As Brexit Deadline Beckons, Few Signs of Change in British Attitudes

 People with Union Flag backpacks in Whitehall on 19 December. Photo: Getty Images.
People with Union Flag backpacks in Whitehall on 19 December. Photo: Getty Images.

There is no doubt that during the 30 months since the 2016 referendum the British people have become slightly more pessimistic about the perceived effects of Brexit, and how they feel that leaving the EU is being managed. Overall, people have become marginally more likely to think that their finances will worsen if Britain leaves the EU, that the economy will suffer and that Brexit will negatively impact upon jobs. They have also become more likely to think that the Conservative government is managing Brexit ‘badly’.

Such shifts have fuelled the idea that the people are ‘giving up’ on Brexit and that the wider winds are now blowing firmly behind a resurgence of support for remaining in the EU. But there are good reasons to be cautious about this assessment.

Even today, as a ‘No Deal’ looms large as a possible outcome, most people still do not believe that leaving the EU will have strong direct effects. According to a regular tracker by Opinium, 70 per cent of people think that their finances after Brexit will either improve or be ‘about the same’, while more than half (53 per cent) think the same about the economy.

Furthermore, even though some voters have unquestionably become more negative about the economic repercussions, it should be remembered that these economic considerations were not central to the Leave vote, which was driven far more strongly by a desire to claim national sovereignty and lower immigration into Britain.

This helps to explain why there has been little change in fundamental opinions. The British people have certainly become a little more likely to think that the vote for Brexit was ‘wrong’ rather than ‘right’, with one of the last polls in 2018 giving ‘wrong’ a 6-point lead (though some have this at 11 points). Nonetheless, these headline figures conceal a considerable degree of polarization: while 89 per cent of Remainers think it was ‘wrong’, 83 per cent of Leavers think it was ‘right’; while 72 per cent of Labour voters think it was ‘wrong’, 70 per cent of Conservatives think it was ‘right’.

These strong partisan differences are also visible when voters are asked what they would like to happen next.

Conservative voters: are far more likely to think that the vote for Brexit was the right decision; are more inclined than other voters to want to leave the EU on the terms negotiated by the government rather than remain in the EU (by a margin of 62-24); hold rather strong latent support for a ‘No Deal’; and believe that any final decision about Britain’s relationship with the EU should be made by MPs voting in Parliament rather than the public at a second referendum (by a 65-19 margin). If there were a second referendum, around seven in ten Conservative voters would vote for the Leave option.

In contrast, Labour voters: tend to think that the vote for Brexit was ‘wrong’; would break heavily for remaining in the EU over leaving on the terms negotiated by the government (by a margin of 72-15); hold little support for a ‘No Deal’; and think that the final decision should be made by the public at a second referendum (by a 67-20 margin), although Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has still not officially committed his party to such a vote. If there were a second referendum, then around seven in ten Labour voters would vote to Remain.

Clearly, in a tight referendum any shifts, however small, could make all the difference. But given these broader trends, if Britain does end up holding a second referendum then it is highly likely that the result will be decided not by a ‘changing of minds’ but rather variations in turnout among Remainers and Leavers. Some argue that Remainers now look more certain to turn out and vote, but we should also remember that one reason why Leave won in 2016 was because it attracted a significant number of ‘non-voters’, who some pollsters had missed.

Much would also depend on what was on the ballot. If you ask all voters to choose between remaining in the EU or Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal then people break 45-31 for Remain, although a large 23 per cent remain undecided. If, alternatively, you ask voters to choose between remaining in the EU, Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal or a ‘No Deal’, then Remain is comfortably ahead on 46 per cent while the two Leave options each receive 27 per cent respectively.

Finally, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, even today, when people are presented with the same ‘Remain versus Leave’ question, the latest ‘poll of polls’ puts Remain on 53 per cent and leave on 47 per cent, only a few points apart. (The margin of error in polls is typically in the 2-3 point range.)

What appears clear, therefore, is that it is not only Westminster that is strongly divided about Brexit. The people, too, lack a consensus about the way ahead, and while they have become more pessimistic about the direction of travel there is still little evidence that large numbers of Brexit supporters are giving up on the idea of leaving the European Union.

Professor Matthew Goodwin, Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme.

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