Next Wednesday (29 March) Theresa May will give formal notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon that the UK wishes to leave the European Union. In so doing she will be implementing the ‘people’s will’, as reflected in the outcome of the referendum on Britain’s EU membership held last June. However, as many have noted, in voting to leave the European Union the public voted for a principle, not a detailed prospectus. What Brexit should mean has been the subject of much debate and dispute in recent months, not least in the wake of a speech given by the Prime Minister in mid-January in which she outlined the government’s initial negotiating stance.
So it is timely to ask what voters think Brexit should mean. Following a similar endeavour last autumn, today we publish a briefing that outlines the findings of a second round of fresh research on voters’ attitudes towards some of the potential components of Brexit. The latest research has been conducted by interviewing 2,322 members of a mixed mode random probability panel that NatCen has recently established. Most of the interviews, all conducted between early February and early March, were undertaken either via the internet, or, where necessary, over the phone. Unlike most polls on the subject, we have avoided the use of potentially inadequately understood technical terms such as ‘freedom of movement’ or the ‘single market’. Meanwhile, many of our questions refer to everyday aspects of EU regulation, such as the cost of mobile phone calls, that have largely been ignored in most polling but where the outcome of the negotiations may have the most immediate impact on people’s lives.
Three key findings emerge from the latest round of research:
- There is clear support for ending freedom of movement. Not only do 68% think that potential EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain in exactly the same way as non-EU citizens have to do, but 70% also believe that the same principle should apply to British citizens who wish to live and work in another EU country. As many as 63% also think that EU citizens living in the UK should not have any access to welfare benefits. While Leave voters are noticeably keener on immigration control than Remain voters, even over half of the latter are in favour.
- But if voters are seeking a hard Brexit on immigration and borders, they often appear to be looking for something softer in other areas. Even many Leave voters appear to wish to retain EU environmental regulations on the quality of the sea water at Britain’s beaches and on the use of pesticides, together with EU rules on the cost of mobile phone calls and on compensation for flight delays. Voters are also seemingly reluctant to lose their ability to secure urgent health treatment when visiting elsewhere in the EU. Above all, there is near unanimity about wishing to keep free trade with the EU, a proposition for which there is no less than 88% support.
- This mixture of hardness on immigration but a softer tone on other aspects of Britain’s future relationship with the EU is most prevalent amongst Conservative voters. They are somewhat keener than Labour supporters on free trade and allowing EU banks to operate in Britain and vice-versa, while they are also noticeably more likely to back ending freedom of movement and imposing customs controls. Conservative voters are also more divided than those of other parties on whether the UK should be prepared to concede freedom of movement in return for free trade. Conservative supporters would thus appear to be at greater risk of being disappointed if the UK government proves unable to secure both markedly tighter rules for EU immigration and a wide-ranging free trade agreement.
In the meantime, voters await the progress of the negotiations. At the moment, only 33% think that Britain will get a good deal out of them, a little less than the 37% who reckon we will get a bad deal. And given the reluctance in the EU to accept free trade without freedom of movement, Mrs May could well face a considerable challenge in emerging with a deal with the right mixture of hard and soft edges that ensures that, in the end, most voters do decide that Britain has secured a good deal after all.