The talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU are reportedly coming to a crunch. Publically, at least, both the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, are pessimistic about the prospects of a deal being reached in time for it to be put in place before the transition period terminates at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the UK government is said to be willing to contemplate the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome.
In adopting this stance, the government presumably anticipates that such an outcome would not make it unpopular with voters. In practice, whether or not it would probably depends on what the consequences proved to be. However, to date the polls have been silent on how voters currently view such a prospect, even assuming – given the continued dominance of COVID19 in the news agenda and in voters’ everyday lives – they have contemplated the possibility at all.
However, what we can examine is the (relatively limited) evidence in the polls on how voters react now when they are asked about the principle of Brexit. If those who voted Remain have come to accept the ‘reality’ of Brexit, then perhaps voters are ready to move on from the Brexit debate irrespective of what happens at the end of the year. On the other hand, if the country still appears divided on Brexit the government might find itself facing a more critical reaction than it could currently be anticipating.
We last examined this issue in April. At that point, we suggested that there was some evidence that some Remain voters had come to accept Brexit, and that this was most clearly the case when voters were asked how they would vote in a referendum on whether the UK should rejoin or stay out of the European Union as opposed to one on whether it should ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. But where do things stand some four months on?
One piece of recent polling has confirmed that a majority of voters might now vote to stay out of the EU. Until July Kantar were still asking people whether they would vote Remain or Leave in another referendum. Once (a substantial body of) Don’t Knows were put to one side their last two readings of this kind, in May and June, produced figures of Remain 55%, Leave 45%, and Remain 56%, Leave 44% respectively. In contrast when Kantar administered their new question in July just 46% said they would vote to rejoin, while 54% backed staying out. Only 70% of those who voted Remain in 2016 backed rejoining, whereas in the two earlier polls as many as 84% had said they would vote Remain again. We certainly need to be aware that when the Brexit process has come to its final conclusion there may well be a body of voters who would still prefer Britain to be part of the EU but who are not necessarily keen to embark on an immediate reversal of the process.
Moreover, the 55% and 56% estimated levels of support for Remain in Kantar’s polls in May and June were not typical. On average the half-dozen polls of how people would vote in another Remain vs. Leave referendum (see here and here) have put Remain on 52%, Leave on 48%. However, that is only a slightly narrower lead than the one of 53% to 47% that was to be found in the last half-dozen polls conducted immediately prior to Brexit Day at the end of January. In short, polling of how people would vote now in response to the question that appeared on the ballot paper four years ago does not suggest that there has been a dramatic shift of attitude – in either direction.
However, the most intensive polling of attitudes towards the principle of Brexit in recent weeks has been provided by YouGov. Ever since the EU referendum that company’s principal means of tracking attitudes towards the principle of Brexit has not been to ask people how they would vote in another referendum but rather to ask, ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’. That formulation has now come into its own. Unlike continuing to ask voters whether they would vote Remain or Leave, the question can still be asked without raising questions as to whether its meaning is still clear to voters or whether it is simply the ‘wrong’ question to ask now that Britain has already left.
The table below summarises the responses that this question has received since last October (when the general election was precipitated) not only among voters as a whole but also separately among those who voted Remain and those who backed Leave. Between October and January these reflected what had become a familiar picture ever since the withdrawal agreement that was originally negotiated by Theresa May was unveiled in November 2018. On average, rather more voters said that the decision was wrong (47%) than indicated that it was right (41%). And while most Leave voters were still of the view that it was right and most Remain supporters that it was wrong, Leave voters (83%) were a little less likely to affirm the decision to leave than Remain supporters (88%) were to express doubt about its wisdom.
This picture did change somewhat in the immediate wake of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. On average the ‘lead’ of ‘wrong’ over ‘right’ halved to three points. Indeed, Leave voters were now as convinced that the decision was right as Remain supporters were that it was wrong (though those who did not vote in 2016 were more inclined to take the latter view). In short, there was some sign that voters might be beginning to accept the decision to leave the EU, albeit that it remained a subject on which the country remained more or less evenly divided.
However, YouGov’s more recent polling suggests that that apparent change has not been sustained. The figures on the right-hand side of the table for the last three months replicate almost exactly those for the period between October and January. Those who think the decision to leave was wrong once again outnumber those who believe it was right by six points, with Remain voters being a little more likely than Leave voters to affirm their original point of view.
On this evidence at least, it looks as though the country will regard the outcome of the talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU in much the same mood as it watched the parliamentary toing and froing about Brexit during the course of last year – that is, deeply divided and largely entrenched in its views. Perhaps most Leave voters will be inclined to endorse whatever outcome the government secures. However, those on the Remain side of the argument have mostly yet still to be convinced of the wisdom of the project on which the government is embarked – and are likely to view the outcome with a critical eye.