How do voters feel about delaying the end of the transition?

Posted on 15 April 2020 by John Curtice

For the first time since the EU referendum, Brexit has gone on the backburner of media attention as the UK endeavours to get on top of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet there are still decisions to be made. As things currently stand, the transition period, under which the UK continues to be part of the EU single market and Customs Union even though it formally left the institution at the end of January, is due to come to an end at the end of the year – to be replaced (it is hoped) by a new trade deal that is in the course of being negotiated. However, those negotiations have been disrupted by the pandemic, not least because both the head of the UK negotiating team, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, have been ill with COVID-19. Meanwhile, discussions between the two sides are now having to take place by videolink rather than face to face.

Against this backdrop, it has been suggested that the transition period might have to be extended until such time as both the UK and the EU have had the opportunity to give their full attention to the talks. But if any such decision is to be made it has, under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, to be agreed by the end of June. Moreover, any such manoeuvre would require parliamentary approval as the UK legislation has made it illegal for the government to seek an extension to the transition.

Three companies, BMG, Focaldata and YouGov, have now conducted GB-wide polls that have asked voters whether the transition period should be extended in the wake of the pandemic. They have asked rather different questions, while they have varied in whether or not they allow voters to say ‘Don’t Know’ or offer them a middle option along the lines of ‘neither support nor oppose’. Nevertheless, the three companies paint a relatively consistent picture in which around twice as many voters are in favour of extending the deadline than are opposed. From this it would seem that the UK government need not be unduly concerned about the electoral consequences of seeking an extension.

However, underneath the headline figure is a familiar sight that the pandemic has not erased – Remain and Leave voters hold very different views. Unsurprisingly, Remain voters are mostly in favour of delay. Two polls by YouGov suggest that around 79% are in favour and only 8% opposed, while BMG put the figures at 66% and 10% respectively. (Focaldata do not provide a breakdown by EU referendum vote.) But then, there must be a strong suspicion that many Remain voters would be in favour of delay even without the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mood among Leave voters is very different. True, the polls suggest they are divided in their views, and that a significant proportion are now doubtful about the wisdom of the government’s timetable. Even so, on balance somewhat more Leave voters are opposed to an extension than are in favour. On average YouGov suggest that 37% are in favour and 46% opposed, while BMG put the figures at 34% and 45% respectively.

Boris Johnson’s electoral success last December rested primarily on the support of Leave voters, nearly three-quarters of whom voted Conservative in contrast to just one in five Remain supporters. Due in large part to this overlap between those who voted Conservative and those who back Leave, the polls to date suggest that rather more Tory voters are opposed to an extension than are in favour. It is therefore the possible reaction of Leave voters with which the Prime Minister primarily has to concern himself, not that of the electorate as a whole. And at the moment at least their views mean there is a risk that a delay would fracture the electoral coalition that delivered him his parliamentary majority.

Of course, it may be that the Prime Minister’s popularity is such that Conservative voters would be willing to follow his lead if he were to opt for a delay – and that Tory MPs would be willing to do so too. But as things stand at present, Mr Johnson would certainly need to deploy his powers of persuasion effectively if he were to attempt to extend the Brexit transition.


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.

21 thoughts on “How do voters feel about delaying the end of the transition?

  1. Peter, you’re so right. It is astonishing that every other deadline, from the Olympics to COP26, has been postponed, the world has been tuned upside down, jobs are going down the drain by the million —- but nothing must get in the way of the Brexiters’ mad obsession with screwing what is left of the British economy.Report

  2. Do you ever actually respond to others’ arguments? The point I made is that while, yes of course the specialists concerned with Covid and with Brexit are different experts, the final policy decisions over both will be made, not by medical experts or specialist negotiators, BUT BY THE GOVERNMENT. I never claimed that somehow there was a tradeoff in terms of numbers between doctors and trade negotiators, so why imply that I did? And, given that David Frost and Michel Barnier have both been Covid victims, I rather doubt that much progress in the FTA talks is actually being made – perhaps you can demonstrate otherwise?

  3. Peter Elway completely misunderstands what I wrote and so misses the point. In fact, Covid is highly relevant, because it has shown to what extent we already rely on non face-to-face dealing, and why negotiating the end of the Brexit transition period is no different.

    Business was already doing its work more and more remotely. Pupils are taking classes remotely, Universities are offering courses remotely. Remote communication in the from of teleconferencing and other Internet remote access was already a multi-billion Pound market and companies offering this technology have huge market caps.

