Andrew Neil: Brexit has changed the British political map forever

The 2016 vote has turned old political certainties on their head

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Five years ago today the country voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. The result surprised most of the media and shocked the British political elite. It was not meant to happen.

Those who voted to Remain struggled to come to terms with the result. Some refused, calling for a rematch. Those who campaigned to Leave quickly discovered that divorce was not as simple as they had made out - or as cheap.

Suddenly matters that neither side had much bothered to address in the referendum campaign — from the Northern Ireland border to the multi-billion pound lump sum Britain would have to pay to leave — took centre stage.

British politics entered a miserable period of drift and dither, made even worse when Theresa May’s cack-handed 2017 election campaign threw away the Tory majority. There were times when it seemed that Brexit might not happen at all.

The sorry saga only came to an end when Boris Johnson won by an unexpected landslide in December 2019. Brexit would happen after all. But we didn’t finish the transition until this January — a gruelling four and half years after we’d voted to leave.

The Brexit die is cast even if the arguments continue. The impact of the pandemic has made it harder for either side to point to clear economic pluses or minuses. But what is crystal clear is that Brexit has remodelled British politics.

How you voted in the referendum started to influence how you voted in general elections. Leavers were more inclined to vote Tory, Remainers Labour, whatever their previous party affiliations. In the process they changed the electoral map of England.

Northern towns which had been Labour for generations suddenly went Tory. Labour tightened its grip on the metropolitan cities. Less affluent voters became more inclined to vote Conservative, middle-class white collar workers backed Labour, especially if they worked in the public sector.

The idea of the Tories as the party of the posh south and Labour as the party of the workers, especially northern workers, was turned on its head. A major realignment of voting loyalties was taking place and the process is still going on, as you can see from the recent local election and by-elections results.

Where it ends we don’t know. But thanks to Brexit British politics will never be the same again.