Do Voters’ Perceptions of the Brexit Process Matter?

Posted on 29 March 2018 by John Curtice

As I first wrote in January – and have updated in a publication released today by the UK in a Changing Europe initiative – one of the striking features of the first year of the Brexit process so far as public opinion is concerned is that while the public have become rather more pessimistic about the consequences of Brexit and more critical of how the negotiations are being handled, there is little sign of any marked change in the balance of opinion so far as the merits of Remaining and Leaving are concerned. There appears at most to have been a slight tilt in favour of Remain, but much of this shift appears to be occasioned by the fact that those who abstained in 2016 are markedly more likely to say that they would now vote Remain rather than Leave. All in all, the outcome of any hypothetical second referendum looks highly uncertain.

The balance of public opinion on the merits of Brexit has shifted little even though the increased pessimism about Brexit is far from confined to those who voted Remain. Indeed, as we first noted last autumn, doubt about the consequences of Brexit has grown more amongst Leave than amongst Remain supporters. So, does this mean that their critical perceptions of the Brexit process is not giving rise to doubts about the wisdom of their original choice amongst Leave voters? Perhaps they are inclined instead to blame politicians for mishandling the Brexit process?

To address this question, we have returned to the most recent wave (conducted last autumn) of the data we have collected via NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel and assessed whether individual voters’ evaluations of the Brexit process make any difference to the likelihood that they would vote the same way as they did in June 2016. This analysis reveals that the willingness of Leave voters to say that they would not make the same choice again is not wholly insensitive to their perceptions of the consequences of Brexit. However, what affects their willingness is not so much how well or badly they think Brexit is being handled, but rather what they think the economic consequences of Brexit will be.

In contrast, the willingness of Remain voters to make the same choice is not only related to their perceptions of the economic consequences but also to their perceptions of how the Brexit process is being handled and how it is likely to turn out. Indeed, although they mostly represent only a small minority of Remain voters, those Remain supporters who now hold a relatively optimistic view of the Brexit process prove to be particularly inclined to say that they would now vote differently from how they did in the 2016 referendum.

Consider, for example, perceptions of how well or badly people think the UK government is handling the Brexit process. Those 2016 Leave voters who think the government is doing badly in this regard are somewhat less likely to say they would vote Leave again, but at 87% the proportion is still very high and is not much below the equivalent figure of 95% amongst those 2016 Leave voters who think the government is handling the process well. In contrast, only 71% of 2016 Remain voters who think that the UK government is handling Brexit well would now vote Remain, well down on the equivalent figure of 96% amongst those who think the process is being handled badly.

Much the same pattern is to be found if we look at people’s expectations of whether the UK will secure a good or a bad deal from the Brexit negotiations. Even amongst those 2016 Leave voters who feel that the UK will get a bad deal, as many as 85% say they would vote the same way again, not far short of the 94% figure amongst those who believe the UK will be left with a good deal. The willingness of Remain voters to vote Remain again is, in contrast, more clearly influenced by their perceptions of how good or bad a deal the UK will obtain. Only 60% of 2016 Remain voters who feel the UK will get a good deal say they would vote Remain again, whereas as many as 97% of Remain supporters who think the UK will secure a bad deal would vote the same way again.

However, only 66% of 2016 Leave voters who now believe that the UK economy will get worse as a result of Brexit say they would vote Leave again – well below the 98% figure amongst those Leave voters who think the economy will get better. True, here too perceptions matter even more to the loyalty of 2016 Remain voters – only 45% who think the economy will get better would now vote the same way again compared with 98% of those who think it will get worse. But even so, it appears that, in contrast to arguments about how well the Brexit process is being handled upon which much of the commentary of the first year of the Brexit process has been inclined to focus, the debate about the economic consequences of Brexit does appear have the potential to persuade Leave as well as Remain voters to change their minds.

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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