    The largest single retailer does its business exclusively over the Internet and just about every household in the country has done business with them. You can conduct most of your daily life remotely these days, unless, of course you condemn yourself to living in the past.

    Since he mentions the Cabinet, it is already holding meetings using teleconferencing so it baffles me, for one, to suggest that Cabinet can make day to day decisions on all the rest of the Nation’s business, but mysteriously not on the topic of Brexit.

    There is not a single reason why Brexit negotiations over the FT can’t be done in the same way as the rest of the economy, or why a magical “delay” is required.Report

    1. Jon, it is you who miss the point. Yes, Covid and many other issues – including Brexit – can be discussed and managed by governments and other decision makers using remote communications, I completely agree on that. But the relevant difference between Covid on the one hand and Brexit on the other is that the former is urgent and life-threatening, whereass the latter is neither! So yes, of course, a new trade deal COULD be being negotiated using internet and teleconferencing, but the fact is that this is not happening. And why? Because it is simply far less urgent than is getting control of the Covid virus. And since this is so, we should not allow ourselves to fall off the cliff of no-deal simply because legislation, passed before the virus appeared, dictates that we do so if no new trade arrangement is negotiated.Report

      1. A typical lack of logic, I am afraid. Covid is one thing and Brexit is another. There is no either-or. Covid is being handled by the NHS and Brexit by negotiating teams.

        NHS doctors are not Brexit negotiators, and Brexit negotiators are not doctors. Each can do the job they have to do. You do not magically get more doctors by artificially holding up the Brexit transition negotiations.

        And you are badly mis-stating the facts when you claim that the FTA is not being negotiated. It is being negotiated right now and the timetable for each day’s negotiation is being published.Report

  4. WTO we trade With Rest of the World on these terms. UK Population is 67.5million eurozone is 490 Million &shrinking. The Myth EU is benevolant is laid bare By covid 19 pandemic.Italy,Spain,Greece were hung out to dry.
    The European Medicins agencie has banned Hiv, Malaria, blood Cancer drugs being used to Treat the Virus.
    Why should UK Taxpayers give EU another £70billion on transition We Dont need.?Let Eurozone collapse as Pandemic is a metaphor For Open borders,Schengen is No more. remainiacs have been desperate to reverse the ”Globalist”Agenda they WoNT succeedReport

  5. I think it is unrealistic to talk of removing restrictions until things peak and new cases are reduced to 10 or less. No harm in strategy planning though.Report

  6. We have few, if any, ratified trade deals with those other major countries which the Brexiters seemed to think we could do better ourselves (as a market of 66m) than as part of the EU (market of 550m). The attention of all those other countries is currently, and for the foreseable future, firmly focused on the effects, health-wise and economic, of the Covid pandemic. The last thing they are going to be interested in at the end of 2020 is embarking on long drawn-out trade negotiations with the UK, simply to accommodate an unecessarily hasty departure by the UK from the transition period, driven purely by ideology. Japan, for one, has already said as much. To say nothing of the effect on the UK’s economic state post-Covid. Madness of the first-order.Report

    1. That’s typical Remainer misdirection. Not having a “trade deal” with other major markets does not mean that we don’t trade with them.

      It means that we trade with them under WTO regulations, as, in fact, we trade already with the rest of the World outside the EU, and run a trade surplus doing so.Report

        1. Trump or no Trump, after the Covid emergency is resolved, all countries will be eager to get trade rolling as normal.

          We will trade with the US under WTO rules – do Remainers really imagine trade with the US will go better if we drag out the EU negotiations without limit? – and delaying the Brexit transition period won’t improve things.

          In fact it will make things significantly worse, because negotiating teams that ought to transition into talking to the US about an FTA with the US will be stuck endlessly talking to the EU.

          What is the point of artificially paralysing a negotiation that is in progress, and then delay the next one in line for no reason?

          Remainers are just saying the first thing that comes into their minds. Report

      1. Your ignorance is amazing. We currently trade with many countries outside the EU on terms which have been negotiated for our benefit by the EU, and these trade agreements will end after the end of the transition period. And please note, Remainers are quite aware that Britain already trades on WTO terms with other countries! As for the US, a new bilateral trade deal will not make up for the loss of trade with the EU, which takes almost half our exports; such a deal is also likely to be detrimental to the NHS and to food safety – did you know that Americans are far more likely to suffer food poisoning from eating chicken than are Europeans?Report

        1. Pointless irrelevancies. We are leaving the EU. That is a fact. We will go on trading under WTO rules with the countries with which that is currently the fact, and we will negotiate FTAs with other countries and with the EU.

