The outcome of Britain’s EU referendum was split 52/48, but today opinion is less evenly balanced. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, it has become commonplace to say that the UK is a nation divided. But while most people still think they voted the right way last summer, as we approach the general election the story is not as simple as the division between Leave and Remain might suggest.
On the question of Brexit, the electorate can be broken down into three core groups instead of two: the Hard Leavers who want out of the EU (45 per cent); the Hard Remainers who still want to try to stop Brexit (22 per cent); and the Re-Leavers (23 per cent) — those who voted to Remain last summer but think that the government now has a duty to leave.
The emergence of this latter group means that when the parties are discussing Brexit, they should not think in terms of two pools of voters split almost down the middle. Instead, there is a big lake made up of Leave and Re-Leave voters and a much smaller Remain pond. This means that the Conservatives and UK Independence party are fishing among 68 per cent of voters, while Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and nationalists are battling for just 22 per cent of the electorate.
Among the Hard Remainers, the Tories are receiving just 10 per cent of the vote — behind both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Yet seven in 10 Hard Leavers are planning to back Theresa May’s party. Crucially, when it comes to the Re-Leavers, the Tories secure 45 per cent of the vote and have a 10-point lead over Labour.
This suggests that voting intentions are not being driven purely by the binary choice people made in last year’s referendum. Instead, their preferences are being informed by how they now feel the UK should go about leaving the EU. This is having an influence on how the parties are performing in the opinion polls. The most obvious beneficiaries of this three-way split are the Conservatives, which is why the party is entering landslide territory. Mrs May is sweeping up the support of Leavers as the Tories consolidate their position among those who voted for them last time, as well as the majority of those who supported Ukip in 2015.
The Conservatives’ stance on Brexit has won not only the backing of those who voted for EU withdrawal, but is also siphoning extra votes from the Re-Leavers. Among the two-thirds of the electorate who are Leavers or Re-Leavers, the Tories have the support of six in 10 voters. It matters a lot less that Mrs May’s party is losing voters among Hard Remainers.
It also partially explains the struggles that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are encountering. Many voters find Labour’s stance on Brexit opaque, and this has contributed to the party losing 3 per cent of its support among Re-Leavers. This, in turn, makes it more reliant on gaining votes from Hard Remainers, where they are competing with the Green party, Scottish nationalists, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems.
The Hard Remain/Re-Leave split also explains why the Liberal Democrats have struggled to make a breakthrough in what would seem like favourable conditions. Although the party’s vote share has increased since the 2015 election, it has not seen the rise in support many expected. It lost seats at last week’s local elections and any gains it makes in the general election will be limited. Its position calling for a second referendum is designed to appeal to the “48 per cent” but the role of the Re-Leavers means that it is instead trying to woo a much smaller chunk of the electorate. As the angry voters who have confronted leader Tim Farron on the campaign stump have shown, the Lib Dems’ anti-Brexit stance is turning many off.
This is why Mrs May is in such a strong position. Her only real competition for votes comes from Ukip, which is seeing most of its supporters flock back to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the other parties are fighting for the Hard Remain vote, something that in the UK’s first past the post system only serves to make the Tories an even more formidable electoral proposition.
The writer is head of international projects at YouGov
Get alerts on UK general election when a new story is published