LONDON — Nearly a year after Britain voted 52 percent to 48 percent to withdraw from the European Union, those on the pro-E.U. side still think that the idea of leaving the bloc registers somewhere between doltish and disastrous. The Remainers have not enthusiastically embraced the winning side. They are not born-again Brexiteers.
But they are not coalescing around a single party ahead of Britain’s June 8 election. Instead, they’re splitting their support several ways, with a sizable faction even supporting the Remainer-turned-Brexiteer prime minister, Theresa May. Those who backed Brexit, by contrast, are flocking to the Conservatives.
As a result, the Remainers are the invisible man in this election, underscoring just how much May has altered the political landscape since coming to office last summer in the wake of the Brexit vote. The failure of the 48 percent to unify is one of the main reasons May remains on course for victory, even as her Conservative Party slips in the polls.
“Remain voters still think that leaving the E.U. is by and large a daft idea,” said Marcus Roberts, director of international projects at the YouGov polling agency. But he said the splintering can be explained in part by the original Brexit tribes of Leavers and Remainers having morphed into new categories: those who back their sides even more strongly and those who have flipped to the Brexit camp, which he calls Re-Leavers.
He said that nearly half of those who voted to remain in the E.U. — the Re-Leavers — now just want to make the best of an undesirable situation. For some, that means voting for the Conservatives, whose leader has signaled a hard break with Europe but is viewed by many voters as the best person to negotiate the upcoming divorce talks with the E.U.
“It is very British to get on with it and make do with the situation,” said Roberts, who noted that May herself was a Remainer but quickly shifted gears after her side lost the referendum.
“Theresa May, you could say, was the first Re-Leaver, the first person to grasp the fundamental truth of the British character: After a big event has happened, we don’t as a culture re-litigate that event. We try to move on and make the best we can,” he said.
The fragmenting of the Remainer vote can be seen vividly on the streets of London’s Vauxhall district, one of the most ardently pro-E.U. areas of the country. Here, voters should in theory be attracted to the Liberal Democrats, the centrist party that is campaigning to try to blunt the impact of May’s plans for a hard break with Europe.
But instead, the clear front-runner in the pro-Remain Vauxhall is a pro-Leave lawmaker who campaigned alongside arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage. Kate Hoey, 70, is an independent-minded member of the Labour Party. Unlike her party — which has adopted a fudged position on Brexit — Hoey is an outspoken E.U. skeptic.
“Why did you vote to leave?” demanded Shola, 25, a Remainer who gave only his first name and on a recent day confronted Hoey at a bustling community center where she was campaigning.
“We’re a wonderful country. We didn’t need to be part of a little mafia,” Hoey replied as she launched into an argument about how Britain was on the brink of regaining its freedom and would soon be able to cast off the shackles of Brussels. By the time Hoey was done, her interlocutor said he’d vote for her as he did in the last election.
“A lot of Remainers have accepted that we’re going to leave and are now asking: How do we make it work?” Hoey said. “Isn’t it better to have somebody who supported the project of leaving, because I’ll look silly if the whole thing is a disaster.”
Sitting south of the River Thames, London’s Vauxhall is a mixed place, where crowded apartment blocks rub up against multimillion-dollar Georgian homes facing pretty garden squares. The area, which has a large immigrant community, voted 78 percent to remain in the E.U.
The pro-Remain Liberal Democrats are trying to capitalize on the Brexit issue, especially in areas like this, and they hope that this election marks their comeback. It is the only major party to pledge to give voters the chance to reverse Brexit with a second referendum. And if Britain does leave, the Liberal Democrats want minimal disruption.
“If we’re going to leave the European Union, surely it should be the softest of all Brexits,” Tim Farron, the party’s leader, said in an interview. “We should stay in the single market. That means we’d have the best opportunity to be a place where Americans could invest, people around the world can invest.”
In some areas where people voted overwhelmingly to stay in the bloc, including university towns such as Cambridge, the Liberal Democrats may emerge victorious. But nationwide, it’s tough going, as polls show that referendum voting doesn’t necessarily predict election voting.
“The Remainers will probably bleed back to people’s party loyalties” in the previous general election, said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
The Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out in the 2015 election as voters punished the party for joining in a coalition with the Conservatives and reversing its pledge not to increase university tuition fees. The latest polls — a recent YouGov survey showed Conservatives with 42 percent support, Labour with 39 percent and the Liberal Democrats with 7 percent — suggest the party is still in the recovery ward.
But in some places, including Vauxhall, the Liberal Democrats hope they can deliver upsets by rallying the pro-E. U. spirit.
“Brexit is the issue on the doorstep,” said George Turner, 34, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Vauxhall. “Brexit is not a yes/no question. We need to have a big conversation about who we want to be as a country, and many are not comfortable with the vision put forward by the far right.”
Turner conceded that he has a “massive mountain to climb” if he is to overturn Hoey’s substantial majority but insists that “this is the year when anything can happen.”
While campaigning door-to-door recently, Turner quickly amassed names of voters who pledged their support, sometimes very quickly. When he knocked on the door of Brian Hogan, Turner explained that his main rival was “hard-line pro-Brexit.”
“That’s all I need to know. What’s your name? You have my vote,” said Hogan, 30, a project manager who lives on a street of closed shopfronts.
Hogan said that as an Irish citizen living in London, leaving the European Union “is not theoretical for me” but a real cause for concern. “It’s entirely possible that under a hard Brexit, I might not be able to live here in two years’ time.”