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Why Chequers has gone wrong for Theresa May.



No less than eight polls wholly or partly about Brexit have been conducted since the Cabinet gathered at Chequers last Friday week (6 July).


Both the statement about Brexit📋 that was issued at the end of that meeting and the white paper published the subsequent Thursday have received a critical response in some quarters, including not least amongst many who campaigned to Leave. But how have the public have reacted?

Here are four key points that now seem clear.


1. The Chequers agreement is relatively unpopular among Leave voters.


Some of the headline numbers on attitudes towards Chequers are, at first glance, not that bad for the government. In a poll conducted immediately after the Chequers meeting, Survation actually found that more people approved (33%) than disapproved of the agreement (23%), while Opinium found that as many approved (32%) as disapproved (32%).

But these numbers flatter to deceive. The polls have consistently reported that the deal is less popular among Leave voters than Remain supporters. Only 30% of Leave voters told Survation that they approved, compared with 39% of their Remain counterparts. In Opinium’s poll the deal had a net approval rating of +17 among Remain voters but one of -18 among those who backed Leave. At the same time, YouGov found that while 42% of Remain voters would be unhappy if the agreement went ahead, as many as 54% of Leave supporters were of that view.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the government is that many Leave voters do not think the agreement reflects what they believe the country voted for in the EU referendum. YouGov found that as many as 58% of Leave voters hold that view (compared with only 27% of Remain supporters). Similarly, Survation reported that 49% of Leave voters do not believe that the agreement is ‘faithful’ to the referendum result (compared with 30% of Remain voters). Meanwhile Deltapoll ascertained that as many as 37% of Leave voters thought the agreement represented a ‘betrayal’ of the referendum result (with another 29% regarding it as an ‘ill- thought out compromise’).


2. The Chequers agreement has undermined confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit – and especially so among Leave voters.


All three companies that have been tracking evaluations of the government’s handling of Brexit on a regular basis have reported a sharp decline in voter evaluations of the government’s handling of Brexit since the Chequers agreement was released. ORB report that 71% now disapprove of the way the government is handling the negotiations, up from 64% just a month ago. Similarly, Opinium now find that 56% disapprove of the way that Theresa May has handled Brexit, compared with 45% a month ago. Meanwhile YouGov have stated that 75% now think that the government is doing badly at negotiating Brexit, whereas just the previous week the figure had been 64%.

Most of this drop in confidence has occurred among those who voted Leave. According to Opinium, net approval of the Prime Minister’s performance among Remain voters has more or less held steady; it was -28 last month and now stands at -30. But among Leave voters net approval dropped from +1 last month to -31. Similarly, according to YouGov the government’s net ‘doing well/badly’ score among Remain supporters stood at -63 at the beginning of July and has now fallen a little further to -72. Among Leave voters, however, the equivalent drop is from -27 to -60. Figures from both Kantar and Survation confirm that Leave voters, who have hitherto been less critical of the government’s handling of Brexit, are now more or less as critical as Remain supporters.


3. Chequers has undermined the association in voters’ minds between the Conservatives and a hard Brexit.


Although many voters have been struggling to answer pollsters’ questions about where the parties stand on Brexit, among those who did feel able to give an answer, there was until now a tendency to associate the Conservative party with a hard Brexit. In both May and June Opinium found that around twice as many voters felt that the Conservatives’ priority was ending free movement rather than staying the single market. Now, however, almost as many voters think that the party’s priority is to stay in the single market (27%) as it is to end free movement (29%). This turnaround is particularly marked among Leave voters – and given their predominance in Conservative ranks, also among those who voted Conservative in 2017. A plurality of both groups now think that the Conservatives’ priority is to stay in the single market – by 32% to 25% among Leave voters and 35% to 27% among 2017 Conservatives.


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Meanwhile, YouGov now find that as many as 69% of voters think that the Conservative party’s stance on Brexit is ‘unclear or confusing’, up from 58% a month ago. The increase has been particularly marked (18 points) among Leave supporters.


4. Voters have not changed their minds about the merits of Remain vs. Leave or a hard versus a soft Brexit.


There is no consistent evidence that the Chequers agreement has either persuaded Remain voters that perhaps Brexit will not be so bad after all or that it has dissuaded Leave voters of the merits of leaving. True, Deltapoll now have Remain and Leave in a dead heat when last month Remain were six points ahead. But Survation reported a four-point lead for Remain, similar to the six-point lead that the company identified last month. Meanwhile, at 46%, the proportion of voters who told YouGov in both its post-Chequers polls that in hindsight the Brexit vote was wrong, is exactly the same as it was in the two YouGov polls conducted immediately before Chequers.

Meanwhile, although ORB reported a five-point increase in the proportion who disagree that having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU, Opinium found that, at four points, the difference between the proportion who think the government’s priority should be staying in the single market (39%) and the proportion who think it should be ending free movement (35%) is exactly the same as it was last month. Equally, Opinium found that voters continue to be evenly divided on the issue of whether Britain should be attempting to stay in or leave the customs union.


Implications

For the most part it seems that voters have been evaluating Chequers by asking how well it matches up to their existing preferences, rather than asking themselves whether it gives them reason to revaluate those preferences. And the problem for the government is that many Leave voters appear to have decided that the agreement fails to meet their expectations. As a result, it is in effect is being disowned by some of the very voters whose electoral instructions the government is meant to be implementing. Moreover, those voters do not just think that the Prime Minister has been incompetent in developing her Brexit stance but rather they are also having doubts about whether the government is in favour of the kind of Brexit they want in the first place. Meanwhile, Mrs May is getting little or no credit from Remain voters for developing a stance that might be thought to be rather softer than they might once have anticipated.


Meanwhile, we have to bear in mind, as last week’s British Social Attitudes report confirmed, that the 2017 electorate left the Conservatives with a predominantly pro-Leave (and thus pro-hard Brexit) electorate. Maybe as many as 70% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 had been Leave supporters the year before. Leave voters are then, above all, a group that the Conservatives need to keep on board during the Brexit process. There are already signs that Chequers has caused some of them to reevaluate their support for the Conservatives. Support for the party is down by four points in the latest polls as compared with the same polls before Chequers, enough for the Conservatives to fall behind Labour in the popularity stakes. Meanwhile, UKIP, hitherto seemingly dormant, has seen its support double from 3% to 6%. It is not just in parliament that the Prime Minister is under pressure from her Brexiteers.🔷


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(This piece was originally published on What UK Thinks EU.)


(Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Prime Minister Theresa May at the meeting with her Cabinet at Chequers to discuss Brexit, 6 July 2018.)


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Sir John Curtice is a political scientist, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the 'What UK Thinks: EU' website.

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