Does Mrs May’s Brexit Plan Meet Voters’ Expectations?

Posted on 31 January 2017 by John Curtice

A fortnight has now passed since Mrs May unveiled her ‘Plan for Britain’, the most detailed indication yet of the UK’s likely negotiating stance in the forthcoming talks with the EU on the terms of its withdrawal.  In the speech that launched her Plan, she made it clear that the UK government has no interest in maintaining the EU’s freedom of movement provisions and that, consequently, it accepted that the UK could no longer remain a member of the single market. At the same time, however, the Prime Minister indicated that she still wants to secure the ‘freest possible trade in goods and services’ between the UK and the EU – although in an apparent attempt to strengthen her bargaining position in the forthcoming talks, Mrs May also said that ‘no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain’.

Today, MPs begin their consideration of the legislation that the Supreme Court has ruled should be passed before the government can notify the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that it wishes to leave. But how have the public reacted to Mrs May’s ‘Plan’?

There were certainly indications in some of the polling released immediately before Mrs May’s speech that a plan that prioritised immigration control over remaining in the single market might at least go down reasonably well. In one of a number of yet further attempts to ascertain where the public stands on the relative importance of continued single market access versus being able to control immigration, Opinium reported that 41% felt it was more important to end free movement, while only 32% reckoned it was better to stay in the single market. In addition, ORB reported that 45% now agreed that having greater control over immigration was more important, up four points on November, while only 40% disagreed. Meanwhile, although Ipsos MORI stated that slightly more (44%) still felt it was more important to have access to the single market than to be able to control immigration (42%), the gap had narrowed somewhat since last October. In short, there were some limited signs in these polls that controlling immigration may have become more important in some voters’ minds in recent months.

Amongst those who voted to Leave, controlling immigration is still clearly the top priority. According to Opinium, nearly two-thirds (65%) of those who voted to Leave take that view, while only 10% adopt the opposite stance.   But perhaps what might carry even more weight with Mrs May is that controlling immigration is also more popular than staying in the single market amongst Conservative supporters. Opinium reported that 55% of current Conservative voters take that view while only 25% demur. Ipsos MORI put the figures at 55% and 33% respectively. Such results suggest that a plan that emphasised immigration control was always going to look electorally the safer option in the Prime Minister’s eyes.

And in the event, on the evidence that we have so far her Plan does seem to have gone down reasonably well. In polling conducted immediately after the Prime Minister’s speech, YouGov found that 55% believe that her plan would be ‘good for Britain’, while only 19% believe it would be bad.  Of course, those who voted Leave (81% said it would be good) were much happier than those who voted Remain (32%), though even amongst the latter only 38% actually felt it would be bad. Above all, the poll suggested that the Prime Minister had satisfied her own Conservative supporters, no less than 84% of whom judged it a good plan. Perhaps it is this finding that helps explain why pro-Remain Conservative MPs currently appear disinclined to rebel on the Article 50 legislation now going through Parliament.

As we would anticipate from the polling conducted in advance Mrs May’s speech, what appears to have been particularly popular is the priority given in the Plan to controlling immigration. No less than 74% said that it was right to try and secure ‘control over immigration from European Union countries’. Even 54% of those who voted Remain felt that this was the case, confirming previous evidence that gaining some control appears to be popular across the EU referendum divide. At the same time, in response to a rather complex question 57% felt that it was right to have as a negotiating goal, ‘Britain will NOT try to remain inside the European single market, but will instead try to negotiate a new free trade deal with the EU giving us “the greatest possible” access to the single market’. Here, however, the referendum divide is still alive and kicking. While 82% of Leave voters believe it is right to have that objective, only 34% of Remain voters do. Presumably, the primary objection amongst the latter group is not that Mrs May is seeking too much access, but rather that ‘access’ to the single market is not good enough. If so, it implies that a key Brexit test for the government in the public’s eyes will be the extent to which it does appear to have succeeded in protecting the country’s economic interests while securing adequate control over immigration.

At the moment, public opinion remains rather doubtful about the economic benefits of Brexit, as was the case during the EU referendum campaign. Even after Mrs May’s speech, just 29% think Britain will be economically better off after Brexit, while 40% believe it will be worse off, figures that have shown little sign of shifting ever since last summer. However, what the Prime Minister’s speech does seem to have done is to increase expectations that immigration will fall. As many as 55% now think this will happen, up six points on the position immediately before the speech and well above the figure in any previous post-referendum poll. Perhaps the risk for the Prime Minister in prioritising immigration is that she increases expectations of what she will be able to deliver on that count.

In the meantime, however, giving the country some sense of direction about its plan for Brexit does seem to have helped persuade voters that the government might be able to handle the process competently after all. According to YouGov the proportion who think that the government is doing well at negotiating Brexit increased from a lowly 21% immediately before the Prime Minister’s speech to 33% afterwards. Those who voted Leave appear to have been particularly impressed – over half (54%) now think the government is doing well, up from 29% at the beginning of January – as have Conservative supporters, 69% of whom now think the government is doing well, compared with 43% at the turn of the year.  Still, with as many as 45% of all voters still reckoning the government is doing badly on Brexit, there is evidently still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to perceptions of the government’s ability to emerge with a good deal.

We should remember, though, that if the talks do go badly there is no guarantee that the UK government will get the blame. It may fall instead on the EU. It appears that many voters anticipate that Mrs May’s proposals will indeed not necessarily go down well in Brussels. Just 20% think that other member states will agree to the sort of Brexit deal that the Prime Minister has outlined. On this, those who voted to Remain (14% anticipate agreement) are largely at one with those who voted Leave (27%). But while this might mean that many Remain voters feel that the EU would be quite right to oppose Mrs May’s Plan, it could equally mean that many Leave voters feel that responsibility for the trouble they think is ahead lies with the EU.

At the moment, though, it appears that many voters are in accord with the Prime Minister in suggesting that, if necessary, the UK should leave the EU without a deal at all. YouGov found that 48% agree that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, while just 17% reckon we should take the best we can get even if  it falls short of what we might have hoped for. Meanwhile, ICM reported that in the event that no agreement is reached with the EU within two years, 49% reckon that the UK should leave without a deal, while only 33% that we should postpone or suspend the process of leaving. Having promised to play tough in the Article 50 negotiations, the Prime Minister may well find that voters now expect her to be seen to be doing so.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

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

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