Category Archives: Brexit

What impact did the Brexit Party have in the 2019 general election?

by John Curtice, Stephen Fisher and Patrick English

One of the most dramatic developments during the campaign for the December 2019 general election, whose second anniversary is this weekend, was the decision announced by Nigel Farage on 11 November that the Brexit Party would not contest those seats being defended by the Conservatives. Instead it would concentrate its firepower on those seats currently in the hands of one of the opposition parties. This represented a substantial retreat for a party that just the previous May had topped the poll in the European elections.

But was the decision as important as it was dramatic? Part of the answer to that question depends, of course, on the impact the decision had on the overall popularity of the party where it was continuing to fight. It almost certainly helped to reduce it. In the week leading up to Mr Farage’s announcement, the Brexit Party stood on average in the polls at 16% among those who had voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. (It had no measurable support at all among Remain supporters.) A week later, its support among Leave voters had fallen by five points to 11% (while support for the Conservatives was up by five points). By polling day, the party was down to just 4%.

Of course, much of this drop would have been occasioned by the gradual realisation among voters in the relevant seats that the Brexit Party was not standing locally, though the scale of the drop by polling day is too big to be explained by that alone. Equally, some voters will have switched away from the party for reasons that had nothing to do with Mr Farage’s decision. But it certainly looks highly likely that the Brexit Party’s partial withdrawal helped to undermine its level of support where it continued to stand.

Even so, the party still managed to win an average of 5.7% of the vote in those seats in England & Wales that it did fight – potentially enough to have some impact on the relative fortunes of the other parties. But what impact did it have? Mr Farage’s decision appeared to reflect his oft made claim that his party was able to gain the support of voters in Labour-inclined, more working class constituencies that the Conservatives could never reach. Thus, while standing down in Conservative-held seats might help avoid a split in the Leave vote that could help the opposition parties to gain Conservative-held seats, continuing to contest opposition-held seats might help the pro-Brexit Conservatives to gain Labour-held seats and thus the overall majority that Boris Johnson was seeking.

The success or otherwise of this strategy is addressed in our analysis of the constituency election results in the recently published ‘Nuffield’ study of the last election, The British General Election of 2019. It proved far from an easy question to answer.

We could, of course, look at the choices that those who voted for the Brexit Party in 2019 had made at the previous election two years earlier. In fact, according to the 30,000 sample British Election Study internet panel (BESIP), rather more Brexit Party voters had voted Conservative (40%) than Labour (30%) in 2017, suggesting that there was little truth to Mr Farage’s assertion that this party was particularly effective at winning over Labour voters in Labour constituencies. However, what matters here is not how Brexit Party voters voted in 2017, but how they would have voted in the absence of a Brexit Party candidate in 2019.

One way of trying to address this counterfactual question is to compare the performance of the parties where the Brexit Party did and did not stand. At +5.3%, the swing from Labour to Conservative since 2017 was rather higher in seats (In England & Wales) that the Brexit Party contested than it was is those seats that it did not (+4.7%). That suggests that the presence of a Brexit Party candidate did do Labour somewhat more harm than the Conservatives, an observation apparently reinforced by the fact that the swing to the Conservatives tended to be higher the bigger the Brexit Party’ share of the vote.

But if the Brexit Party were winning over Labour voters who would never back the Conservatives, we would anticipate that Labour would have lost support more heavily among Leave voters in seats where the Brexit Party stood than it did in those that it did not. Yet the BESIP data suggest that, if anything, the opposite is true. In seats where the Brexit Party stood, 57% of those who voted Leave in 2016 and Labour in 2017 voted for the party again, compared with just 48% in seats the Brexit Party did not contest. Meanwhile, whereas in those seats the Brexit Party did not contest 39% of Labour Leave voters switched to the Conservatives, in seats where there was a Brexit Party presence only 26% did so. Much of the difference between these two figures is accounted for by the 10% who backed the Brexit Party in seats the party was contesting – suggesting that all the Brexit Party managed to achieve where it stood was to divert the support of Labour Leave voters away from the Conservatives.

