Tom Clarkson: Brexit has tarnished Corbyn's 'man of principle' image with voters

Written by Tom Clarkson on 16 April 2019 in Opinion

And "none of the above" is still topping the polls when it comes to who the public trusts most to get a good Brexit outcome.

Two years on from the triggering of Article 50 and nearly three years on from the referendum, despair about Brexit is hitting new heights – among both Leave and Remain voters. Four in five of us are now fed up of hearing about Brexit on the news every day. As if to sum this up, one focus group participant told me recently that if they were setting the Brexit process to music, they would use the theme tune from The Exorcist.

Against the current backdrop, two thirds of us say that anxiety about Brexit is bad for our mental health. Central to this is the belief that we are not making any progress, with many thinking that we would have left the EU long ago. The feeling that Brexit is now out of control, with no individual politician or party having a grip on it, adds to this sense of anxiety – as does the view that there is no easy route out of the chaos and that other, urgent issues (such as the cost of living, the NHS and knife crime) are being neglected. Three-quarters of us say that the focus on Brexit has significantly hampered our ability to deal with important issues facing the country.

This further heightens resentment towards the political class. 83% of the public agree that “the entire political establishment has failed the country on Brexit”. Voters’ frustration is driven by a belief that politicians have spent two years playing political games (showing they don’t care about ‘the will of the people’), failing to take decisive action (highlighting their incompetence) and neglecting more important issues (demonstrating that they are out of touch with ordinary voters).

Reflecting voters’ unimpressed take on the current situation, “none of the above” emerges as the most popular choice when the public are given a long list of politicians and institutions, and asked who they trust most to deliver a good outcome for the UK on Brexit. It is also the current front-runner for “best Prime Minister”.

“The advantage of leaving on Friday 29th March would have been not having to hear about it any more. I don’t mean that in a flippant way. It would be lovely to turn on the TV and not have to hear about it.” Remain voter, Croydon.

Perhaps astonishingly, Theresa May is the public’s next best bet. Voters respect May’s sticking power amidst the chaos. But increasingly they also think that her actions are being driven by party management issues rather than the national interest. We conducted focus groups on the night that May announced she would stand down as PM if she gets her deal through Parliament. Voters were baffled by the news – “why not see it through?”, as one voter put it – and it only served to reinforce the sense that she is being driven by her party. 51% of the public now say that Mrs May is more concerned about party politics than the national interest, up 6 points from 45% in January.

The bad news for the Conservatives is that many of Mrs May’s potential replacements fare even worse – two thirds of the public say that Boris Johnson is more concerned about his own political career than the national interest, for example. If the public continues to see a party riven by infighting and personal ambition, it will be hard for any future Conservative leader to convince the public that they have the interests of the country closest to their heart.

Labour is in a similarly weak position among voters. Up until 6 months ago, voters used to say that Jeremy Corbyn was a “man of principle” who did what he believed in – regardless of whether they were one of admirers or his many detractors. But Corbyn’s profile among the public has fundamentally changed – now, they think he plays political games as much as the rest of the political class: “It seemed like he would be refreshing and new, but it hasn’t played out like that.” 67% think he is more concerned with his own political career than the national interest.

In the long-term, it seems likely that one or both parties will shoulder the reputational baggage of Brexit in the same way that Labour’s public profile has been tarnished for years by the legacy of the financial crisis. Which party is likely to end up shouldering most of the public’s blame? In bad news for the Conservatives, focus group participants around the country repeatedly single out one man as responsible for the current mess: David Cameron.


Tom Clarkson is Research Director at Britain Thinks

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