How Theresa May Is Recruiting an Army of Hard Brexit Backers

  • Most Conservatives in 60 winnable seats voted to leave EU
  • New analysis shows how Tory party could change after election

The Importance of Theresa May's Brexit 'Plan B'

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is packing her Conservative Party with an army of Euroskeptic candidates for next month’s election as she seeks reinforcements for her battle to deliver a hard Brexit.

Bloomberg News surveyed the views of the Tory candidates standing in 60 of the most winnable seats for May’s party and found a clear majority voted a year ago to pull Britain out of the European Union. Of the 52 candidates in this group -- whose views could be verified by public statements or interviews -- 34 backed Brexit last June, 17 wanted to stay in the EU and one abstained.

Theresa May

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The almost two-to-one margin in favor of leaving the EU shows how the June 8 election could herald a dramatic shift in May’s parliamentary party, with more Brexit-supporting lawmakers in her team than ever.

This outcome would give May greater power at home to pursue a divorce that is focused on reclaiming control of lawmaking and immigration, rather than fostering trade. The analysis also damps speculation that May might soften her approach if she secures the crushing majority polls are predicting.

“The overall balance of Parliament looks like it will lean toward the harder side of Brexit than had May not called the election,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at the Eurasia Group.

More lawmakers who backed Brexit early on would make it easier for May -- who only had a majority of 17 in the previous Parliament -- to pass legislation related to the split and secure approval of the final deal she negotiates. After becoming premier last July some of her own side challenged her Brexit strategy.

Bloomberg studied candidates in the 12 seats where a sitting Tory lawmaker stepped down and the 48 seats the Conservatives lost most narrowly in the 2015 election. In the latter, 27 candidates voted for Brexit, 13 against it and one couldn’t decide. The rest wouldn’t comment or couldn’t be reached.

Fresh Blood

The results suggest an influx of new Tory lawmakers who are more biased toward Brexit than either the country as as whole, or the previous House of Commons.

QuickTake What the U.K. Snap Election Means for Brexit

Britain split 52 percent to 48 percent in last June’s referendum and an analysis by the ConservativeHome website at the time found 185 Tory lawmakers were Remainers while 128 were Leavers: a 56 percent versus 39 percent divide.

A YouGov poll released this week suggested 68 percent of the electorate now believes the government has a duty to deliver Brexit.

“I’m a supporter of Brexit and truly believe that although the road may have a few bumps ahead, the outcome will be beneficial,” said Peter Anthony, the Tory candidate in Blackpool South, which the opposition Labour Party won by just 2,585 votes in 2015. “Being in charge of your own borders, laws and destiny is paramount in a democratic country.”

That is the prevalent mood in the dozen constituencies where Tory lawmakers have retired to make way for new blood. In those, seven of the candidates voted “Leave” and four “Remain.”

‘Good Job’

Five -- including the Tatton seat of former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne -- were previously represented by Tories who opposed Brexit, but now have candidates who voted for it. By contrast, there are only two seats set to pass from Tories who wanted out to those who wanted in.

Asked by Sky News last week about the criteria for picking candidates, May said: “We are selecting the candidates who will do a good job for their constituencies when they’re elected.”

All Tory members of Parliament will have been elected on the coat-tails of her personal appeal and signed up to the party’s manifesto, which will make them more loyal and likely to back her version of Brexit. That could well include pledges to end free movement of labor, leave the EU single market and end the oversight of the European Court of Justice.

“I don’t know how many new Tory MPs are going to take on the PM regardless of what they think of Brexit,” said Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe network of academics, in a telephone interview. “I’ve always thought she was for a hard Brexit.”

Negotiation Room

To be sure, a larger mandate gives her the space to compromise. A bigger majority in Parliament gives May leeway to negotiate a transitional deal, one that allows companies to adapt, without hardliners posing a political threat.

Rahman of the Eurasia Group said May would still face internal calls for a "cliff-edge Brexit" in which Britain agrees to World Trade Organization tariffs rather than surrender sovereignty to the EU.

“We have to work it through and get a good deal,” said Matt Wright, the Tory candidate in Delyn, who needs a 3.9 percent swing to take the seat. “I’m not for hard Brexit. It all has to be debated properly.”

In Wirral West, which Labour won by just 417 votes in 2015, Tory candidate Tony Caldeira said he didn’t vote in the referendum, torn between wanting to safeguard trade and regain control of law-making and borders.

“Now the people have spoken I’m 100 percent behind the prime minister in getting the best Brexit deal possible,” he said. “Ultimately people made the decision and we’ve got to deal with reality.”

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