Why Tory Remainers Will Grit Their Teeth and Vote for May Anyway

  • On Brexit, May seen as most capable of ‘sorting it all out’
  • Four million Conservative Remainers could hand May landslide

Chester has a history of resistance. But one of the last cities in England to fall to William the Conqueror’s army is first in line to succumb to Theresa May in June 8 elections.

With its cobbled streets, trendy boutiques and well-to-do older population this northwest town has been Conservative for 82 of the past 100 years. Labour won here by a whisker in 2015 and it should be the easiest seat for Tories to snatch back but for the fact it voted resolutely to stay in the European Union.

City of Chester

Photographer: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

The dilemma for the people of Chester is one shared by at least a third of Tory voters nationwide. Convincing these 4 million Remainers to leave the house and back her --when they might be tempted to abstain or throw their lot in with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats -- could hand May the landslide she craves and claims she needs to pull off talks that have already taken a nasty turn.

A tour of this one-time Roman settlement paints a picture of a key demographic willing to hold their noses and vote for May as the person least likely to mess it up. Having gone through the different stages of grief -- denial, anger -- for many acceptance has set in.

“I’m going to stay with Conservative,” said 44-year-old Sarah Williams as she put out her cigarette and headed into a clothes shop in Chester’s medieval center. “I voted Remain but it’s tough now isn’t it? And the Tories will do a better job of sorting it all out.”

Trust Me

Certainly that is the impression May is trying to convey, with the repeated invocation of her “strong and stable” leadership in contrast to that of rival Jeremy Corbyn, derided as shambolic, weak and even dangerous.

Whether Conservative Remainers will vote for someone else “is one of the most important questions of the campaign,” said David Cutts, professor of politics at Birmingham University. “It’s not happening because the Remain vote isn’t as solid as the leave vote. National concerns are dominating, mainly the issues of competence and credibility. ”

Theresa May on May 3.

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

May is turning a dinner gone sour with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to her advantage. She seized on unflattering accounts of the meeting to accuse his his team of trying to sabotage the election by leaking to a German paper. She promised voters that Juncker was about to discover what a “ bloody difficult woman” she could be.

That kind of tough talk is resonating with Tory voters who may never have wanted Brexit but are also appalled by any suggestion that Britain could be taken for a ride by so-called Brussels bureaucrats.

It’s Over

Myles Hogg, a local Conservative politician, predicts that “seventy percent of people in my position who voted Remain, campaigned for Remain, will vote Conservative.” When asked why, the 75-year-old doesn’t hesitate.

“In May we have a very astute, steely negotiator who will get the best possible deal,” he said. ‘That overwhelms any residual angst about the referendum last year. It’s over, we can’t replay it and some of us believe we shouldn’t replay it. We now have to make the best of where we are and move forward.”

Election watchers agree that most Tory Remainers share that point of view.

“So far at least, the Conservative vote among Remainers looks to be fairly constant,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. “There may be some who will go to other parties and it may be a bigger issue in London, where the vote was rather more pro-Remain, but in general that vote looks relatively solid.”

But an incursion into the capital reveals no such ambivalence among self-declared Tories who also opposed Brexit. In the leafy suburb of St John’s Wood, Simon Martin put it like this: “It’s Conservative or bust isn’t it?” His brother, Adam, nodded in agreement.

Abbey Road

Their London district is home to Abbey Road, the famous crossing associated with the Beatles cover, and is favored to swing Conservative in this election even though two-thirds of it voted to remain. Adrian Myrosz, a 31-year-old resident, said he feels conflicted but doesn’t see an alternative to May.

He wouldn’t consider voting for Labour “because of the leader at the moment.” That opinion is born out by the polls, which show Corbyn trailing May by as much as 20 percentage points.

Corybn was lukewarm in opposing Brexit during the referendum campaign, Labour offered mixed messages in its aftermath and the party has since ruled out a second referendum on the grounds that the outcome was irreversible. That doesn’t offer much to Tory Europhiles looking for options outside May.

“For Conservatives who voted Remain it probably isn’t much of a dilemma now, partly because the opposition is so weak,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “I suspect they will vote Conservative on all sorts of other grounds and just put up with the fact Theresa May seems to be heading the country to a harder Brexit than they’d like.”

Last Chance?

The party that could potentially exploit torn loyalties is the Liberal Democrats, who have made the fight against a hard Brexit the cornerstone of their campaign. Their hope is to stage some kind of comeback after getting almost wiped out in the previous 2015 election.

An hour’s drive from Chester is the seaside district of Wirral West, which also voted to Remain and where May has a very high chance of winning. Dom Jerome, 62, has voted for the Liberal Democrats in the past but this time he doesn’t see them as a credible choice.

“Brexit was the wrong decision,” the self-employed Jerome said. But we “have to make it happen now and I think the Conservatives are on track to do what needs to be done.”

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