          Just hampering this process and artificially delaying the negotiations with the EU does nothing to help with this. In fact, it makes things a lot worse, because the UK Trade negotiators who ought to switch to dealing with negotiations with other countries after December will instead be stuck waiting for the pointless delay in Brexit to be cleared.

          British companies are not going to be too impressed if in 2021 the UK Government tells them “Er, yes, we negotiated your trade issue a year ago in 2020 but then we suspended the process because, well, we forget exactly why.”

          I am in business. When I am involved in a negotiation, I aim to get it done. I do not aim to agree everything and then delay getting on with business by six months, a year, or more.Report

  7. I’m not sure the right question was posed in the survey. The current likelihood is that there is little chance of a deal in the time span available. Therefore the question is to ask whether they prefer no deal or an extended transition. This would be with the added disruption and economic damage (perhaps short term) that “no deal” would incur. I would suggest that few – bar the most committed Leave ideologues- would opt for no deal in these circumstances.

  8. Your commentary shows all too clearly how political estimates are calculated from the premise of what is politically possible or desirable rather than what is in the country’s long-term interests. Report

  9. “Meanwhile, discussions between the two sides are now having to take place by videolink rather than face to face.”

    Oh, my goodness. By videolink. Do you suppose this could possibly mean that we have finally arrived in the 21st century? Imagine, negotiators talking to one another over the Internet instead of taking the train – clearly a very, very serious problem.

    “….until such time as both the UK and the EU have had the opportunity to give their full attention to the talks.”

    Until such time? We hired negotiating teams to carry out the current negotiations, and they are being paid, so what exactly prevents them giving their full attention to their jobs?

    This is just more of the usual Remainer tactics – inventing problems where none exist and pretending that people can’t do their jobs when in fact they have very little to do *except* to do their jobs.

    “From this it would seem that the UK government need not be unduly concerned about the electoral consequences of seeking an extension.”

    Except, of course, that there is no practical reason for a delay and it will be expensive. A delay gains the UK nothing except having to pay EU dues for more months for nothing in return. Meanwhile a delay allows the EU to take even more money from the UK taxpayer, while ending up with exactly the same trade agreement as if there was no delay.Report

    1. John Livesey’s argument that the pandemic is irrelevant to the question of transition period extension is completely wrong. Most obviously, it wrongly assumes that the “negotiating teams” hired for the EU negotiations are actually going to decide the outcome. Of course they will not, this will be done by Prime Minister and Cabinet, who now and for the foreseeable future have other things on their minds – including their own personal health as well as that of the nation, both physical and economic. A delay allows both the costs and the benefits of SIngle Market and Customs Union membership to continue, while a precipitate exit at the end of year, when for all we know we will still be fighting the insidious virus which afflicts us, would add further chaos to an already desperate situation for Britain and its European friends.Report

      1. Say what? The negotiating tams can do their work remotely and on time, but the Cabinet then can’t decide?

        The Cabinet can decide on lock-downs, support to business, benefits to individuals, increased hospital spaces, economic policies, tax rates, defence policy, 5G and Huwei, UK Public Sector Construction regulations – just this morning.

        But when the negotiating teams show up with the FTA agreement they have negotiated within already published guidelines, Cabinet is paralysed. On that topic alone, Cabinet supposedly can’t decide.

        Pull the other one.Report

        1. Livesy The sheer ideological blindness of your stance is breathtaking, though it has a kamikaze magnificence to rival the charge of the light brigade. Do you really imagine that at a time when much of the stock of food and medicine reserved for No Deal has had to be used that we could just go ahead and plunge unto what might well be a no deal with all the associated difficulties of importing that the virus has caused and is causing? Little wonder two thirds of the electorate want delay. Including almost half of Brexiters. This is not a Brexit issue it is a practical one.Report

          1. That makes no sense at all. The negotiating teams are currently talking to one another via video-conference, as is half the World.

            You actually think we have them locked up short of food and medicine? That is simply crazy. They are just doing their jobs, just like anyone else who can “work from home”.

            And it’s a practical issue? Sure, so let’s not force it to drag out endlessly, consuming resources into 2021 and maybe 2022 and causing needless uncertainty to our other trading partners.

            The Brexit transition period can easily end in December on schedule, so we ought to do that and get on with life.Report

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