This in turn, however, is also probably too bold a conclusion. When the BESIP asked respondents to give both the parties and the leaders a mark out of ten, those Leave voters who switched from Labour to the Brexit Party gave both the Conservatives (3.8) and Boris Johnson (5.3) a lower score than those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives (6.2 and 7.1 respectively), suggesting that perhaps not all of those who switched from Labour to the Brexit Party would have swung behind the Conservatives in the absence of a Brexit Party candidate.

In the absence of data on the second preferences of those who voted for the Brexit Party, we modelled the behaviour of Labour Leave voters in seats that the Brexit Party did not contest (taking into account demographics and evaluations of the parties and leaders) and then applied the resulting equation to those voters who elsewhere switched from Labour to the Brexit Party. This suggested that in the absence of a Brexit Party candidate, 70% of those who switched from Labour to the Brexit Party would have instead backed the Conservatives, while just 30% would have stuck with Labour.

It is on this basis that we conclude that the Brexit Party’s decision to continue to fight opposition held seats cost the Conservatives seats they might otherwise have won. If we apply that 70:30 ratio to the share of the Brexit Party’ share of the vote in each constituency, we find that there are around 25 seats that Labour managed to retain that might otherwise have fallen from its grasp – many of them in the North of England and the Midlands – and enough to give the Conservatives an overall majority of 130.

Meanwhile, because there was a national swing from Labour to the Conservatives anyway, the Brexit Party’s decision to stand down in Conservative-held seats helped save the Conservatives from defeat in at most a small handful of Remain-inclined seats.

The squeeze on Brexit Party support during the 2019 election campaign, a squeeze that was probably accelerated by its decision to vacate the contest in Conservative-held seats, played a role in enabling the Conservatives to unite much of the Leave vote behind it, an outcome that was central to their success in winning an overall majority of 80. Even so, the Brexit Party’s continued presence in seats that the opposition parties were defending still acted as something of a brake on that achievement. Small though its tally of votes might have been, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, it was still enough to make a significant dent in the size of the Conservative majority and in reducing the extent of the breach in Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’. Little wonder that, in the wake of the outcome of the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election, commentators are now wondering what role, if any, the Brexit Party’s successor, Reform UK, might play at the next general election.

This blog is also to be found on the What UK Thinks website.

            The British General Election of 2019, by Robert Ford, Tim Bale, Will Jennings and Paula Surridge is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Leavers united could easily thwart divided Remainers

This is a longer and more detailed version of a post that was originally published by Prospect here on Friday. The opinion polls published over the weekend do not collectively show any substantial change from the figures in the table below.

By Stephen Fisher, 9th September 2019.

The government has lost its majority in parliament, so it is unlikely to be long before there is a general election. Already at the last election, the Conservatives attracted most Leave voters while Labour was most popular among Remain voters. So what has changed in the party preferences of Leave and Remain voters, and with what implications for the next election?

The Conservatives lost many of their Leave voters to the Brexit Party at the European elections earlier this year largely because of the government’s failure to deliver Brexit on schedule at the end of March. At the same time, frustrated with the complexity and ambiguity in Labour’s position on Brexit, many Labour Remain voters switched to the Liberal Democrats or Greens.

Since May (the month and the leader) the challenger parties have waned and the two main parties have recovered somewhat, but Westminster-vote intentions are still closer to the multi-party competition we saw in the Euro elections than they are to the two-party dominance of the 2017 election.

The table shows how Leave and Remain voters from 2016 voted in 2017, and how they intend to vote now. The changes show that the rise of the Liberal Democrats and Greens has been largely confined to Remain voters, while the Brexit Party has, unsurprisingly, only really attracted those who voted Leave in the referendum.

