Tomorrow and Wednesday, the House of Commons will consider the 15 amendments that the House of Lords made to the EU Withdrawal Bill against the government’s wishes. Three of these amendments in particular have been the focus of most attention. The first two would require the UK government (i) to keep the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA) and (ii) to try to negotiate a customs union. The third would enable the Commons to instruct the government to negotiate a better deal on Britain’s future relationship with the EU should Parliament reject the original deal in the ‘meaningful vote’ upon which the Commons itself insisted last December – the effect of which would be that parliamentary rejection would no longer automatically mean that Britain would leave the EU without a deal.
Much heated debate in the Commons chamber – and arm twisting outside it – can doubtless be expected as the government attempts to get its way. But where do the public stand on these three key issues? If MPs wish to implement the ‘will of the people’ rather than listen to the whips, is it clear which way they should vote?
The question of whether Britain should remain in the European single market or not has long been a central issue in the Brexit debate. It has become so because remaining in the single market would imply continuing to accept freedom of movement, and concern about immigration was a key motivation behind much of the Leave vote. One key lesson from polling on the subject in the immediate wake of the EU referendum was that what voters prioritised – staying in the single market or ending freedom of movement – depended quite heavily on how the question was asked. However, since then two companies, Opinium and ORB, have continued to track public opinion on the subject, enabling us to see whether there is any evidence of a clear swing of opinion in one direction or the other.
The short answer is, ‘No’. In its most recent poll published yesterday, Opinium found that 38% favour ’staying in the single market even if it means allowing free movement of labour’ while 34% support ‘ending free movement of labour even if it means we leave the single market’. These figures are little different from other recent readings by the company. In seven previous readings since last year’s general election on average 39% have prioritised staying in the single market while 36% have favoured ending free movement. True, prior to last year’s election, the balance of opinion seemed to be tilted slightly in the opposite direction, but such shift in opinion that may have occurred has still produced no more than the narrowest of leads for staying in the single market.
But even this conclusion is not supported by the responses that ORB have secured each month in answer to the question, ‘How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU’. When the question is put this way, opinion remains almost perfectly evenly divided. In the six polls ORB have undertaken this year, on average 44% have agreed with the proposition (thereby prioritising immigration control), and 43% disagreed (and so emphasised free trade). Meanwhile, perusal of the answers obtained by ORB ever since the first reading in November 2016 fails to reveal any consistent trend in favour of one option or the other.
In contrast to the debate about single market membership, the argument about whether the UK should remain in ‘a’ or ‘the’ customs union has only come to prominence more recently. That means few polls have asked about the subject, while those that have been undertaken have emerged with seemingly divergent findings. More recent polling does little to suggest that voters have now come down clearly on one side or the other. In two recent polls Opinium have found that only very slightly more think that ‘staying in the customs union to prioritise our current trade links with the European Union’ should be the government’s priority than think that ‘leaving the customs unions to grow our trade links outside of the European Union’ should be. At the same time, as many 22% say that they had not heard about the customs union before. This evidence hardly seems like a clear cue for MPs to follow.
Little further clarification is to be found in the responses to an alternative approach to the question adopted last month by ICM. At first glance, it seems to suggest that opponents of a customs union are more numerous than supporters. Only 24% said that, ‘It is very important to stay in the customs union, so firms can trade with the EU more easily’ while 35% indicated that ‘It is very important to leave the customs union properly, so the UK can strike its own trade deals’. However, there was also a third option that read, ‘the best solution might involve some sort of compromise, perhaps along the lines of the customs partnership, because the alternative proposals are both flawed’. This attracted the support of 26%. Quite what respondents understood by the term ‘customs partnership’ can only be guessed, but above all, perhaps, the finding is a reminder that for many voters being in or out of a customs union is not necessarily the article of faith that it seems to have become for many of the protagonists in the debate.
There is, of course, a simple reason why for the most part opinion continues to appear evenly divided over what Brexit should mean. The country remains more or less evenly divided on the merits of leaving the EU in the first place. At the same time, Remain voters are more likely to back staying the single market and being part of a customs union, while Leave supporters tend to want Britain to be able to control immigration and to exercise its sovereignty by negotiating its own trade deals. Two equally sized camps with two very different outlooks inevitably means a public opinion that is split down the middle on what Brexit should mean.
On the third key issue being discussed by MPs this week, that is, what role parliament should have in the Brexit process, opinion is perhaps not quite so evenly divided, but even so, is hardly firmly on one side or the other. There seems, on balance, to be some inclination among voters to accept that Parliament should have some kind of say on the Brexit deal. Certainly, when the Commons insisted last December that it should have a ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal, 41% told ICM that MPs should have such a vote, while just 24% expressed the opposite view. Meanwhile, in its most recent poll, Opinium reported that 43% back the more specific proposition that MPs should have a final vote on whether to accept or reject the deal, while only 37% took the opposite view. At the same time, YouGov have found that as many as 42% think it would be ‘legitimate’ for Parliament to reject the Brexit deal, while only 34% think that it would not.
But that does not mean that voters necessarily think that Parliament should be free to do whatever it wants, should it decide the deal is good enough. Only 33% think it would be acceptable for Parliament to follow rejection with a reversal of the decision to leave the EU, while 45% think it would not. Voters might be willing to accept that Parliament has a role to play in holding the government to account for its conduct of the Brexit negotiations, but that does not necessarily mean they think it has the right to reverse the decision to leave the EU that voters themselves made in the first place. Some decisions, it seems, are for neither government nor Parliament to make.