Has Theresa May neutralised UKIP's threat to her party? Possibly

Has Theresa May neutralised UKIP's threat to her party? Possibly

Despite David Cameron's wish that his party would stop 'banging on about Europe', many of his fellow Conservatives refused to keep schtum on the issue.  The issue of Britain's membership of the European Union and its place in Europe generally has been - and is - of huge importance to the Tories' traditional base.  His effective jettisoning of the issue meant that a fair few of his party's voters looked elsewhere: during his leadership, UKIP went from being an 'other' party to being a serious force in British politics.  At the height of the 'Purple scare', in late 2014 and early 2015, UKIP had poached two Conservative MPs and were looking to poach some Tory seats at the General Election.  Having failed to do so, the party had something of retreat in the national polls over the summer of 2015.  Then, as talk of the EU referendum increased, so did the party's fortunes: from August 2016 to June 2016, UKIP rose in the Polling Digest model from 10.5 points to 16.5 points.

The impact of the referendum result on the UKIP-Conservative rivalry wasn't clear: were these 'small-c' conservatives going to go back to their old party? Or had the Conservatives ruined their chances of winning these voters back by coronating a Remainer in Theresa May?

As a benchmark, take a look at the figure above.  It shows how voters switched parties between the General Election in May 2015 and the start of 2016 - just as the Europe debate was getting started.  The big blue flow between the Tories' 2015 vote share and UKIP's January 2016 voting intention shows clearly how much of a threat UKIP was to the Conservatives at the start of last year.  At this point, 8% of the Tories' general election vote was migrating to UKIP.

Take a look, then, at the same kind of graph, but showing the flows of voters between the General Election and January of this year.  

The first thing to notice is that the Conservative-to-UKIP flow has shrunk somewhat: whereas 8% of 2015 Tory voters planned to vote UKIP in January 2016, only 5% said the same in January of this year.

The second - and most important - thing to notice is that the UKIP-to-Conservative voter flow has increased hugely.  Back in January of last year, 11% of 2015 UKIP voters told YouGov they intended to vote Conservative at the next election.  Fast forward one year, and that figure has increased to 26% - over a quarter.

The combination of these two phenomena - a reasonable reduction in Tory defectors and a large increase in UKIP-to-Tory 'swingers' - means that we could tentatively conclude that the Conservatives' UKIP problem has receded.  Has it gone, though?  Not really: UKIP will likely still serve as a siphon of Tory voters.  If Theresa May's 'hard' Brexit strategy goes belly up or her government errs on the side of progressive on key cultural issues, then it is perfectly possible for UKIP to become a real threat again.

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