Table: 2017 vote and current vote intention, by 2016 vote

  2017 2019 Change
  Leave Remain Leave Remain Leave Remain
Con 63 25 52 16 -11 -9
Lab 25 53 12 37 -13 -16
LD 3 12 4 32 +1 +20
UKIP/Brexit 4 0 27 1 +23 +1
Green 2 3 1 7 -1 +4

Note: 2017 figures come from the British Election Study Internet panel. 2019 figures are the average of the most recent poll from each of Deltapoll, Opinium, Survation and YouGov taken between 21 August and 3 September 2019. The UKIP/Brexit row shows figures for UKIP from 2017 and the Brexit Party in 2019, and the change between the two. 

What is perhaps more surprising is just how both main parties have suffered setbacks among both Leave and Remain voters. Labour have fallen back almost as much among Leave voters as they have among Remain voters. While the largest outflow from Labour in absolute numbers is that among Remain, in relative terms, it is the other way round. Labour have lost just under a third of their 2017 Remain voters, but as much as half of their former Leave voters. As a result, Labour supporters are even more predominately on the Remain side than they were in 2017. Continue reading Leavers united could easily thwart divided Remainers

Is Brexit like banning booze?

By Stephen Fisher.

Various historical comparisons have been made in discussion of the Brexit process. Last year there was the suggestion that, just as the 2008 financial crisis bailout legislation passed Congress only at the second time of asking after a negative market reaction, so the Meaningful Vote might do so. Not only has Theresa May’s deal failed to pass so far, but there has not been any major market reaction to the three defeats.

Tonight’s statement by the prime minister suggesting cooperation with Labour means she might, as Jacob Rees-Mogg anticipated she might, follow the example of Robert Peel in splitting the Conservative party by pursuing a policy that relies largely on opposition support.

This post explores comparison with the Prohibition of alcohol in the USA. The 18thamendment of the US Constitution prohibited the, “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” It was approved by big margins in the House and the Senate in 1917, and eventually achieved ratification by the required three-quarters of the states in January 1919. What followed was a dismal story of increasing crime, institutional hypocrisy and disrespect for the law. Public support for prohibition dropped heavily by the early 1920s, and it was repealed in 1933.

Since starting to write this I’ve found that others have said that Brexit is another policy mistake like Prohibition that the public will want to row back from eventually. That might turn out to be true but it is not the analogy I wanted to draw. Regardless of whether you think Brexit is a mistake or not, comparison with Prohibition raises a number of intriguing parallels and questions to ask about the Brexit process.

Continue reading Is Brexit like banning booze?

Why might Labour MPs support Theresa May’s Brexit deal? Part 1 – the Inbetweeners

by Stephen Fisher and Eilidh Macfarlane.

If the prime minister passes her Brexit deal it will be with the votes, or at least abstentions, of some Labour MPs. It is commonly accepted among commentators that even if she manages to persuade the DUP and more Conservative MPs, there will be some who never will. So she will need support, or at least co-operation in the form of abstention, from Labour MPs.

John Rentoul has compiled a list of those who might be willing. The list might not be perfect, but we use it as indicative of the kinds of Labour MP who might be won over. We refer to those on the list as the potential deal backers.

This group also matters because, as Stephen Bush said, not only are those 30 or so Labour MPs not currently enough to enable May’s deal to pass but their “existence makes it near impossible to see how a second referendum will happen.”

The purpose of this blog is not to try to predict whether, how many, or which Labour MPs will or won’t block a second referendum or help the prime minister pass her deal. It is to discuss some of the reasons why they might be tempted to back the deal in order to say something ex ante about what, if it does come to pass, will be heavily analysed ex post.

Continue reading Why might Labour MPs support Theresa May’s Brexit deal? Part 1 – the Inbetweeners

Trading a general election for the Withdrawal Agreement?

by Stephen Fisher.

