Polling data offers a clue to why Theresa May's own MPs have plotted against her so viciously

  • Conservative MPs do not have a majority in parliament so it is surprising to see them quoted saying vicious things like “she’ll be dead soon” about Theresa May, their own prime minister.
  • New polling data compiled by Pantheon Macroeconomics shows that the MPs who are most-opposed to May’s Brexit negotiations – those in the so-called “European Research Group” – have fairly safe seats.
  • A majority of ERG MPs would keep their jobs even if the Conservatives lost the next general election.

LONDON – One of the central mysteries in British politics right now is this: Why are Prime Minister Theresa May’s own Conservative members of parliament speaking out against her so viciously?

They know, obviously, that they do not have a technical majority in parliament, and if May loses a major vote in the House of Commons it could bring down their government and trigger a general election.

So it is surprising to see Conservative MPs allowing themselves to be quoted in the Sunday Times saying things like, “the moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.”

Some new data from Pantheon Macroeconomics analyst Samuel Tombs shows why hard-Brexit “no deal” Tories might be feeling so bold. Their jobs aren’t at stake, it turns out.

And even if the voters moved against them at an election, only a handful of MPs within the hardcore anti-EU “European Research Group” would lose their seats, Tombs’ data shows. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn could become the new prime minister and most of them would keep their jobs as MPs.

The ERG – whose best-known representative is Jacob Rees-Mogg – is made up of about 70 MPs. This chart shows the number of ERG seats that would be lost for each percentage point swing away from the Conservatives. Even in a 5-point swing away from the government, fewer than 20 of the 70 ERG MPs would lose their seats:

BrexitPantheon Macroeconomics

For contrast, three of the most marginal Conservative seats are held by Remainer Tories Justine Greening, Anna Soubry and Amber Rudd, who won their seats by only 1,554 votes, 863 votes, and 346 votes, respectively.

Of course, the risk of bringing down your own prime minister is that you might trigger a general election that you would go on to lose. The ERG has influence over May’s negotiating position with the EU, holding her feet to the fire. They would lose that influence if they lost No.10 Downing Street.

But polling data shows that is currently unlikely. The Conservatives are still ahead of Labour in the polls, despite May’s inability to get a Brexit deal from Europe or even to unite her own party behind her.

More comforting still for the ERG are the running average of opinion polls for the two major parties. May is having a tough time, but Labour has failed to capitalise. If an election were held tomorrow, the Conservatives would probably win, again. The latest voter intention poll, from Opinium, puts the Tories in the lead:

  • Con: 41%
  • Lab: 37%
  • Lib: 8%
  • UKIP: 6%

That trend has been sustained if you plot a running average of the last five polls:

BrexitPantheon Macroeconomics

None of this is obvious if you read the British media. A huge pro-EU protest march was held in London at the weekend, attracting up to 700,000 people. And the most consistent trend in UK politics right now is the public’s increasing regret at their decision to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum:

BrexitPantheon Macroeconomics

Yet when voters are asked whether they would favour a second referendum to approve/reject the terms of the exit deal, or remain in the EU, they are evenly split:

BrexitPantheon Macroeconomics

Bottom line: Tory MPs can topple their own prime minister and still win a new election – or at least hold on to their own jobs – regardless of the outcome.

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