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It is just seven weeks until the UK General Election due on 8th June. Much has changed in the nine months since the UK voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU.
Conservatives and Labour campaigned to remain in the EU but the outcome of the referendum has changed everything. That surprise vote illustrates the power of John Maynard Keynes’, maxim: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do Sir?”.
Most MPs, about 75% on our reckoning, campaigned to remain in the EU. Yet on 1st February 81% of them - 98% of Conservatives and 73% of Labour MPs - voted to trigger Article 50 and start negotiations to leave the EU. Although most Conservative MPs had supported EU membership during the referendum only one, Ken Clarke, voted against Article 50. The Scottish National Party and the Lib Dems maintained their support for staying in the EU and voted against Article 50.
Public opinion on the principle of leaving the EU seems scarcely to have moved since the referendum. A YouGov poll conducted periodically since last June shows that a pretty steady 45% of voters say it was the right decision to leave the EU and 43% disagree. In recent months public opinion seems to have edged in favour of a “softer” Brexit which prioritises access to the Single Market over controlling immigration.
This might suggest a yawning gap between MPs and the public. Yet support for political parties is a product of many factors. Attitudes to the EU are not the sole determinant of party affiliation.
So while 43% of voters say that it was the wrong decision to leave the EU almost 80% of those polled say they support political parties – Conservative, Labour or UKIP - which voted to trigger Article 50 and start the process of leaving the EU.
Voters see Brexit as the number one issue confronting the UK but are also generally supportive of Mrs May’s approach to it. Pollsters Opinium report that 44% of voters approve of Mrs May’s approach to Brexit, 28% don’t know or are neutral and 27% disapprove.
This complexity makes us wary of drawing conclusions from individual poll questions. Last November, for instance, 90% of voters told pollsters NatCen that they wanted to stay in the European Single Market. But while Mrs May wants to leave the EU and its Single Market only 15% of voters strongly disapprove of Mrs May’s handling of Brexit.
Voter perceptions of leadership matter and on this front Mrs May is doing well. Satisfaction with Mrs May’s performance as UK Prime Minister, at 52%, is well above the position of her two predecessors, David Cameron and Gordon Brown, eight months after taking office. In the last 20 years only Tony Blair has enjoyed a better rating at this stage in a parliament. Jeremy Corbyn’s satisfaction rating has dropped from 38% to 23% in the last year. The last time a Labour leader was as unpopular at this stage in his leadership was Michael Foot in 1982.
Conservative support has risen by 10 percentage points since last June while Labour support has fallen by 6 percentage points. The latest YouGov/Times poll puts the Conservatives on 48% of the popular vote, close to the peaks last seen in the summer of 2008. Labour support stands at 24%, its lowest reading since the recession of 2009.
The UK Independence Party played a decisive role in the campaign to leave the EU but its support has waned. UKIP is currently polling 7% of the national vote, less than half its rating last June.
Lib Dem support shrank from 23% in the 2010 General Election to 8% in the 2015 General Election. But the latest polls show a marked rise in the Lib Dems’ rating, rising from around 9% over the last year to 12%.
The near universal expectation is that the Conservatives will substantially increase their current Parliamentary majority of 17 seats in the General Election.
Three political correspondents interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s the Week in Westminster on Saturday forecast a Conservative majority of between 50 and 80. The weight of bets on online spread betting platform IG Index points to a 90-seat majority. Electoral Calculus, a prediction website that analyses opinion polls and electoral geography, estimates a substantially greater Conservative majority, of 134.
The Lib Dems go into the election with high hopes of increasing their showing from the 2015 lows. As a pro-EU party the Lib Dems seem well positioned to garner support from voters who favour a close relationship with the EU. Electoral Calculus see the Lib Dems gaining one extra seat in addition to the nine they currently hold. Punters on the IG Index expect the Lib Dems to end up with 34 seats.
Of course the polls and bookies’ odds have hardly been a perfect predictor of recent votes. But, changeable and imperfect though they are, it is hard to imagine navigating elections without them.
Voter affiliation is complex. So while polls show quite high levels of scepticism about the decision to leave the EU, and general support for its Single Market, the Conservatives are riding high in the polls. That could change. But today, at least, the polls and the bookies odds point to a substantially increased Conservative majority.
Ian Stewart is a Partner and Chief Economist at Deloitte where he advises Boards and companies on macroeconomics. Ian devised the Deloitte Survey of Chief Financial Officers and writes a popular weekly economics blog, the Monday Briefing. His previous roles include Chief Economist for Europe at Merrill Lynch, Head of Economics in the Conservative Research Department and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Ian was educated at the London School of Economics.