 599 votes.

As a Lib Dem candidate in a firmly Remain seat, Huppert would, at the start of the campaign, have been close to the top of the list of expected beneficiaries of the anywhere/somewhere realignment – and the surge that many predicted Lib Dem would win by being the most outwardly “anywhere” party on offer.

But, if the polls are to be believed, that surge has failed to materialise. Huppert’s frustration with his party’s national campaign was somewhat half-heartedly disguised when I accompanied him to knock on doors on a rainy evening just before polling day.

“Obviously, it could have gone better,” he said, tersely. Sticking to the tried-and-test script of a politician with a crucial vote just days away, his one prediction is that the vote in Cambridge will “be very, very tight – that is clear.”

At the start of the week of the election, political campaigners tend to focus on voters who are contemplating voting for them but aren’t down as a firm yes. Huppert is no different. The streets he targeted on the evening I visited were in the second-strongest Labour ward.

And even in heavily Remain Cambridge, Brexit barely featured in voters’ conversations with the candidate. They were more interested in the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn, in what Huppert had achieved in his five years as an MP, in funding for the city’s schools, and even much more prosaic concerns such as the state of the city’s pavements.

There is another tricky problem for Huppert on the doorsteps and that is Tim Farron. When the party leader came up, it was for the wrong reasons. One voter, who was effusive in her praise for Huppert, told him that she didn’t want to put a Liberal Democrat poster up in her window because of the national leader.

But little attention has been paid to Brexit. While Huppert insisted that “Brexit is a big issue” in Cambridge, with “people who say they are coming over because they feel upset over what Labour has done over Brexit, and people who feel the same way about the Conservatives”, he blamed the lack of national focus on “a bit of a conspiracy between Labour and the Conservatives”. According to Huppert, “neither want to talk about it because both of them know that Brexit will cause immense harm for the country”.

The evidence doesn’t particularly support Huppert’s claim. The Conservatives have tried to bring the conversation back to Brexit more than once – confident that their best pitch to voters is that only Theresa May can be trusted during the Brexit negotiations.

But because Brexit hasn’t been the all-consuming issue Huppert had hoped, he will not be able to rely on an army of anti-Brexit voters to carry him to victory on Thursday night. Instead he is building a loose coalition that, as well as “resisters”, includes Labour supporters unhappy with Corbyn, and tactically-voting Tories.

The shape and size of that coalition is difficult to make out – which makes the result in Cambridge and Lib-Dem target seats like it, very hard to predict. What is clear, not just in Cambridge, but nationally, is that Brexit hasn’t been the automatic boon for the Lib Dems that many assumed. And that the defining issue of our times is changing our politics in ways no one predicted.

Oliver Wiseman is Deputy Editor of CapX