Has Brexit Gone Off The Boil?

Posted on 10 November 2020 by John Curtice

Last year the headlines were dominated by Brexit. This year the issue has only sporadically made it onto the news agenda. This is despite the fact that an agreement has still not been reached between the UK and the EU about their future relationship – and the cliff edge that will come with the end of the transition period at the year’s close is now well within sight.

Much of the explanation for the inattention lies, of course, in the public health crisis occasioned by COVID-19. At the same time, however, the political parties have seemingly been content for the issue to be left alone. So far as the government is concerned, Brexit was ‘done’ at the end of January, while the talks are presented as being less than crucial because the UK is willing to exit without a deal anyway. Meanwhile both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have given the impression that they would now prefer to avoid an issue that they feel contributed to their defeat in last year’s general election. From their perspective, it looks much easier to focus on the government’s apparent difficulties in dealing with coronavirus.

Against this backdrop one might conclude that despite the intensity of the debate just a year ago, Brexit has gone off the boil – and that consequently voters’ interest and attention has moved on too. After all, given that Brexit has happened and the parties are no longer discussing the issue, one might not unreasonably anticipate that the passion and division that Brexit once occasioned among the public has also begun to wane too – and that perhaps Remain voters in particular have begun to accommodate themselves to the fact that Brexit has happened.

This is the question that is addressed in a new analysis paper, in which we report the largely hitherto unreported results of five surveys about Brexit that have been administered on NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel during the last eighteen months, including most recently in July this year. In many instances these surveys repeated questions that also appeared on one or more of six surveys that we conducted previously during the initial negotiations about the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. As a result, today’s report also presents a unique record of how public attitudes towards Brexit have evolved during the course of the four years since the EU referendum.

There is some evidence that Brexit may not be quite the divisive issue it was a year ago. In particular, there is a noticeable tendency for voters now to be more likely to opt for the middle option in response to our questions. For example, voters are now more likely to say that leaving the EU will not make much difference either way to the economy and that Britain will secure neither a good nor a bad deal. Similarly, voters have become more likely to say that they are neither in favour nor opposed to requiring EU migrants to have to apply to come to the UK (and thus end freedom of movement) and that they neither support nor are against the introduction of tariffs on goods imported from the EU.

It is also the case that the sense of commitment to being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has weakened somewhat. As many as 14% now say that they do not identify with either label – up from the 9% that we consistently recorded during 2019. At the same time, the proportion who say they are a ‘very strong’ Remainer or a ‘very strong’ Leaver has dipped from a high of 46% to 39% now.

Even so, people are still far more likely to say that they identify ‘very strongly’ with one side or the other in the Brexit debate than they are with any of the political parties. Only 9% feel that way about a party. As many as 28% do not identify with a party at all.

Meanwhile there is only limited evidence that Remain voters are beginning to adjust to the fact that the UK has left the EU. Faced with the same choice between Remain and Leave with which they were presented in 2016, as many as 87% of 2016 Remain voters say they would vote the same way as they did four years ago. This figure is little different from the one we obtained before Brexit happened (and is somewhat above the 80% of 2016 Leave voters who say they would vote the same way).  True, when presented with the choice between ‘rejoining’ or ‘staying out’ of the EU, the proportion of Remain voters who say they would vote to rejoin slips to 80% (while 84% of Leave voters would back staying out), but even so it is evidently still very much a minority of Remain voters who, whatever their original preference, would now stick with the new status quo.

At the same time, there is no consistent evidence in the responses to our more detailed questions that Remain voters’ perceptions of what Brexit will bring or their preferences for what they would like to see emerge from the Brexit talks have converged towards the views already held by Leave voters. In short, however the issue is addressed, Britain still looks deeply divided over Brexit.

Moreover, this divide is even more strongly related to how people voted in last December’s election than most analysis has previously suggested. In our post-election survey, we found that 75% of those who backed Leave in 2016 voted for the Conservatives, while just 20% of those who had supported Remain 2016 did so, figures that are in line with those of other surveys. However, if instead of looking at how people voted in 2016 we analyse how people voted according to their current view on Brexit, the gap between these two figures is even bigger – 79% of those who would currently support Leave voted Conservative and just 15% of those who would back Remain.

A similar pattern is also in evidence in respect of Labour’s support. While our survey found that 45% of 2016 Remain voters backed Labour in the election, that figure rises to 48% among those who currently support Remain. Conversely, the party’s already low level of 15% support among 2016 Leave voters dips to just 12% among those who would currently vote Leave.

Although among voters as a whole relatively few have changed their minds about Brexit, those whose vote in the 2016 referendum was at odds with their party preference in 2019 were more likely to do so. Some 24% of those who voted Labour in 2019 after having voted Leave in 2016 had in the meantime switched in favour of Remain, while as many as 28% of those who voted Conservative after having supported Remain in 2016 were now in the Leave camp. Some of those voters whose vote choice was at odds with their vote in the Brexit referendum seemingly resolved the tension by changing their minds on Brexit.

