Theresa May has "reset" her election campaign by talking about the "best deal" for Britain. Why does the Tories' fighting talk on Brexit work so well?by Stephen Fisher / May 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
Framing Brexit as a battle seems to help the Tories in the polls. Photo composite: Daily Mail/The Sun/Financial Times/Guardian The forthcoming general election was ostensibly called in order to help Theresa May secure a better Brexit deal. Since then there have been the manifesto launches and the horrific bombing in Manchester. The election campaign has become about much more than Brexit. Now, the Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby has apparently ordered a return to the party’s main message that only Mrs May can be trusted to negotiate Brexit. Why Brexit? The opinion polls, such as Sunday’s ICM one, show that Theresa May is much more likely than Jeremy Corbyn to be trusted to “get the best Brexit deal.” This is clearly a strong card for the prime minister, but it’s not the only one. Mrs May has similarly commanding leads over Mr Corbyn in perceptions of trustworthiness and competence on the economy, defence, nuclear deterrence and security against terrorist threats. Those other issues each have their potential problems as a potential primary focus for the Conservatives. Nuclear weapons and defence do not appear to concern voters as much as many other issues. Overtly politicising terrorism in the wake of the Manchester attacks is insensitive and indecent. Highlighting economic management might remind voters about the pay squeeze and raise questions about the NHS, schools and other public services—all issues on which Jeremy Corbyn apparently enjoys similar, or even slightly higher, levels of trust as Theresa May does. Brexit, by contrast, seems to be an issue on which the public are clear that they prefer the Conservatives to Labour. Why Brexit works for the Tories But how come? Labour’s ambitions for the Brexit negotiations are not substantially different from those of the Conservatives, in ways that the public is clearly aware of. There’s certainly little evidence that voters prefer the Conservatives because they have a preference for the particular details of their negotiating aims over those of Labour. The issue of whether to immediately guarantee or negotiate over the rights of EU workers to stay in Britain after Brexit is a rare instance of a clear policy divide. But rather than driving vote intention it divides opinion within parties. Both Leave and Remain voters want both free trade and immigration control; so do both the Conservative and Labour parties. A focus on perceived competence The competition between the two main parties over Brexit is not so much about the policy divide as about trust and perceptions of competence. Theresa May has managed to persuade a large majority of Leave voters, especially many former UKIP voters, that she is best placed to deliver the kind of Brexit they want, while also holding on to most of the former Conservative voters that supported Remain. Some 70% of 2015 Conservative voters who subsequently supported Remain trust Theresa May more than Jeremy Corbyn to get the best Brexit deal. By contrast, only 33% of Leavers who voted Labour in 2015 in the same polls trusted Mrs May more than they did Mr Corbyn. So, if not by her distinctive choice of Brexit negotiating aims, how did Theresa May manage to convince so many people that she is the right person to lead Britain into the EU negotiations? How the public perceive May Part of the answer is that she is perceived as a strong leader in general. This extends to Brexit, but not inevitably so—as polls on attitudes to the NHS show. She is also apparently helped by the opposition. About half of the people who prefer Theresa May for prime minister say they do so more because of Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses than her strengths. Another further possibility is that Theresa May, and the government generally, benefit from a rallying-round-the-flag effect when it comes to perceptions of leadership on Brexit particularly—and that spills over into evaluations of her and her government generally. The EU boxing ground The Brexit negotiations have commonly been portrayed in the media as a war and referred to in pugilistic terms. There have been references to “battles with Brussels”, how Germans say “Nein to playing nice”, how Merkel has laid down the “gauntlet”, how the “EU takes the gloves off as the Brexit battle begins”, and how “walking away is the best weapon Theresa May has against the EU”. “Enemies of the People” – The Daily Mail’s famous headline after a High Court ruling on Article 50 Perhaps the most striking was the response to the Spanish government’s indication that their willingness to support a future trade deal might depend on the status of Gibraltar. This was responded to as if it were a threat of invasion: the former Conservative leader Michael Howard said Britain would fight to protect Gibraltar just like Mrs Thatcher fought for the Falklands. More recently, the Daily Mail has accused the Spanish navy of “taunting the UK” with warships in Gibraltarian waters. There is also the home front. “Enemies of the People” was the Daily Mail’s headline in response to the High Court’s ruling that parliament needed to authorise the triggering of Article 50. After the election was called the headlines of the Sun and the Daily Mail were particularly striking. The former screaming “Blue Murder” and the latter claiming that “Mrs May … vows to … CRUSH THE SABOTEURS.” Fighting talk in Westminster The government have generally used much more moderate language than the press, presumably at least to maintain good diplomatic relations with the rest of the EU going into negotiations. However, the Foreign Secretary said “If [French President] Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some world war two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward.” On 7th May, Jeremy Hunt referred to “a strong Theresa May battling for Britain.” The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, commented on 14th May that negotiations over EU worker rights etc. will be the “row of the summer.” Survey questions show widespread acceptance of the idea of hostility from other EU member states As the election campaign started the prime minister herself started using more fighting talk. Theresa May spoke about and how the “27 other European countries line up to oppose us.” In her most extraordinary attack on EU officials, Theresa May on 3rd May said, “Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press. The European commission’s negotiating stance has hardened. Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials. All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June.” The Tory tabloid press were belligerently supportive in response, with headlines such as “Nuclear Juncker!” in The Sun and “Hands off our election” in the Daily Mail. But, capturing the mood, even the Guardian headline was, “May declares war on Brussels.” …and the polls responded Immediately following this speech a YouGov survey found 51% saying that it was probably true that, “EU officials and politicians are deliberately trying to influence the outcome.” Only 24% thought this was false. Even among Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters, some 30% agreed with the prime minister. There are also other survey questions which show widespread acceptance of the idea of hostility from other EU member states. In April some 47% thought that other European countries would end up “obstructing a good deal to punish Britain and discourage other countries from leaving.” Only 30% believed that other countries would negotiate constructively. Strikingly views on this issue did not vary much at all between those who voted Leave and Remain, or according to how people intended to vote in the general election. People, regardless of age, gender, class or region all predominantly viewed other EU countries as out to get us. How this thinking developed It was not inevitable that people in Britain should think this. In May 2013 only 26% of people thought that “Leaving the EU would permanently damage our future relationship with other European countries”. Most thought we could still be a “good neighbour”. When When asked in May 2016, before the referendum, most people thought it was scaremongering to suggest that “if we vote to stay, other European countries will punish us for having organised a referendum in the first place.” There was no polling question during the referendum campaign about whether we would be punished if we voted to leave, There was no polling question during the referendum campaign about whether we would be punished if we voted to leave, because the idea that we would be punished for leaving, while sometimes discussed, was not a major argument used in the Remain campaign. It is impossible to say whether the country has developed a somewhat paranoid mindset about the Brexit negotiations because they have been framed by some journalists and politicians as a conflict, rather than a series of amicable conversations aimed at achieving basis for future cooperation. What’s clear is that the widespread view that Britain faces a hostile reception from other EU countries helps foster a desire for strong and stable leadership.