Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, the latest effort to wrap up Britain’s twice-extended Article 50 EU withdrawal process, is intensely vulnerable to political attacks and could well end up on the wrong side of public opinion. But if the route to resolving Brexit is through a general election, Johnson appears to have corrected the errors of the May era and holds major advantages over Labour. GQR’s new poll of 1,200 Britons, conducted from Friday 18 to Sunday 20 October, shows the likely opinion dynamics around the deal and the challenges faced by the main parties in a likely general election campaign.
The poll shows that on the face of it the new Brexit deal is popular: 44% support it and only 27% oppose it. This rises to 50% support among those likely to vote at the next general election. But this support is fragile. In the hours following the deal’s announcement, actors from across the political spectrum weighed in with their takes, and we show that once the public hears how politicians react to the deal, their support fades away. After hearing messaging from the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party, support for the deal among voters in our poll drops from a 44-27% plurality to a 39-41% deficit. A deal initially supported by the public becomes a net loser.
This doesn’t mean that the deal has already failed in the minds of the public: our polling simulates what will happen over time if all four parties are able to get their messages through. At present, the Conservatives’ press team is doing a good job keeping their message at the top of the news agenda and their digital operation is in overdrive. Under the broadcasting rules that apply during an election campaign though, the other parties would have more of a chance of shifting public opinion in their direction.
The parliamentary tactics of the past few days, in which MPs have prevented the deal being rushed through with minimal scrutiny, make it much more likely that the public narrative around the deal will have time to change.
The challenge then becomes one of building consent for a way forward. Leaving the EU with a deal is the most popular of four options tested, chosen by 32% of voters. It is the clear preference of Leave voters, chosen by 54% of them. Yet, between the deals negotiated by Theresa May and now Boris Johnson, none ever commanded majority support.
Cancelling Brexit altogether is the preferred way forward for 29% of voters, making it the second most popular; it commands 52% majority support among Remainers. But the most plausible path to cancellation – holding a second referendum – is supported by only 13% of voters, making it less popular than leaving without a deal (16%). This is a challenge for Labour, as holding a second referendum is the one Brexit approach on which it is seen as the strongest party.
With parliament deadlocked on Brexit, the impasse will most likely be resolved by a general election, either in the first half of December or in spring (from March to June in the northern hemisphere). The Conservatives are best placed to take control, with 34% of the vote in this poll. Labour is second on 24% and the Liberal Democrats on 17%, while the Brexit Party has 11%.
Labour will be desperate for an election campaign fought on domestic issues, not Brexit: it is considered the best party to handle Brexit by only 15% of voters, compared to 27% for the Conservatives. Remain voters slightly prefer the Liberal Democrats over Labour to handle Brexit, by 21-20%. The Liberal Democrats’ unequivocal stance on Brexit has cut through: they are seen as the best party to cancel Brexit by 45% of Remainers, twice as many as think Labour would deliver this.
Back in 2017 the general election campaign was dominated by domestic spending, not Brexit: Labour had eye-catching promises to boost funding for the NHS, schools, higher education and the police, while the Conservatives fell into a trap of their own making with a disastrous, obviously untested policy on social care. This is unlikely to be repeated though: Johnson’s Conservatives have explicitly tied promises on more spending for the NHS, schools and police to their “Get Brexit done” slogan, and Johnson has been using his time in office to go unofficially on the campaign trail, touring hospitals all over Britain.
Labour used to be able to count on big leads over the Conservatives on healthcare, but the Tories now lag by just two points on who would “do the best job” on the NHS. They also lead Labour by five points on education.
Labour must hope either that it can create a “domestic” election after the Brexit deal is ratified, or that after the deadline of 31 October passes without Britain having left the EU, the Tories lose enough credibility on Brexit for the Brexit Party to split the Leave vote and relieve pressure on them in the Tory-Labour marginals.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, need a “Brexit” election as they lack the status on domestic issues enjoyed by the larger parties. Of course, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act an election can only take place with the consent of parliament. Each party must furiously be calculating when is the right moment to take the plunge, but no path seems risk-free for any of them. DM
Peter McLeod is vice-president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
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