Could A Soft Brexit Provide A Soft Landing?

Posted on 1 April 2019 by John Curtice

Today, the House of Commons will be making a second attempt at identifying whether there is a proposal for Brexit that is capable of securing the backing of a majority of MPs. In an initial attempt last week, none of the eight options on which MPs were invited to vote secured an overall majority. However, today the options will be narrowed down somewhat, while there will be an opportunity for MPs to revise their views now that they have some idea of the mood of the House. If, as has repeatedly been claimed, there is a potential majority in the Commons for some form of ‘soft’ Brexit then it would seem most likely to realise itself through a majority for one or other of these options in the vote that takes place this evening.

Two possible favourites have emerged. One, a proposal that the UK should form a customs union with the EU, was defeated last week by just eight votes. Another that was much more heavily defeated was a proposal that has been dubbed ‘Common Market 2.0’ and was backed by a cross-party alliance formed by Nick Boles MP (Conservative) and Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour). This envisaged that the UK should be part of the single market as well as a customs union. In this case there was a high level of abstentions, a product in part of the fact that the idea was not backed officially by either Labour or the SNP, and it is possible that both might back it this time around. After all, the Boles and Kinnock proposal would seem relatively close to the policy stance that Labour has been promoting for much of the last two years.

But how much support is there among the public for options such as these? Might one or other yet form the basis for a compromise around which both Remainers and Leavers might be willing to coalesce? Or are they, in truth, at risk of failing to satisfy either camp in what has become a highly polarised political environment?

Proposals for a soft Brexit, such as Common Market 2.0, are often presented as potentially placing the UK in a future relationship with the EU not dissimilar to that of Norway. Although not a member of the EU or indeed of its customs union, Norway is a member of the single market. (The idea that the UK should be in both the single market and a customs union is sometimes dubbed ‘Norway Plus’.) Variants of this particular idea have been addressed by a number of polls.

Among voters as a whole, a Norway-style Brexit certainly appears to be more attractive than the government’s Brexit deal has been. For example, when in December BMG required its respondents to choose one or the other, 60% backed the Norway option while only 40% preferred the government’s deal. A similar picture was obtained by Survation in March in response to a question that did allow people to say ‘Don’t Know’ (an answer given by no less than a quarter). While 30% backed the deal that had been negotiated with the EU, 45% supported a deal that would keep Britain in the single market and the customs union.

However, given how unpopular the government’s deal has proven to be, this might be thought a rather easy test for a Norway-style Brexit to pass. Is there any evidence that it is popular when voters are simply asked whether or not they like it? In four polls the company conducted between July and November last year, YouGov found on average that 34% thought that a Norway-style Brexit (the meaning of which was spelt out in some detail) would be ‘good’ for Britain, while 40% reckoned it would be bad. Meanwhile, when in September the same company asked whether it would be acceptable for the UK to remain in the single market and the customs union, the 38% who said that it would be acceptable were balanced by 38% who indicated that it would not.

A similar picture of a roughly even division emerged from attempts made by two polling companies, Deltapoll and Opinium, at the weekend to canvass the public’s view of all of the various options that MPs have been considering. This inevitably required some quite lengthy explanations, the exact detail of which might well move voters in one direction or the other. In the case of ‘Common Market 2.0’, however, both polls found slightly more people in favour than against (by 40% to 35% in the case of Deltapoll, while Opinium reported the balance as 39% to 34%), even though in both cases the description included reference to the fact that such an outcome would imply retaining freedom of movement.  Both readings were slightly more favourable to staying in the single market and the customs union than were the figures obtained last week by Sky Data, which found that 37% thought that MPs should reject such a prospect, while just 32% thought they should accept it.

None of these numbers represent a ringing endorsement. Perhaps of greater encouragement to the advocates of ‘Common Market 2.0’ are the responses that YouGov have obtained when, on a number of occasions, they have asked people whether a deal that involved membership of the single market and the customs union would be a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ outcome, while also offering the response that it was an ‘acceptable compromise’. On average slightly more said that it would be a bad outcome (29%) than a good one (26%). However, another 23% indicated that it would be ‘an acceptable compromise’. In other words, almost half of voters say that single market and customs union membership would be at least an acceptable compromise.