In my previous analyses and predictions for the Brexit impasse I failed to give enough consideration to the possibility of MPs passing the Withdrawal Agreement without voting on the political declaration (both documents here). Assuming that the government does not collapse before the 10thApril, I now think that’s the most likely outcome. This is mainly because I suspect Theresa May would be willing to offer Jeremy Corbyn a general election in exchange for support for the Withdrawal Agreement, and that would be more attractive to her than the other options available.

The current political declaration and Labour’s demand for changes to the political declaration of 6thFebruary are both compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement. While the political declaration has been agreed with the EU, it is not legally binding. Given the EU principle of the indivisibility of the four freedoms and the problem of the border in Ireland, Labour’s demands would likely produce a future relationship close to the Norway+ model, which the EU have said they would be happy with.

If the Withdrawal Agreement is ever passed then there is inevitable uncertainty over the eventual future relationship whatever kind of political declaration, or none, is approved, not least because of a possible change of leadership in the UK during negotiations.

Since the Withdrawal Agreement is the only legally binding part of May’s deal it is the bit that matters most. Some would say it is the only bit that really matters. I think that would be broadly true for the EU27, but there are a lot of important politics involved in the political declaration for the UK. Since the nature of any political declaration passed along with the Withdrawal Agreement might really shape the future relationship, for political if not legal reasons, it does matter what is in the political declaration.

However, it is not necessary for the Commons to approve any political declaration for the UK and EU to agree and ratify the Withdrawal Agreement as an international treaty and so for the UK to leave the EU with a deal. Approval of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) alone is therefore an option.

What are the prospects of this?

Continue reading Trading a general election for the Withdrawal Agreement?

Why another referendum is still the most likely outcome of the Brexit impasse

By Stephen Fisher.

On Wednesday MPs again voted against a no-deal Brexit, but it remains the legal default. On Thursday they voted by big majorities for requesting an extension to the Article 50 process and against another referendum. The latter vote saw the Labour leadership instruct their MPs to abstain, but 17 rebelled to vote against and 24 rebelled in favour. Even if all those who abstained had voted in favour, the motion still would have lost. This clearly isn’t a majority for another referendum, yet.

I’ve previously argued (see here, here and here) that the Brexit process is most likely heading towards another referendum. The core argument is that if MPs fail to to back her, Theresa May could try to deliver Brexit by taking her deal to the people. She believes in her deal. She has a decent argument for it. She has tried hard to get it through parliament. It has a fair chance of winning, especially if no-deal is off the ballot.

Some aspects of what I argued in the autumn were wrong, especially my predictions on the timing of key events, which I still cannot forecast. However, I still think some of the underlying ideas about the interests and incentives for the political parties and factions still hold. This post updates and revises the main arguments about the implications of those interests for the chances of different possible outcomes. While most commentators suggest that Theresa May is likely to get her deal passed at some stage, and I would admit that the chances of that have gone up, I still think it is more likely that there will be another referendum. If there is one, I think Remain would most likely win but it is far from a sure thing.

Continue reading Why another referendum is still the most likely outcome of the Brexit impasse

What now that Theresa May has won a confidence vote in her party leadership?

By Stephen Fisher.

Yesterday Theresa May won a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative party, and she also promised to step down before the scheduled 2022 general election. Following the logic of my arguments here and here, both events increase the chances that she will eventually facilitate another referendum on Brexit. She now has more freedom for political manoeuvre and less of a future political career to lose from a U-turn.

In essence the core of my previous argument is that Theresa May should want to persuade the people to back her deal if parliament won’t because she believes it is the best thing for Britain. If not that, then she would at least prefer a referendum to a no-deal Brexit that she believes, “would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden.”

