After weeks of political campaigning with barely a mention of Brexit (beyond the negotiations requiring ‘strong and stable’ leadership), Theresa May tried a new tack this week: in a speech on Thursday she framed Brexit as the defining challenge of her political generation, and one which only she could make a success. Jeremy Corbyn responded with his own EU speech, in which he argued that no deal in the Brexit negotiations would be an economic disaster for the UK. The Lib Dems reaffirmed their view that Theresa May will not be able to negotiate a better outcome for the UK than EU membership, and that the referendum will need to be reversed. Suddenly we are back to where we were when May called the election two months ago: it feels like a single issue vote.
How did we get from the main parties having nothing to say on the EU, to everyone talking about Brexit, in the space of a week? The answer may lie in the public reaction to May’s domestic policy plans, which would force some older voters to pay more for their social care, among other things. This was a gift for Labour’s anti-austerity campaign, and the polls have narrowed from a 19-23% Conservative lead at the beginning of May, to a 3-12% lead yesterday, depending on what level of turnout pollsters assume. Theresa May’s attempt to shift the focus back to Brexit – seen as one of her stronger issues – is understandable in this context.
A good chunk of the Brexit vote in June last year was linked to the continuing disconnect of UK governments over the last 10 years from ‘real life’ and, in particular, from the impact of austerity measures. The now infamous claim on the Brexit battle bus that leaving the EU would bring back £350 million a week for the NHS was influential precisely because voters were seriously concerned about rising pressures on their local hospitals, schools, and social services. Encouraged by EU scapegoating from politicians and the media, voters were willing to take a gamble that leaving the European project would allow the UK to ‘take back control’ and therefore solve these problems.
Fast forward a year, and Theresa May’s government has given precious little detail on what, exactly, Brexit will mean, but the opposition has been somewhat successful in exposing what her ‘strong and stable’ austerity focused government will mean for these public services: even tougher times. Jeremy Corbyn has emphasised this – recognising the protest element in the 2016 Brexit vote – and has consequently generally chosen to campaign on domestic issues. The polls in the last few weeks suggest that he may have understood the political message of the Brexit vote more accurately than May.
Hence why May – seeing her ratings drop – has tried to turn voters’ attention away from public services and back onto the prospect of an inexperienced Labour government leading Brexit negotiations with the other 27 EU members. The next week will show whether this bet pays off. But if ‘project fear’ wasn’t enough for the Remain campaign in 2016, it may not be enough for the Conservatives in 2017 – or at least not enough for them to significantly increase their majority in the House of Commons. Even if Labour doesn’t win the election, Corbyn’s focus on the issues behind the Brexit vote, rather than on Brexit itself, may prove to be the winning strategy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.