Anti-Brexiters Must Not Squander the "Remainers’ Revolt" Against May

Theresa May called a snap general election in the hope that she would be given a huge mandate in order to negotiate Brexit. The public vote was the electoral equivalent of a large raspberry being blown in her face. Her stance on Brexit may have just been rhetoric in order to win Leave votes; she may well have used her mandate to stare down her backbenchers and produce a more compromised final deal. We will never know as that now belongs in the hypothetical realm of ‘What If’.

The ambiguous answer by the public on the future direction of the country betrays that Britain is still horribly divided.

May ought to have realised that making her election pitch only at the 52% and ignoring all others, especially the wealthy and educated middle-classes, was a recipe for disaster. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, offered hope to many, especially the young who were energised by his campaign and flocked in record numbers to frustrate May’s blank cheque.

Corbyn barely mentioned Brexit in his campaign and the Labour manifesto was deliberately ambiguous, particularly in relation to the single market.

Brexiters have taken this to mean that Labour voters endorsed May’s extreme Brexit: that all of these enthusiastic young people wanted to sabotage their own futures in an act of national self-harm.

This could not have been further from the truth. This election was, at least in part, a revolt of the Remainers. Brexiters seem to ignore the hugely influential part played by the pro-EU tactical voting campaigns. Groups such as Open Britain, The European Movement and Gina Miller’s Best for Britain campaign nearly always endorsed Labour over the Conservatives as the best placed to thwart Brexiters.

It did not matter what Labour’s manifesto actually said: people projected

The young, middle-class and educated, clearly deeply angry about Brexit, vented their frustration at the ballot box: there were much higher swings to Labour in Remain constituencies. Constituencies that swung to Labour, such as Warwick, Leamington as well as Kensington, were all very far down Labour’s target list of seats but all had very high Remain votes.

In Canterbury and Reading, Open Britain pushed several targeted ads aimed at young people. Canterbury and Reading East voted Labour.

It did not matter what Labour’s manifesto actually said: people projected what they wanted to see and the young saw a way to frustrate Theresa May’s Brexit position.

Plenty of evidence points to the high turnout by young people being motivated by their feelings that the older generation had snatched away opportunities for their futures in the 2016 referendum.

One 24 year old from Battersea who had ‘buried [their] head in a pillow and screamed’ over the referendum came out and vote for the first time on Thurday. They must have been one of many, particularly as 73% of 18-24 year olds had backed Remain in 2016.

Of course, it would be simple to say this was the only reason: Brexit was only third on the list of why people voted Labour, although 43% of Labour voters did say they were ‘resistant’ to Brexit with only 33% ‘enthusiastic’. For the Lib Dems it was their voters top priority: their two gains in south west London as well as Bath and Oxford were clearly all motivated by anti-Brexit sentiment.

 this election was as close as we are going to get to a second referendum

The reason all this matters is that the Government should not be allowed to claim that it can pursue ‘business as usual’ and pursue what clearly many in the public saw as a dangerous and damaging hard Brexit.

Tory Remainers should rightly feel emboldened and should work across the floor to make sure that Britain stays in the single market and customs union. Labour have already said they will pursue a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. This clearly gives them the wiggle room to pursue a Norwegian style arrangement, which isn’t perfect but better than the catastrophe being endorsed by May.

The numbers are not on the Brexiters’ side, who are clearly a minority in Parliament, largely made up of a mixture of free trade fantasists and angry Colonel Blimps.  

It is easy to see why they want to keep May in power: they are terrified that they are losing momentum and the argument within their own party.

May will have to go and it is interesting that most of those who have dominated the airwaves and have called for a change in leadership - Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne - have all been staunch Tory Remainers. Perhaps it is time for the left of the party to take charge in their own ‘Remain revolt’.  

What is clear is that this election was as close as we are going to get to a second referendum. Remainers in parliament should not squander this opportunity to limit the damage, or even kick it into the long grass indefinitely.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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