By Ellen Barry
With less than three months until Britain is to leave the European Union, most members of the country’s Conservative Party prefer leaving with no deal to the plan negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, a survey of party members released Friday shows.
Rejecting May’s proposal, respondents shrugged off warnings that a cliff-edge departure could lead to steep price hikes and shortages of food and medicine, fallout predicted by economists, analysts and, increasingly, members of the Cabinet out plugging the deal.
The poll of 1,215 Tory Party members, carried out in late December as part of a continuing academic study, found them in no mood for compromise.
May delayed a vote on her unpopular Brexit deal last month, hoping the pressure of the approaching March 29 deadline would force lawmakers to accept that her deal is better than the alternatives, like a no-deal exit or a second referendum. Parliament resumes next week, and the vote is scheduled for the week beginning Jan. 14.
Yet May will be hard-pressed to build support for the compromise within her own party, judging by the findings of the Party Members Project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Given the choice between a no-deal exit, May’s deal or remaining in the EU, 57 percent preferred no agreement, 23 percent preferred May’s compromise deal and 15 percent opted to remain in the EU.
“What’s really noteworthy is how pro-no-deal they are, and how unconvinced by their own government’s argument that it would be very, very difficult to manage and economically damaging,” said the study’s leader, Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London. “They seem to believe that actually, it will be a good thing for the economy.”
The results are at odds with public opinion as a whole. When a broad group of voters were asked to choose between the same options, 42 percent opted to remain in the EU, 25 percent chose no deal and 13 percent backed May’s agreement. (The rest said they would not vote, didn’t know or declined to answer.)
There is a yawning gulf in the perception of the economic effect of leaving the union without an agreement.
Government officials have warned that a no-deal exit could clog ports, starve factories and disrupt supplies of food and medicine. At a Cabinet meeting before Christmas, Gavin Williamson, the minister of defense, agreed to put 3,500 troops on standby. The environment minister, Michael Gove, on Thursday warned farmers that British exports to the EU could be subject to 40 percent tariffs, and that inspections could cause delays, posing a threat to small farmers.
But 76 percent of Conservative party members contacted for the poll dismissed those warnings as “exaggerated or invented,” and 64 percent maintained that a no-deal exit would have a positive rather than a negative effect.
“In some ways, what we see is a kind of repeat of what we saw under David Cameron, which is a leadership unable to convince its own members to back the party line,” said Bale, referring to the former prime minister.
The risks of a no-deal exit, he added, had been played down by right-wing news outlets like the Telegraph and Express tabloids, and by “the celebrity politicians so many of them admire.” The government itself has walked a fine line on projecting the fallout, trying to simultaneously warn the public of danger and reassure it that the state is prepared.
The same survey found equally strong but opposing views among members of the Labour Party. In a poll of 1,035 members, 72 percent said they want the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to support a second referendum on EU membership. Corbyn himself is a long-standing critic of the EU, and has seemed reluctant to take that step.
Among Labour members, 89 percent said they believed a no-deal Brexit would have a negative effect on the economy in the medium-to-long term. And 82 percent said that warnings of severe short-term disruptions, such as food shortages and price increases, were realistic, as opposed to 35 percent of the electorate as a whole.