Unpredictable would be a generous description of the state of British politics in 2019. Three years on from the referendum, Brexit claimed the career of yet another Conservative leader.
After reaching an agreement with European leaders on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, Theresa May’s first net satisfaction rating of the new year (the proportion of the public satisfied with her, minus those dissatisfied) stood at -25. Though in negative territory, she was well ahead of the opposition’s Jeremy Corbyn, who had a rating of -55.
Public and parliament alike, however, were not keen on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. MPs voted it down twice (the second time with minor changes to the agreement) while nearly two-thirds of Britons thought her agreement would be a bad thing for the country. By June, her net leadership satisfaction rating dropped again, though it remained higher than Corbyn’s. Most Britons thought she was doing a bad job at handling Brexit while her own party supporters were split on her performance. This, coupled with an abysmal European Election result for the Conservatives, finally persuaded her to step aside, paving the way for Boris Johnson.
Although Boris Johnson walked into office with stronger leadership ratings than his predecessor left with, it wasn’t the best of starts. His net satisfaction rating in July was the lowest opening rating Ipsos has recorded for any Prime Minister since 1979 (though still much higher than Jeremy Corbyn’s). Just a third of the public were confident that he’d get a good deal for Britain in the Brexit negotiations with other European leaders. In September, a slim majority said he was doing a bad job at handling Brexit – only a slight improvement from where Theresa May left things – but better than the proportion of people saying Jeremy Corbyn was doing a bad job. Johnson, like May, could take comfort in Corbyn’s figures being worse.
Then the breakthrough few may have been expecting –Johnson struck a new withdrawal agreement with the EU. The deal was met with little public enthusiasm, although it was still better received than May’s. Thirty-eight per cent thought Johnson’s deal would be a good thing for Britain (44% said a bad thing) compared with a quarter (25%) who said the same for May’s deal (62% said a bad thing).
Even with an apathetic reception for his deal, Johnson received a boost for getting it done. His net leadership satisfaction rating moved into positive territory by October, while more saw him doing a good job at handling Brexit than in September – though the public were now split on this. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn saw the worst net leadership satisfaction ratings of any opposition leader recorded since 1979.
The first few weeks of the election campaign saw the Conservatives in a better place than Labour, with a double-digit lead in voting intention. The country remained divided on Brexit. In October, 41% wanted another referendum, with Remain as an option, compared with 40% who thought Britain should leave the EU even if there was no deal. By the time the election was called, Conservatives had the advantage of consolidating most Leave voters as the Brexit Party began to fade, standing down in Conservative-held seats. Remainers, however, were still unclear if Labour or the Liberal Democrats were the better option: as for the last three years the Remain vote has been divided.
What Brexit has revealed is that while our left-right division over whether we want a more Scandinavian or American type economy, represented by the Labour and Conservative parties, remains, there are now new splits across the left-right divide. Immigration, Britain’s past, law and order, and even morality are all issues which unite Leave and Remain voters regardless of which of the two major parties they support. They show how the two main parties, even as they squeeze the smaller ones in this election, face an ongoing challenge in holding their supporters together.
Although this election was very much about Brexit (55% said it was very important in helping them decide who to vote for), other issues mattered too. More than half (54%) said the NHS will be important in helping them decide their vote, compared with 31% who said crime, 31% care for older and disabled people, and 27% protecting the environment. The Conservatives started the campaign with a slight edge over Labour, with more saying they have the best policies to address the most important issues.
When it comes to unpredictability, Britons weren’t sure at the start of the campaign on what to expect from this election. A third thought it would be a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the biggest party, while a quarter thought it would end with a Conservative majority. When you read this, we’ll be on the verge of finding out if they were right. Maybe British politics is about to become more predictable after all.