On 14 January Theresa May will resume the uphill task of getting her Brexit agreement with the European Union through the House of Commons. So far, things are not looking good for the PM. Before the Christmas break, over one hundred Tory MPs publicly pledged to vote against her deal, and the ferocious backlash it received from all quarters forced the government to delay the vote in order to avoid an inevitable, and humiliating defeat.
One of the hopes in Downing Street was that the Christmas break would give everyone a chance to cool down. MPs returning to their constituencies for the festive period would speak to members of the public who would convince them to get on with Brexit and get behind May’s plan. However, for that to happen, May had best hope these MPs weren’t only speaking to Tory members. New polling of Conservative members conducted by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project, released today, revealed that the grassroots are overwhelmingly opposed to her agreement with the EU, with 59 per cent of the the 1215 members surveyed against the draft outright, and 53 per cent saying it does not respect the result of the referendum.
Things don’t get better for May when members were offered other alternatives. Asked by the research team which way they would vote in a potential second referendum between her deal and no deal, Tory members rejected May’s agreement. If asked to choose between her deal, no deal, or Remain, members plumped for no deal again. The only time Tory members actually supported May’s deal was when they were forced to choose between supporting it or Remaining in the EU altogether. If May’s deal is rejected by parliament when it comes to a vote, there aren’t many options open to her that would not alienate the Tory grassroots either. Over 80 per cent of those surveyed said that they would oppose either a second referendum or another general election to break the deadlock. Instead, most members would prefer Theresa May to simply wait for Britain to leave without a deal on 29 March.
That so many Tory members back leaving the EU without a deal is at loggerheads with the efforts at Number 10, who have made significant efforts to play up the catastrophic consequences of no deal. Over 76 per cent of the party’s membership think the government’s ‘Project Fear’ warnings about food shortages and economic disruption are ‘exaggerated or invented’, and a similar number believe that Britain would benefit in the medium to long term if we left the EU without a deal in March.
The data released today will make grim reading for the Prime Minister, but there may be some silver linings revealed in the polling. While the Conservative party’s membership are generally in agreement that Britain’s negotiation has not exactly been a success, they are slightly more nuanced when it comes to May’s own performance. The party are split down the middle when asked whether May is doing a good job as Prime Minister, and a majority still say they support the stance the Conservative party has taken towards Brexit. Most Conservative members also feel that although May has struck a poor deal with the EU, any other leader would have done just as badly if they were in her position.
In many ways, today’s new polling is unsurprising. It’s well-documented that the Tory membership are eurosceptic, but it does highlight the potential for a growing grassroots backlash if Number 10 persevere with May’s current plan. The polling also represents a propaganda loss for the government. When May’s agreement with the EU was unveiled last year, streams of Conservative MPs loyal to the Prime Minister declared on social media that members in their constituencies, outside the Westminster bubble, were telling them and other parliamentarians to stop squabbling and get behind May’s deal. This polling today has seriously undermined the credibility of these arguments, and Brexiteer MPs who were considering wavering can now say they are representing members when they vote against the deal.