No-deal: Courting Ukip locks Tories into high-risk Brexit strategy

"The Conservatives have settled on an electorally profitable immigration message, but it has strapped them into a Brexit strategy with very little wriggle room."
"The Conservatives have settled on an electorally profitable immigration message, but it has strapped them into a Brexit strategy with very little wriggle room."

By Geoff Evans

Austerity brings its inevitable electoral costs, especially after so many years with little to show except for incomes failing to match inflationary prices and a public sector in crisis. Anti-austerity and leadership dominated the 2017 campaign, with Labour's manifesto tapping into a widely felt desire for change, promising more spending on public services, the NHS, and education. When the election was called, only around 25% of people intended to vote Labour, by the end of the campaign 40% had done so. 

But there was one winning move in the Conservative strategy following the EU referendum: immigration. The Conservatives had won 69% of their new 2017 voters by the start of the general election campaign. Much of this success was linked to a belief that now they were unshackled by EU membership, they would at last be effective in reducing immigration. 

In 2015 hardly anyone believed David Cameron would reduce immigration. The boy had cried wolf once too often. But after the referendum that changed dramatically. People now believed the Conservatives were as likely to reduce immigration as Ukip itself and far more so than any other party.


'Brexit means Brexit' may well have been devoid of meaning when trotted out by Theresa May in her first speech and afterwards, but it became clear certainly by autumn 2016 that the government did intend to control immigration. Brexit meant hard Brexit.

The electoral rationale behind this was not difficult to ascertain. Ukip's self-proclaimed role as the 'guard dog of Brexit' had become redundant. And Labour looked ripe for the taking, with its working class base being far more anti-immigration than the party itself.

And indeed, evidence from the British Election Study shows that key factor enabling the Conservatives to effectively wipe out Ukip was their new-found credibility with regard to immigration. Over 80% of 2015 Ukip voters who believed the Conservatives would reduce immigration voted for them in 2017.

But the continued support of these switchers is highly conditional. Ukip's support has always been far more subject to churn, more volatile, than that of the main parties, and their recruitment into the Conservative ranks is unlikely to have changed that. Moreover, in the referendum immigration had mattered enormously for these Leavers, but not for Remainers who instead emphasised the economy. Immigration controls are, for many of these volatile voters, a red line.

As we know, David Davis has just (sort of) made a concession to Brexit rebels when he declared any final Brexit deal will be enshrined in a separate Act of parliament. But he has also insisted that a failure to pass the bill, or the passing of any ambitious amendments, would mean that Britain would leave without a deal at all. Given that the only strong card they now have to play is their perceived credibility in controlling immigration - a credibility that requires the removal of freedom of movement - any back-tracking by the government would be electorally damaging. Which, given the precarious nature of their electoral position and their fear at the prospect of a Corbyn government, seems highly unlikely. The Conservatives have settled on an electorally profitable immigration message, but it has strapped them into a Brexit strategy with very little wriggle room.

The dynamic of how immigration, Brexit and Tory politics operates makes a no-deal outcome more and more likely.

Geoff Evans is the author of Brexit and British Politics, by Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon. Published by Polity Press on 27th October.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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