Against this backdrop, it may be asked how long will the party political truce about Brexit last – especially now that it seems possible that next year will bring a resolution to the coronavirus crisis. The Conservatives’ fortunes would appear to be very heavily invested in delivering what Leave voters come to regard as a successful Brexit. That has long been clear. But equally, while Labour would like to reconnect with its lost working-class Leave voters, the party is now very heavily dependent on a pro-Remain electorate that so far at least shows relatively little sign of being resigned to Brexit – and which may expect its views to be represented in post-Brexit post-pandemic Britain.

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 “Has Brexit Gone Off The Boil?

  1. There might be an explanation why 24% of those who voted Labour in 2019 after having voted Leave in 2016 had in the meantime switched in favour of Remain.
    The explanation would be that Labour voters who’d supported Leave had by 2019 realized that ‘Leave’ had come to mean a Brexit of the extreme right wing. This seems to me a good explanation. And I think that Starmer mustn’t lose these people. And that (among other reasons!) is why I think Starmer must whip his Party not to support the government if there should be a Commons vote on a fig leaf Brexit deal. Let them abstain.Report

  2. The data you refer to does not say: “voters are now more likely to say that leaving the EU will not make much difference either way to the economy and that Britain will secure neither a good nor a bad deal.”

    It clearly shows that the most likely response from a voter is that economy will be adversely impacted by Brexit – it just depends by how much. In fact 3x more voters think the damage will be really bad v really good.

    I can understand why there is Brexit fatigue. We are now in year 4 of this debacle. But that simply highlights yet another lie propagated by the Leave Campaign that it would be simple and quick.

    I’m sure it’s difficult for those Leave voters who have now accepted (as your polling shows) they have harmed their Country and would therefore prefer for Brexit to “go away”. Sadly – as we all now know – Brexit and all it’s negative consequences aren’t going away. And it’s not just the economy: the break-up of the UK, the isolation from other world-powers and decisions, the loss of freedoms – all are part of Brexit.


  3. I genuinely struggle to see your impartiality in this analysis John. You say “… voters are now more likely to say that leaving the EU will not make much difference either way to the economy and that Britain will secure neither a good nor a bad deal.” Implying that at least 50% take thus view. when the data says this is only 28% feel this way. What the data your reference actually shows:

    In terms of making a difference, more than 3x (23%) think it will make the economy a lot worse off than a lot better off (7%). And 50% of the population think it will have some level of adverse effect on the economy, while only 28% believe it will be no effect. In fact those who think the economy will be very worse off is more than everyone combined who think there is modest or great economic benefit from Brexit!

    In terms of a good v bad deal, the data says something very similar: 46% think the deal will be bad or very bad v only 13% thinking it will be good or very good. That’s a ratio of more than 3:1! Meanwhile only 39% believe it will neither good nor bad.

    The Country may be weary of Brexit and just wish it would go away. Unfortunately – as you well know – the consequences of Brexit (which most of the population now think will be either bad or very bad for the UK) are going to be with us for years and years. Being reminded of that fact may not be palatable for many, as at least some who now see this pain, voted for Brexit. I can imagine this is a decision they now find difficult to bear.Report

  4. I think you may be missing a couple of concepts here. An important one is inevitability. Most clued-in people realise that by now, whatever deal is in the works has already been negotiated in some detail, so public comment at this point isn’t going to make much difference. They can still feel strongly, but see that expressing that feeling is pointless.
    The other thing missing here is that people who say that we’ll get “neither a good nor a bad deal” are not literally saying that Brexit is Schrodinger’s Cat. Instead they are taking the sensible view that the negotiators know that if they push the issue to literally deal/no-deal, that will abort the negotiations because the positions of the two sides are too opposed.
    And that’s OK, because in negotiation, when you have irreconcilable positions, but you want to get something out of the talks, both sides back off and you try to come up with mini-deals on discrete topics.
    And that’s what we will most likely get, not an all-singing all-dancing Broadway Show of a deal, but a set of smaller agreements in distinct areas of trade. And big deals on issues of deeply held principle will be left to be worked out gradually under less pressure in further out years.
    One thing people often forget is that the EU is going to be there for a while, and so are we, so we don’t really have to finally agree or disagree everything by Jan 1, but we *do* have to keep the machine in motion. The roads must roll.Report

  5. The article would seem to be a very fair summary of the present state of the nation. Right now, we have next to no idea what terms, if any, we are going to have to live with after 1 January 2021, whether as regard the EU or the US. Given the government’s unassailable majority for the next 4 years, at least on Brexit issues, so Joe Public sees little point losing any sleep over Brexit, however harmful it may prove to be in due course. We live in an elective dictatorship, and the peasants must submit or revolt. The downsides of Brexit have not yet occurred, so far as Joe Public is concerned, so revolting is not (yet, anyway) on the agenda.

    Far more interesting will be what similar polls are saying next summer and beyond.

  6. At this point of time there is little reason to dwell on the Brexit situation. We are leaving. The time will come in a few years when the success or failure of the project will be judged and hopefully we can assess the outcome objectively
    and without prejudice. My fear is that over the next few years there will be a general leveling down rather than a leveling up of the neglected regions. Then maybe Brexit will again become the pressing issue of the day with a further referendum. Report

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