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OPINION19 May 2017

Economy makes way for Brexit in voters’ minds

Brexit Opinion UK UK General Election

Brexit has handed the Conservatives a large vote share but leadership can win them a landslide says Opinium’s James Crouch.

At the start of this campaign it was clear that this general election would be fought on terms that are very different from what we’re used to. For years we’ve listened to a relentless barrage of economic messages from both major parties, whether it be Gordon Brown claiming to have ended ‘boom and bust’ or David Cameron strenuously emphasising his determination to cut the deficit. Then Theresa May called the Brexit election.

In 2015 and throughout this campaign we have been asking voters about the single thing driving their vote choice and we found that the Conservatives were even more successful in dominating the early stages of the campaign than in the previous general election.

Immediately after the election was called, a quarter ( 25%) intended to vote for a party based on its stance on Brexit, while 19% were voting for a party based on its leadership. In January 2015 the economy came top of the list, but now it sits quite far down the pecking order.

Since then the Conservative lead has been very slowly in decline while the Labour vote has solidified, but how have they managed to do this and how far is this likely to go?

Admittedly, in April the election was still a shock and Brexit was the only topic we had to discuss, much to Mrs May’s advantage. The main drivers of Conservative voters even in our latest poll are Brexit ( 36%), followed by the leadership ( 31%). Very different from 2015 when half ( 49%) of Tory voters said they sided with the party mainly because of its economic policies.

However, Labour has had weeks of rolling out policy after policy, and it has widened the field of conversation beyond Brexit and onto issues the Tories don’t want to get bogged down on. Labour’s key driver was its health policies at the start of this campaign ( 33% of Labour voters named this as the reason for their vote), and it’s crept up further to 36% in our latest poll.

Crucially the shift isn’t big, and although a party’s health policies are increasing in importance as a key driver in voter choice (from 11% to 14% of all voters over the course of the campaign), this has primarily been among Remain voters who had precious little in the way of ‘usual’ domestic policies to vote for up until now.

Fundamentally, as we have seen from our research into the UK’s political tribes, the key sections of the electorate that backed Leave are still going to vote based on Brexit – which is why the Conservatives remain solidly in the high 40s after hoovering up UKIP’s votes.

But if the Tories’ aim is a crushing landslide they need to stop the Labour vote from recovering any further and Brexit won’t help the Conservatives in this regard.

We also asked voters what was putting them off voting for each party, and from this we were able to get the net effect a particular issue is having on a party’s vote share. And yes, what we found might not be too surprising – the Tory vote share benefits from Brexit and Mrs May, while Labour benefits from its health policies.

But the most important finding is what pushes voters away from a party, and the Tories can only kill off Labour by talking about its leader. So far Mrs May might have championed her own ‘strong and stable’ credentials but the Tories have been strangely soft on Jeremy Corbyn. If they can successfully turn their guns on him they might be able to soften up Labour’s surprisingly resilient vote share.

James Crouch is senior research executive and head of Omnibus at Opinium Research