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Hugo Rifkind

What can Theresa May say to the Tory Remainers?

The PM will have to decide how to court key voters – and she can’t just threaten them with Corbyn

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

I don’t see it. I do not see the anatomy of how it all pans out. Theresa May will be the next Prime Minister because, jeez, who else is going to be? What I cannot see, though, is what she says, and to whom, along the way. Most of all, I cannot see what she says to Remainers.

‘Who cares?’ you may be thinking, and ‘get over it’ and ‘you lost’ and so on. Yet these arguments, while powerful, only get us so far. The fact is, quite a lot of people who formerly voted Conservative also voted Remain. In Mrs May’s own constituency, indeed, she may have a majority of a smidge over 29,000, but she also faces an electorate who, by a margin of almost 8 per cent, voted against leaving the European Union.

Across the country at large, somewhere in the region of 80 Conservative seats went that way, too. Out of all Conservative voters, 40 per cent of them did. So I find myself wondering how, as the leader of a political party that is holding an election specifically to make this thing they didn’t want to happen happen more effectively, Theresa May plans to court their vote. What does she say?

She can’t just threaten them with Jeremy Corbyn. That won’t work at all. There are degrees of uselessness, and the big problem with Corbyn is that he’s too useless to be useful to anybody. Ed Miliband, in retrospect, was just perfectly useless enough, so that David Cameron could say, ‘Imagine if he won, wouldn’t Britain be chaotic and awful?’ and people could imagine this, and decided Cameron was right. Which may feel somewhat ironic two insane years later, but that’s beside the point. Project Fear, you might call it. You can’t say, ‘Imagine if Corbyn won’, though, because almost literally nobody can. Not even Owen Jones can imagine this. Probably even Jeremy Corbyn can’t imagine this.

Probably they’ll have to do 50 takes of every party political broadcast, because he’ll get to the line where he has to say ‘When I’m the Prime Minister…’ and then he’ll catch Seamus’s twinkling eye and guffaw in sheer open derision at how mad the idea of him being in charge of Britain really is. ‘Be afraid of Jeremy Corbyn’ just isn’t something you can put on a political billboard. You might as well write: ‘Be afraid of Godzilla.’ It’s a fantasy.


Being supremely confident that Theresa May will win, then, even instinctively Tory Remainers thus have no particular reason to vote for her. Which means, as they obviously won’t vote for Corbyn either, they may end up supporting what’s-his-name from the Liberal Democrats, as was the case in the Richmond by-election, which defenestrated Zac Goldsmith last year. Voters punished the party mercilessly in 2015, after five years of coalition government left it broadly regarded as so close to the Conservatives that you might as well vote Tory if you liked that sort of thing, and for somebody else if you didn’t.

Whereas now, post-Brexit, this contamination itself might be a selling point. ‘Vote Lib Dem!’ they could say, ‘Almost Tory but without the Brexit stuff!’ Although they won’t say this, obviously, because they also want to get votes from people who think the Lib Dems are almost Labour. I do not know how Corbyn’s Labour will deal with this threat, but nor do I actually care, nor expect anybody else to. What interests me more is how May’s Conservatives deal with it.

Many among them will instinctively want to attack the Lib Dems for being anti-Brexit — betraying the will of the people and suchlike — but it’s hardly going to put off people who were attracted by just that. Her calculation, I suppose, is that they won’t vote for what’s-his-name and his strange silly Lib Dems in the end, because serious, sensible people just don’t.

Yet the idea that the Conservatives themselves are still a serious, sensible party may have taken rather more of a battering than she realises. Theresa May may also be underestimating the extent to which, for many on both sides, Brexit now is politics. There will be Remain-supporting voters out there who would no more vote Tory than a Yes voter in Glasgow would vote Labour. Does May even try to speak to these people? What can she possibly say that they would want to hear?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Earlier this month, the New Statesman reported internal Tory polling which suggested the Lib Dems would regain most of the seats they lost to the Tories in 2015, including all of those in south London and Cornwall, and most of those in Devon. Perhaps Tory strategists see more than enough Brexit Labour and Ukip votes out there to replace the lost seats.

Or maybe they reckon what’s-his-name will start putting people off as soon as he is familiar enough to stop just being what’s-his-name. All of this is probably true. Even so, there is something very odd and fragile about the position in which Theresa May finds herself, and it is a fragility born out of perceived strength. The other guy cannot win, which means she cannot lose. So if you don’t like the main thing she is saying, why vote for her?


James Forsyth discusses the snap election with Bobby Duffy from Ipsos MORI and Richard Angell from Progress:

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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