New analysis of the composition of parliament following the General Election finds that the Conservatives’ pre-election Brexit position would not be guaranteed to pass any votes in the Commons (not to mention the Lords).
According to new research released by Edelman, the world’s leading communications marketing firm, 25% of Conservative MPs (78) back a softer form of Brexit than the one set out by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech. This group wants an ambitious UK-EU relationship post Brexit as well as a comprehensive transitional arrangement (de facto staying within the single market and a form of customs union) in order to avoid a ‘cliff-edge Brexit’ in 2019.
Although Labour has also committed to ending free movement (thus questioning whether the UK can remain in the single market), the vast majority of the party’s MPs prefer a softer form of Brexit (a so-called ‘jobs first Brexit’) meaning that together with the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, there is a parliamentary majority for such a softer position even when factoring in the DUP.
Edelman’s research estimates that 55% of Conservative MPs (174) strongly back the version of Brexit set out by May in the Lancaster House speech and contained in the party’s (now largely defunct) election manifesto. Despite being very vocal and well organised, it is estimated that the number of Tory MPs backing an even harder version of Brexit – including being prepared to walk away without a deal – only amounts to 20% of the parliamentary party (65 MPs).
Lucy Thomas, Edelman’s Head of Brexit Analysis said:
“These numbers call into question the possibility of getting all the bills outlined in the Queen’s Speech passed without some significant wrangling within the Conservative party let alone with other parties. It’s clear from looking at the various positions, that views differ not only on the final deal but also the length and terms of a transition, as well as the tone of the negotiations.
“Since the election Tory MPs have been much more willing to question previous Brexit positions such as ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, or pushing a more urgent focus on a transitional deal: the question is how many will vote with their feet for what they believe.”
Will Walden, Managing Director of Public Affairs, said:
“The outcome of the General Election has changed many parliamentary dynamics. As far as Brexit is concerned, those who campaigned to leave will be pushing ahead with what was set out in the manifesto, but as our analysis shows, it will require skillful negotiating to get everything through.”
On the eve of the referendum, 186 Tory MPs backed Remain compared to 139 who backed Leave. Whereas now, all Conservative MPs accept the result and have largely been publicly loyal to Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech (as indeed they were to David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech). However, beneath the superficial unity, there is still a wide range of views across the party as to what form Brexit ought to take and how best to get there.
Taking the vision set out by Theresa May in her Lancaster house speech as the relative centre point of Brexit sentiment within the party, Tory MPs essentially split three ways: softer Brexiteers, Lancaster loyalists and harder Brexiteers.
Softer Brexiteers: Given that a full ‘soft Brexit’ – staying within the single market and customs union indefinitely – remains off the table, softer Brexiteers have two broad objectives: an ambitious post-Brexit UK-EU FTA and close co-operation in other areas preceded by a comprehensive transitional arrangement to mitigate the economic fallout. Their priority is protecting the economy and jobs, and they are therefore relatively relaxed about migration. They are also willing to warn publicly that Brexit will not necessarily be easy and that the UK will have to make some compromises. They also want the process to be as consensual as possible.
Lancaster loyalists: Regardless of whether they backed Remain or Leave, in their public statements, MPs in this group tend to stick very close to the Brexit vision set out by Theresa May in the Lancaster House speech. This group will likely support the final package the government agrees with the EU providing it does not deviate too radically from its stated objectives.
Harder Brexiteers: MPs in this group remain absolutely convinced that Brexit is the right decision and that it can only lead to positive outcomes, and they are therefore impatient to get on with the process. While they would prefer to negotiate an FTA with the EU, they also believe there is little to fear from falling back onto WTO terms, and as such are unwilling to countenance significant concessions. They see FTAs with other global economies and the opportunity to roll back swathes of EU legislation as key benefits of Brexit, and tend to interpret any attempts to soften Brexit as an attempt by so-called ‘remoaners’ to frustrate the ‘will of the people’.
Since the election, Chancellor Philip Hammond has emerged as the de facto leader of the softer Brexiteer group, emboldened by May’s inability to remove him from his post as she had planned. Other notable members include Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, while outside of the parliamentary party they can also count on the backing of the likes of Ruth Davidson, John Major and George Osborne.
Although this group lost several prominent members during the election, paradoxically, this very fact bolstered their argument that the party must do more to attract younger, more liberal voters who voted Remain instead of focusing so heavily on former UKIP voters. They are also well better represented within government comprising 30% of the Cabinet and 44% of junior Ministers while prominent Remain backer Gavin Barwell was appointed as May’s new chief of staff.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of softer Brexiteers backed Remain in the referendum although a few supported Leave including Crispin Blunt, chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee, who has called for “time-limited membership of the single market as a transitional arrangement” via the European Economic Area.
Much has been made of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s support for a softer Brexit with many assuming this will guide the behaviour of the twelve new Scottish Tory MPs. However, it has proven surprisingly difficult to establish what this group thinks about Brexit – the issue barely featured in their electoral campaigns, instead the preservation of the Union was front and centre. Indeed, it was only possible to definitively establish which side three of the new MPs campaigned on – two backed Remain and one backed Leave. As such it cannot be assumed they all share Davidson’s preference for a softer Brexit.
The harder Brexiteer faction is composed both of veteran anti-EU Tory MPs such as Bill Cash, John Redwood and Ian Duncan Smith, MPs who played high profile roles in the Vote Leave campaign such as Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom as well as a few MPs from the 2015 intake such as Suella Fernandes who has taken over the chairmanship of the ‘clean Brexit’ backing European Research Group.
Since the election, several prominent members of this group have joined the government, most notably Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Steve Baker where they will counterbalance the softer Brexiteers. Although smaller than the softer Brexit faction in terms of absolute numbers, this group is well organised containing many seasoned rebels used to catching the government on the hop and securing significant concessions. It also wields disproportionate influence due to having the support of the Leave-backing press. Some of its members have let it be known that in the event of any perceived backsliding on Brexit they are willing to trigger a leadership contest – only 48 MPs are necessary to do so.
Finally, this is only a snapshot of opinion within the party at the present time. The shock election result has already allowed softer Brexiteers to be more vocal and some of the loyalist faction could be tempted to join their ranks (although those in heavily Leave constituencies may try to fly below the radar). This could be exacerbated if the economy continues its recent trajectory of slow growth and high inflation; this could convince MPs as to the desirability of a longer and more comprehensive transitional arrangement.
The above classification is based on original Edelman research and analysis of each of the 317 Conservative’s MPs position on Brexit. MPs’ categorisation as softer Brexiteers, Lancaster loyalists and harder Brexiteers has been determined by assessing the following factors:
MPs’ longstanding views on the EU question,
Which side they backed in the referendum,
How actively and passionately they campaigned in the referendum,
The estimated vote shares for Remain and Leave in their constituency,
Subsequent statements on Brexit on their websites, the media, in the House and on social media,
Who they backed in the final round of the Tory leadership contest,
Whether they signed the letter accusing the BBC of anti-Brexit bias in the wake of the referendum.
Notes for Editors
Edelman’s analysis was conducted Pawel Swidlicki, EU affairs analyst who has joined Edelman from the respected think tank Open Europe.