There is, I believe, a latent parliamentary majority for another referendum. Theresa May now has the power to facilitate its emergence without fear of a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party. She will want to avoid a party split or hardline Brexiteers voting no-confidence in their own government. That can be done if she earnestly tries to achieve reassurances from the EU on the backstop, tries to get approval for her deal in parliament, and then tries to get her deal approved by the people in a referendum. There is also the possibility of this ingenious mechanism suggested by Jolyon Maugham. (There may be others too, I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.) My main point is that if the prime minister acts in good faith and calls a referendum as a last resort, it will be harder for her enemies to justify bringing her government down in response.

Is Theresa May completely safe?

Continue reading What now that Theresa May has won a confidence vote in her party leadership?

What now that Theresa May has deferred the meaningful vote?

By Stephen Fisher, 11thDecember 2018.

Three weeks ago I wrote this piece about Theresa May’s predicament if she lost the “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal. That was supposed to take place today but it has now been deferred while the prime minister seeks further assurances from the EU on the Irish backstop. This piece assesses the current political situation, evaluates the some of the arguments I previously made and ultimately claims that, while there is a lot of uncertainty and various outcomes are possible, there is still a good case for expecting Theresa May to facilitate another referendum as the single most likely outcome, even though she has ruled one out and might not continue in post for much longer.

Most of this was written before tonight’s rumours that the required 48 letters for a Conservative leadership confidence vote have been sent. There is a discussion of the politics of the leadership, but most of my analysis is about what May could do while she is still in office, perhaps even if there is an ongoing leadership election. If she loses the confidence vote that would substantially increase the chances of a no-deal Brexit.

In brief, my argument has the same flavour as the previous one. Theresa May believes that enacting the Withdrawal Agreement is best course of action for the country. I suspect she also believes it would be the best thing for her party too. There is currently no Commons majority for it. That might well change change as a result of increasing fear of a no-deal Brexit, but it is more likely that it will not. If it does not, then I think she would rather facilitate another referendum than proceed with a no-deal Brexit. Either the prime minister would introduce a referendum bill, or she would use her power over the parliamentary agenda to enable others to do so. Given the opportunity and some leadership I think there would be a cross-party majority for another referendum (provided Remain was on the ballot).

Continue reading What now that Theresa May has deferred the meaningful vote?

In which Theresa May calls a referendum despite expecting to lose her job

By Stephen Fisher.

The collective intelligence of political journalists suggests that the House of Commons is likely to vote against the prime minister’s Brexit deal when it comes to a “meaningful vote” in December. Supposing this happens, what next?

The UK would, by legal default, be heading towards a no-deal Brexit. Although the government would have till mid-January to say how it intended to proceed, Mrs May would most likely want to move quickly, given the risk of a no-confidence vote from both inside and outside her party.

Waiting to see if a market crash sways MPs is unlikely to be an option. If the outcome of the parliamentary vote is as clear as many commentators suggest it will be, then the markets will have already priced it in. That is not to say that the markets will assume failure of the meaningful vote automatically means a no-deal Brexit, just that the markets are unlikely to move much if the outcome is as is widely anticipated.

Simply announcing that she will seek further concessions from Brussels would be unpersuasive. What makes her deal unpopular with the DUP and many of her backbenchers are structural features that were already much discussed. The EU are unlikely to be willing to make sufficient concessions, especially not on the current timescale. Substantial further negotiations would probably require an extension to the Article 50 process, which the EU have said would only be granted if there was a “fundamental change” in the political situation in the UK. (A referendum would be such a change.) What’s more, MPs are unlikely to think that the Theresa May would be the best person to achieve a better deal given they are unhappy with her previous efforts.

The prime minister has said that a no-deal Brexit would be “a bad outcome for the UK”, and also that she believes, with her “head and heart” and “every fibre of her body”, that the deal is, “in the best interests of our entire United Kingdom.” If this is really how she feels she should want to ask the people to back her deal in a referendum to force parliament’s hand. May has previously ruled out a referendum, but she also ruled out a general election in 2017 and called one anyway.

Continue reading In which Theresa May calls a referendum despite expecting to lose her job