General election must be held if Tory plotters oust Theresa May, British public say in poll

Exclusive: A majority say the party would have to go to the country if it chooses a new leader

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Sunday 08 July 2018 10:43 BST
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A majority of the British public want a general election if Tory plotters oust Theresa May and replace her with one of her rivals, a poll has revealed.

More than half of those questioned in the exclusive BMG survey for The Independent said the Conservatives could not switch leaders without returning to the country.

The research sends a strong message to would-be challengers like Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove that the public may not stand for having a new prime minister chosen for them by Tory party members.

The poll also showed the two main parties tied in terms of voting intention, making any election result unpredictable, risking the loss of marginal seats and the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government.

It comes after she managed to avoid resignations from her cabinet on Friday over her plans to move the UK to a customs arrangement that would keep Britain more closely aligned to the customs union and single market.

But despite the progress, most Tory insiders still believe the prime minister’s days are numbered with many expecting moves against her after Brexit day, at the end of March 2019.

More than 1,500 respondents were asked to imagine a scenario in which Theresa May resigned as leader of the Conservatives, with them then being asked whether the party should select a new leader and prime minister “without a general election being held” or “with a general election being held immediately afterward”.

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A majority of 51 per cent said the party would have to go to the country if they replaced the leader, with just 29 per cent saying it would not need to and 20 per cent saying they did not know.

Once “don’t knows” were removed, the majority for an immediate election soared to 63 per cent against 37 per cent who believed the new leader could continue without a fresh mandate from the public.

They were also asked whether Ms May should be replaced if she fails to find a Brexit deal that her cabinet can agree on.

Almost half – some 47 per cent – said she should, with 27 per cent saying she should not and 27 per cent saying they did not know.

The results present a dilemma for those cabinet ministers said to be on manoeuvres ahead of an expected leadership contest sometime after Brexit.

The moment when the UK is officially out of the EU presents the earliest and potentially best opportunity to push Ms May out. Brexit will have been secured, and there will be an appetite for a new direction among party members and to put distance between them and a leader who squandered the Tory majority in 2017.

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But the idea of an immediate election will be difficult to many of those jockeying for position in cabinet.

The last election increased the number of very marginal seats – there are eight Conservative MPs with majorities of less than 1 per cent – and left Mr Corbyn within touching distance of Downing Street.

The Labour party has continued election planning since 2017, with the party sniffing a chance to seize power if the Conservatives crumble under pressure of divisions over Brexit.

The BMG poll showed the Conservatives currently on 32 per cent of the vote and Labour on 31 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats on 8 per cent and Ukip, the SNP and Greens all on 3 per cent.

Some 18 per cent said they were unsure, but once those were either pushed for an answer or removed, the Conservatives were on 39 per cent, Labour on 37 per cent and the Lib Dems on 10 per cent.

At the same Tory plotters know that the longer they leave Ms May in power the more difficult it could be to unseat her, and the less time they will have themselves to make an impact ahead of the scheduled election in 2022.

It is not just those inside the cabinet said to be positioning themselves, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the backbench pro-Brexit European Research Group, also said to be building up to a potential challenge.

At the start of this week he threatened open revolt against the prime minister if she fails to deliver on the EU withdrawal agreement that he and other Brexiteers expect.

The general public too also appear wary of the nature of the deal being signed off by the prime minister, with some 44 per cent also having said they would back a new referendum on the Brexit agreement once it is sealed.

A further 27 per cent said they opposed the idea of a new referendum, 15 per cent said they neither supported or opposed it and 14 per cent said they did not know.

BMG Research interviewed a representative sample of 1,511 GB adults online between 3 and 5 July. Data are weighted. BMG are members of the British Polling Council and abide by their rules

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