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The PM's 52% strategy was doomed to fail

4 min read

The Prime Minister was dealt a difficult hand. But her “Brexit means Brexit” strategy was always going to end in parliamentary gridlock, writes Anushka Asthana 

Brexit has turned into a Halloween nightmare for Theresa May. First the delay was to April 12, then talk of May 22, a request for June 30 and now October 31st when we can expect a showdown that may not improve the prime minister’s prospects of passing her withdrawal agreement. 

The consensus, of those on the right and left of politics, seems to be that the Tory leader has done a shockingly bad job. 

Now I know very few would share this point of view – but I do feel a bit sorry for May. It’s easy to say with hindsight that she chose the wrong path, but each decision seemed rational at the time, whether it was triggering Article 50 too early (amid the din of the EU’s “no negotiation without notification” demand), accepting the sequencing of withdrawal agreement then trade deal or opting for a general election that stripped her of a majority despite a 24 point poll lead. 

But from the start she made one huge mistake. As a Tory MP put it to me this week, the prime minister “interpreted a close result in the referendum as a landslide”. The “Brexit means Brexit” mantra that followed along with tough red lines amounted to a 52% strategy that was always going to carry electoral repercussions. 

Just think back to referendum night. I spent it at the Guardian headquarters writing the news story that would be the print splash the next morning. It was quickly obvious that this would be a knife-edge result but immediately after the polls closed it still wasn't clear which way it would fall. 

Had remain secured a narrow victory my article would have begun with David Cameron waking up to a “divided nation”. But the non-status quo decision, in favour of Brexit, inevitably trumped the discussion about the closeness of the result in the news coverage. After that the “will of the people” rhetoric took hold. 

We now know the difficulty of inserting that binary outcome into our system of parliamentary democracy. The 48% didn’t just give up but made themselves heard again a year later in the 2017 election, creating a new Parliament that was always more likely to end in Brexit gridlock. 

After all, Jeremy Corbyn's party was the obvious choice for anyone preferring a soft Brexit or hoping that one day the decision could be reversed, however firmly it promised to deliver the result. 

For a short time it seemed that a compromise might be possible as some remainers in Parliament voted for a single market outcome but May did not seize that opportunity and now it is long gone. 

In April 2019, the divisions of the referendum have widened. Where polls once suggested that May’s deal could provide an unhappy consensus as most people’s second choice now it seems too many are digging in.   

For the Tories the short-term electoral impact of their position could be terrible – as they lose votes from traditional pro-Brexit supporters who think they’ve been too soft. 

But it’s the long-term demographic trend – outlined in a report by Onward this week – that should really worry the party. It suggested that the crossover age, under which more people vote Labour and above which more back the Tories, is now 51. That’s no longer a youth problem, but a middle age one; and it could spell disaster for the party. 

Justine Greening represents the youngest constituency in the country and told me she held onto her Putney seat “in-spite” of the Conservatives, arguing her party had been behind the curve on this for years. In an interview for the Today in Focus Guardian podcast, former Tory MP Nick Boles said it could prove an existential threat if the party failed to run a long leadership campaign that resulted in a victory for fresh blood. 

Brexit has divided a nation and two political parties, while sidelining critical discussions about schools and hospitals and poverty. May has made some very serious mistakes, but I’d sympathise with any prime minister who was dealt such a toxic and difficult hand. 

Anushka Asthana is associate editor at the Guardian and presenter of its daily podcast, Today in Focus  


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