Five Years On: Has Brexit Been A Success?

Posted on 22 June 2021 by John Curtice

Five years ago this week, the UK voted by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. After two general elections and an extended parliamentary stalemate, that decision was eventually implemented on January 31 2020, though it then took another eleven months before the UK left the EU single market and Customs Union. This is therefore an appropriate moment to ask whether the public consider the Brexit process to have been a success or not.

In an analysis paper released today we chart how public attitudes have evolved over the last five years as measured by a series of surveys conducted for this website via NatCen’s mixed mode panel from the autumn of 2016 onwards. It examines three issues in particular. First, are voters still content with the decision to leave? Second, how well do voters think Brexit has been executed? And third, how well do voters’ current expectations of the consequences of Brexit match up to what they anticipated would happen five years ago?

Few voters have changed their minds about the merits of the decision to leave, meaning that the country is still divided down the middle on the issue. Five years on, four in five (82%) still say they would vote the same way again. Nevertheless, our surveys – like most polls – have consistently found a narrow majority for Remain over Leave. Leave voters are a little less likely than Remain voters to say that they would vote the same way, while those who did not vote in the referendum have consistently been at least twice as likely to say that they would vote Remain than Leave. At the same time, however, some of those who say they would still vote Remain indicate that they would not vote to rejoin – and thus a referendum on rejoining versus staying out might well produce a narrow majority in favour of staying out.

There has never been a widespread expectation that the UK would secure a good deal out of the Brexit negotiations. Even when optimism was relatively high at the beginning of 2017, slightly more (37%) thought we would get a bad deal than reckoned we would get a good one (33%). On the unveiling of the free trade agreement with the EU, the proportion reckoning the UK had secured a bad deal (36%) was still much the same, but now only around one in five (21%) believed it had obtained a good deal. Even among those who voted Leave in 2016, only 35% reckoned the UK had obtained a good deal, while 22% felt it had secured a bad deal. However, while Remain voters who believe that the UK has obtained a bad deal blame the UK government for negotiating an agreement that creates a more distant relationship with the EU than many of them would prefer, Leave supporters appear as inclined to blame the EU as the UK government for the fact that the deal is not to their liking. Perhaps many of them were never likely to regard with much favour the outcome of an agreement with an institution to which they were opposed on principle.

Shortly before the referendum itself, nearly two-thirds of voters thought that immigration would fall if the UK left the EU. That figure soon dropped to around two-fifths, but has held steady thereafter – and most recently stands at 46%. This expectation is almost as widespread among Remain voters (44%) – nearly half of whom oppose freedom of movement – as it is among Leave supporters (52%). But the two groups have always had very different views of the economic consequences of Brexit. At the time of the referendum, just over two-thirds (69%) of Remain supporters reckoned the economy would be worse off as a result of leaving the EU, and that figure soon reached – and has since held steady at – four-fifths or more (83% on our most recent survey). In contrast, now that a free trade deal is in place just over half of Leave voters believe the economy will be better off (51%), little different from the position at the time of the referendum.

Brexit, it seems, has not been an unalloyed success from the public’s perspective. Although many Leave voters have retained their confidence that it will bring lower immigration and a stronger economy, many are also far from convinced that the UK has obtained a good deal from the Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile, there is relatively little sign that Remain supporters have come to accept an outcome that has resulted in a markedly more distant relationship with the EU than many of them would like. As a result, the country still appears to be divided down the middle on whether leaving the EU has been the right decision or not – suggesting that there is still plenty of potential for the Brexit debate to continue.

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.

6 thoughts on “Five Years On: Has Brexit Been A Success?

  1. It has been a great success for my family! We sold our 3 bed semi in Ipswich to a charming Pakistani family for £355K and bought a 5 bed detached house in Beziers for Euro206K.
    We have excellent medical (rang doctor 10:15 am. Saw doctor 14:30 the same day! Hospital appointment the following Tuesday!
    Local farmers supply all our vegetables straight out the ground.
    Most locals have a bash at English whilst we improve our French.
    But I plead to other Brits thinking of moving here, DON’T DO IT we have a wonderful life in France, the only thing that could spoil it would be more Brits coming here!
    Salute! Report

  2. CORRECTION
    The Covid crisis has seriously affected the way in which the UK’s economy and general affairs have been operating for nearly sixteen months. EU-UK discussions on the implications of Brexit on the Northern Ireland situation are ongoing. There is still intense friction regarding the fishing and farming issues.

    It is surely not “appropriate” to carry out any meaningful analysis of the views of the public towards something that has been entirely overtaken by Covid in the national conscience.Report

  3. The Covid crisis has seriously affected the way in which the UK’s economy and general affairs have been operating for nearly sixteen months. EU-UK discussions on the implications of Brexit on the Northern Ireland situation are ongoing. There is still intense friction regarding the fishing and farming issues.

    It is surely not “appropriate” to carry out any meaningful analysis of the views of the public towards something that has been entirely overtaken by Brexit in the national conscience. Report

  4. An interesting snapshot, but nothing in the least surprising considering we only effectively left the EU just over 4 months ago. Just about all disadvantages already experienced can be, and are, attributed by Leavers to the pandemic. As that subsides, and the truth becomes clearer, foreign capital investment in Europe that might have come to the UK goes mainly to the EU, young adults can no longer spend gap years getting work experience in the EU27, and our trade agreements prove no more productive than those we would have had by staying a full EU member, opinons will be bound to change. But all that will take some years.

    Until then – and of course assuming my predictions are right – it would not be sensible for any party to be advocating immediate return to full EU. membership, if only because the EU27 would doubt whether we would be any more reliable a member than before. More sensible as a first – and maybe final – step would be to take the lead in renegotiating a new EEA agreement, that gives the non-EU members a meaningful say in the content of regulations relating to the single market, as opposed to those needed for collective action by members of any currency union, such as the Eurozone. It was the blurring of that distinction by the EU generally that, I believe, lay behind much of the pressure for Brexit. (Uncontrolled immigration being another pressure, certainly., but the UK could have done vastly more to limit that, had the government been determined to do so.)Report

  5. Obviously the attitude depends on your job and everyday life experience. Working as a consultant for a small export business, Brexit is a disaster with UK suppliers preferring not to sell into the EU at all or the cost and time for the right documents are really hard on us. Every day life with even our market stall in North End Road in London having had to raise their prices for fruit and vegetables gives one even more to be disappointed in.
    As a social scientist, I think a good survey would be interesting about whether people would like a modification of the Brexit terms to share common agricultural standards desirable–removing much of the Northern Ireland problem and fears from trade deals with Australia and the US.
    And a few other nudges….
    Must get back to work!Report

  6. It’s in the name. The Conservatives ‘conned’ the UK voters into voting for something they didn’t fully understand. Also the UK has government of the old, for the old by the getting old. If everyone voted there would be no Brexit and Conservative privileged rule would be rare. Try Australia’s much fairer system and see what would happen.Report

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