Nine months after the UK voted by 52% to 48% in favour of leaving the EU, tomorrow the UK government will finally give formal notice to the EU that it wishes to leave. During the intervening period the government has developed an outline of the kind of deal that it would like to negotiate with the EU. In so doing it has won the support of some voters, but it has left others largely unmoved. As a result, the country enters the formal Brexit process just as divided about the merits of the decision to leave the EU as it was last June.
The shape of the government’s negotiating stance emerged in two key speeches given by the Prime Minister, one at the Conservative Party conference in October and the other at Lancaster House in January. Between them, these speeches made it clear that her bottom line is to end freedom of movement. At the same time, she accepts that, consequently, the UK cannot remain inside the single market, though she also wants to extricate the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice anyway. Nevertheless, she also wishes to negotiate ‘an ambitious and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement’ together with ‘a new customs agreement’ with the EU.
The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in January in particular helped to instil some confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit. Up until that speech on 17 January, YouGov repeatedly reported that over a half of all voters reckoned the government was handling Brexit badly, while only around one in five thought it was doing so well. But since that speech, typically around a third have reckoned the government has been handling things well, while around 45% think it has been doing so badly. Most recently, the latter figure has fallen even further, to 39%.
Other pollsters have identified a similar trend. Just before the Lancaster House speech, ORB reported that as many as 62% disapproved of the way that the government was handling the Brexit negotiations, while only 38% approved, figures very similar to those the company had already obtained on two previous occasions at the end of 2016. But in two more recent polls just over half have said they approve of the government’s handling of Brexit and slightly less than half say that they disapprove. In addition, the company has reported that confidence in the Prime Minister’s ability to secure a good deal has also increased. Meanwhile, Opinium have found that the proportion who approve of Mrs May’s handling of the Brexit process has increased from a third before mid-January to 42% now.
However, the government’s vision of Brexit has been widely portrayed as constituting a relatively ‘hard Brexit’, more akin to the outlook of those who voted to Leave than of those who voted for Remain. And the improvement in evaluations of the government’s handling of Brexit after the Lancaster House speech has been more marked amongst Leave voters.
On the last four occasions prior that speech that YouGov asked whether the government was handling Brexit well or badly, on average 31% of Leave voters said it was doing so well, while rather more, 44%, replied badly. Now, in the four most recent readings of the same question, the proportion who think the government is handling Brexit well has increased by 21 points to 52%, while the proportion who think it is doing badly has fallen by 17 points to 27%. In contrast, there has only been a seven-point increase (from 13% to 20%) in the proportion of Remain voters who think the government has been handling Brexit well, and, equally, just a seven-point drop (from 67% to 60%) in the proportion who reckon it has been handling things badly.
Not least of the reasons why the Lancaster House speech seems to have instilled greater confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit is that the package put forward by Mrs May is relatively popular, and especially so amongst Leave voters. Earlier this month we published a briefing that showed that around seven in ten of all voters – and over 80% of Leave supporters – want to end freedom of movement. At the same time, nearly everyone, whether a Leave or a Remain voter, is happy to maintain free trade. Meanwhile, when on two occasions YouGov have presented voters with a detailed description of the Prime Minister’s negotiating stance, around a half of all voters have said they would be happy with such an outcome and only a quarter stated that they would be unhappy. In the more recent reading no less than three-quarters of Leave voters said they would be happy, compared with just 29% of Remain supporters.
But, of course, given the EU’s view that the ‘four freedoms’ of the single market go together, there is some doubt as to whether the UK can succeed in securing a wide-ranging free trade deal while also limiting freedom of movement. Failure to do so could certainly lead to disappointment. When YouGov recently put to respondents an alternative deal in which the UK did have controls on immigration but only secured a limited free trade deal, just 29% stated that they would be happy with such an outcome, while 41% said they would be unhappy. At 26 points, the drop in the proportion who say they would be happy as compared with a deal in which free trade was secured is particularly marked amongst Leave supporters, suggesting that many of them really do want free trade as well as less immigration.
However, whatever success the government may have had in persuading some voters of the merits of their ambition, there is one subject about which the public have not changed their minds during the last nine months – that is, the wisdom of the decision to leave the EU in the first place. Ever since last August YouGov have regularly asked whether ‘in hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’. On most occasions slightly more people have said that the decision was right than have said it was wrong. Nearly everyone who voted to Leave the EU still believes the decision was right (on average 88% of Leave voters have expressed that view in YouGov’s four most recent polls), while almost everybody who voted to Remain still feels it was wrong (87%). The government’s stance on Brexit may have helped persuade Leave voters that their aspirations might be realised, but it has evidently done little to persuade Remain voters that Brexit might not be such a bad idea after all. As a result, it is a deeply divided Britain that is now about to embark on the Brexit process.