Brexit: British expats in EU have deserted the Conservatives, new research shows

Just 6.2 per cent backed Boris Johnson’s party in last year’s election – throwing doubt on whether he will carry out pledge to abolish time limit on expat voting

What happens next in the post-Brexit negotiations?

Britons living in the EU have deserted the Conservatives on a dramatic scale, new research shows, throwing doubt on a pledge to abolish the time limit on expat voting.

Just 6.2 per cent backed Boris Johnson’s party in last December’s general election it found – a collapse of two-thirds since 19.4 per cent did so just four years earlier.

At the 1992 election, more than 60 per cent of the overseas vote supported the Tories, but last year – as the prime minister vowed to “Get Brexit Done” – more than half sided with Labour.

Now academics behind the research have suggested it is in Mr Johnson’s interest to quietly dump a long-standing promise to abolish the 15-year limit on expat voting rights.

The pledge has been made in three successive Tory manifestos, but has not been enacted – and was left out of the first Queen’s Speech of the Johnson administration.

“There would seem to be little or no future partisan advantage for the Conservatives in extending voting rights to all British expatriates,” predicted Dr Susan Collard, at the University of Sussex.

Scrapping the limit would give up to 3.5 million more Britons the right to vote – at a time when Brexit has put their rights at their “greatest threat for 40 years”, the report argues.

They will lose free movement rights when the transition period ends in December and are already being refused job interviews as a consequence, MPs were told recently.

Paul Webb, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, said its research pinpointed “the implications of a hard Brexit” as a key reason for the Tories’ slump in support.

“Many British expatriates living in the EU feared they would lose reciprocal rights that EU member states accorded to their citizens living in other EU countries,” he said.

“The Europhobia of a growing part of the Conservative Party, and the willingness of the leadership to bend their policy to accommodate it, seems likely to have undermined the electoral appeal of the party to Britons living in the EU.”

Dr Collard, a senior lecturer in contemporary European studies, pointed out that Theresa May’s government had killed off a backbench bill to give expatriates "votes for life".

Scrapping the limit of living abroad for no more than 15 years had been mooted as an "issue of principle rather than pursuit of electoral gains", but she added: “That position will now be put to the test.”

The research team surveyed more than 3,200 British expatriates in the EU immediately after the December election.

It found that 95 per cent who voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum backed Remain over Leave, while three-quarters said the issue definitely influenced their voting choice in 2019.

Many Remainers defected to Labour or the Liberal Democrats with fewer than one-fifth of Remainers who supported the Conservatives in 2015 voting for the party again in 2019.

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