Incoming Conservative MPs are considerably more Eurosceptic than their predecessors, according to new analysis that challenges the widespread assumption that a large Tory majority will lead to a softer Brexit.
The study of Westminster’s likely next crop of backbenchers suggests instead that the party will continue its recent swing to the right on European matters, a factor that could put extra pressure on Theresa May to avoid any compromise in her EU negotiations.
Researchers at InFacts, a group that campaigns against a “destructive” Brexit, studied a dozen new candidates selected to fight in seats where an existing Tory is standing down, together with those in the 50 closest marginals targeted by the party.
An estimated 59% of previously elected Tory MPs favoured remaining in the EU during the referendum campaign, but only 24%, or 15, of this new crop were similarly found to have backed remain in 2016.
In a further 23 cases, InFacts was unable to identify the view of the candidate at the time of the referendum, but in a clear 62% of the cases where it could identify candidates’ views, the Tory was pro-leave.
If current national opinion polling is reflective of voter behaviour on 8 June the vast majority of these Tory candidates are likely to become MPs and therefore further shift the balance of parliament away from its historic majority in favour of remaining in the EU.
The authors acknowledge that predicting their future behaviour based on past allegiances is tricky, but claim the approach nonetheless reveals a clear hardening of the position on Europe in the parliamentary party’s composition.
“Most candidates will say they will support Theresa May in negotiating Brexit, however they voted in 2016,” said Nick Kent, a former director of research at British Influence who carried out the study for InFacts. “But such an analysis does give a rough guide to what kind of Conservative parliamentary party there will be after the election.”
“Will it be dominated by a new wave of passionate Brexiters, who will prefer no deal with the EU to an agreement? Or will it contain a significant group of Tory MPs who will prefer a softer Brexit? Our surveys shows that in the Tory-held seats, leave has a clear advantage … There’s a similar pattern in the 50 most marginal seats,” he added.
When the prime minister called the snap election last month, some commentators suggested that the stronger negotiating mandate she sought from the electorate would give her more room for manoeuvre and reduce the chances of Britain crashing out without a deal.
Even previously sceptical foreign exchange analysts, such as Deutsche Bank, forecast a strengthening of the pound, claiming an enhanced Tory majority “will dilute the influence of MPs pushing for hard Brexit, strengthening the government’s domestic political position and allowing earlier compromise over key EU demands for a transitional arrangement”.
But several of those leaving the Tory ranks this election, such as former chancellor George Osborne and Treasury select committee chair Andrew Tyrie, are among the more vocal remain supporters in the party, whereas the only prominent remainer on the list of replacement candidates is Conservative MEP Vicky Ford.
The shift in favour of candidates who supported leave may match the overall mood of the electorate revealed by the referendum, but it comes despite the fact that many of the seats now targeted by the party – such as six out of 10 London marginals – voted to remain.
These new leavers, who could end up representing remain constituencies, include Nick de Bois in Enfield North and Joy Morrissey in Ealing Central. How determined they will be to press the prime minister for a hardline Brexit deal remains to be seen.
“Any exercise like this is challenging,” acknowledged Kent. “Many candidates expressed no view at the time of the referendum and some of those who did may now say they would vote differently. There was no time to interview candidates, but we have applied some basic principles. We searched the Twitter feeds of those active during the referendum and looked at any other public statement we could find. We also looked at smaller-scale exercises conducted by others.”