However, it is a compromise that is more acceptable to some than to others. For Remainers it has some appeal. On average, YouGov have found that as many as 38% of those who voted Remain think that being in the single market and the customs union would be a good outcome, while another 30% state that it would be an acceptable compromise. Just 16% view the prospect negatively. However, Leave supporters regard the idea very differently. Only one in three of them think it would either be a good outcome (15%) or an acceptable compromise (19%), while almost half (48%) feel it would be a bad outcome.

A similar picture emerges from the weekend’s polling on the subject. Deltapoll found that those who voted Remain backed a Common Market 2.0 approach by 49% to 30%, whereas Leave supporters rejected it by 32% to 46%. Opinium reported an even sharper divide, with Remain supporters in favour by 52% to 20%, and Leave voters against by 28% to 49%. It seems that for many on the Leave side, Common Market 2.0 looks too much like Remain 2.0.

Moreover, even among those voters who express some support for the idea, it is very much a second choice. This is evident when voters are invited to choose from among a range of possible Brexit outcomes, including a relationship that looks something like Norway’s. For example, in September last year, BMG pitted a Norway-style Brexit against four other options: leaving the EU without a deal, a Canada-style free trade agreement, the proposals that Mrs May had unveiled at Chequers in July, and remaining in the EU. Only just over one in ten (11%) of voters said that a Norway-style Brexit was their preference, leaving it equal bottom with the Chequers proposals.

Meanwhile more recently, in March YouGov invited people to choose between four options: leaving without a deal, the deal negotiated by the government, staying in the customs union and the single market, and holding a referendum with a view to staying in the EU. Only 15% picked staying in the single market and the customs union. This was just enough to put the idea one point ahead of the government’s deal, but left it well behind the other two options.

The problem facing those who have been arguing for a Common Market 2.0 Brexit is that what most Remain voters want above all is for the Brexit decision to be reversed, while for many Leave supporters staunch in the single market and a customs union looks all too much like still being part of the EU. As a result, a Norway-style Brexit could find itself in much the same position as Mrs May’s deal has proven to be – with few friends who are willing to take it to heart.

But what of the idea that was closest to securing majority support last week, that is, the UK should be part of a customs union with the EU but not be part of the single market? This is an idea that has only risen to prominence in the public debate relatively recently, and thus there has been limited polling on it until now. Meanwhile, how far voters have considered the relative merits of this form of a soft Brexit as compared with Common Market 2.0 is, perhaps, open to question. However, such evidence as has now been gathered suggests that this too is a subject on which, among those at least who do express a view, opinion is probably relatively evenly divided.

Back in February Hanbury Research had found that 37% thought that parliament should approve a deal that contained a permanent customs union while 30% reckoned it should not. Sky Data, in contrast, last week reported that while 34% reckoned that parliament should accept a deal involving a customs union, 35% were against. Meanwhile, in the polling released at the weekend, Deltapoll indicated that 36% were in favour and only 29% were against a customs union, whereas Opinium – after providing a description that made it clear that under the proposal the UK would not be able to strike its own trade deals – found just 34% in favour and 42% opposed.

Here too, those who voted Remain seem keener on the idea than those who backed Leave. Hanbury found that Remain supporters back a customs union by 51% to 23%, whereas Leave voters are opposed by 44% to 29%. Opinium reported even higher levels of opposition – by 62% to 19% – among those who backed Leave, while Remain supporters were in favour by 51% to 25%. Only Deltapoll have obtained a different picture; they found both groups apparently on balance marginally in favour of the idea – but with as many as 35% not expressing a view at all. At the moment, though, Deltapoll’s finding seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In truth, finding a proposal that might bridge the divide between Remainers and Leavers appears to be very hard to do.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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