Two Years On: Many A Doubt But Few Changed Minds

Posted on 22 June 2018 by John Curtice

Britain spent just four months debating whether it should leave the EU or not after David Cameron had renegotiated our terms of membership. In contrast, the country has now spent as long as two years debating how the majority decision to leave should be handled. It is a debate that has left many voters doubtful about the ability of the politicians to deliver a successful Brexit, but so far it has largely failed to persuade them that they made the wrong choice on referendum day.

Given how divided the country was two years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that on balance voters were never that optimistic about what would transpire from the Brexit process.  For example, when towards the end of 2016 ORB started tracking attitudes towards Brexit on a regular monthly basis, they found that the 36% who agreed that ‘the Prime Minister will get the right deal for Britain in the EU negotiations’ were counterbalanced by the 36% who disagreed. Equally, our own research using NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel found in February 2017 that while 33% thought that Britain would secure a good deal from the Brexit negotiations, 37% believed it would get a bad deal.

But now pessimism is the order of the day. Our own research found that by October last year only 19% thought that Britain would get a good deal, while no less than 52% believed that we would get a bad one. Meanwhile, although in their three most recent monthly readings ORB have found that the proportion who agree the Prime Minister will get the right deal is still as high as 34%, this group is more than outnumbered by the 47% who disagree. Although Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech instilled some confidence in the Brexit process for a while, that soon dissipated in the wake of her performance in last year’s snap general election – and has never been restored since.

Where the blame lies in most voters’ minds for this state of affairs is quite clear – with the politicians. In the last three months, no less than 62% have on average told ORB that they disapprove of the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, while just 38% approve. Meanwhile, in their near weekly readings of the public mood, YouGov are now reporting that more voters than ever feel that the government is handling Brexit badly. In their last four polls, no less than 63% have on average expressed that view, while just 22% believe that the government is handling the process well.

True, Leave voters still have more faith in the Brexit process than their Remain counterparts. In our most recent wave of research 28% of Leave voters still thought that Britain would get a good deal, whereas only 11% of Remain supporters did so. Meanwhile, in YouGov’s last half dozen polls, 36% of Leave supporters have said that the UK government is handling Brexit well, well above the 14% of Remain supporters who hold that view. Nevertheless, the loss of faith has been more marked amongst those who voted Leave. There has, for example, been a 21-point drop since April of last year in the proportion of Leave voters who think that the government has been handling Brexit well, compared with just a six-point fall among Remain supporters. Those who voted Remain were sceptical about the government’s handling of Brexit from the outset; now, however, many Leave voters share their view.

However, the blame is not just thought to lie with the UK government. The EU is widely thought to be handling the Brexit process badly too. In March, for example, Ipsos MORI found that while 54% thought the UK government was doing a bad job handling Britain’s exit from the EU and only 38% thought it was doing a good job, equally 58% reckoned the EU was doing a bad job and only 30% a good one. And while Leave voters may have become more doubtful about the UK government’s performance, they are, unsurprisingly perhaps, even more likely to be critical of the role being played by the EU. Such a perspective is unlikely to encourage Leave voters to change their minds about the wisdom of leaving.

In any event, Britain is still more or less evenly divided in its views about whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave, just as it was two years ago. In the last three months eight readings of how people might vote in a second referendum have been taken, albeit using slightly different approaches to asking the question (see here, here and here). On average (once the Don’t Knows are left to one side) these have been put Leave on 48.5%, Remain on 51.5%. The only (albeit potentially crucial) difference is that it is Remain that now appears to be slightly in the lead, whereas two years ago it was Leave that prevailed in the referendum.

But, of course, when the polls are this close, their real message is that nobody can be sure who might win if the referendum were to be run again – after all most, albeit not all, of the final referendum polls two years ago put Remain narrowly ahead, yet Leave still won. Moreover, in so far as there does appear to have been a slight swing to Remain, it is not the result of particular doubt amongst Leave voters about the wisdom of their choice. On average in recent polls, only 7% of those who said they voted Leave now say they would vote Remain – no more than the 7% of Remain voters who now say they would vote Leave. Rather the swing to Remain, such as it is, has been more or less wholly occasioned by the views of those who did not vote two years ago; 44% of this group now say they would vote Remain, while only 19% state that they would vote to Leave. Just how many of these voters would make it to the polls second time around is inevitably highly uncertain.

This, though, has not stopped those who would like to see the Brexit decision reversed from campaigning in favour of a second referendum when the details of the deal have eventually been finalised. But this is an issue on which voters themselves are not only divided but is also one where the balance of opinion depends on how the issue is addressed. When on numerous occasions both Opinium and YouGov have asked voters whether there should be a referendum, they have consistently found that a majority are opposed. But when both companies have asked a different question, that is, whether the public should have a vote on the ‘final deal’ or should be allowed to have the ‘final say’, they have found majorities in favour (see here and here). That helps explain why the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign that is arguing in favour of another referendum describe the ballot as a ‘vote on the final Brexit deal’. But whether in the event voters would welcome another referendum on the deal is as uncertain as the likely outcome of any such ballot.

Still, in truth, much of the negotiating about Brexit has yet to happen. The next few months leading up to the October Council of Ministers will be crucial. Maybe they will see a decisive tilt in the balance of public opinion in one direction or the other. But, so far at least, voters have proven remarkably reluctant to change their minds even though many are now doubtful about what Brexit will bring.


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.

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