It has been an eventful few months since we last reported (in March) any new research of our own on attitudes towards Brexit. At the end of March the government gave formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave the EU. In April, the Prime Minister called an election in the hope of securing a landslide that would help her deliver her vision of Brexit – only to lose her majority entirely in the ballot in June. Soon thereafter the negotiations with the EU about the terms of the UK’s withdrawal finally got under way, only for the EU to declare in October that insufficient progress had been made on the phase 1 issues for the talks to proceed to phase 2 on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
All in all, plenty for the electorate to absorb. Meanwhile we are now just over half-way between the date of the EU referendum and the date the UK is due to leave the EU – 29 March 2019. It thus seems a good time to assess what voters have been making of it all. Today, we issue a new report that does just that. We look in particular at two issues. First, how well do voters think the negotiations are being handled, and what do they now think is the likely outcome of the Brexit process? Second, is there any sign that the experience of recent months has changed voters’ views about the kind of Brexit the UK should be seeking – or, indeed, about the merits of leaving in the first place?
Our evidence comes from two further waves of interviews with members of NatCen’s unique random probability mixed mode panel. The first of these two waves was undertaken in July, just after the election, the second in October, by which time the negotiations were well under way. In both cases, just under 2,200 respondents completed the survey, representing just over 60% of all those who were invited to participate. Between them these two rounds of interviewing update and extend the picture painted by two previous waves of interviewing conducted last autumn and in February of this year and on which we reported here and here.
Our new data point to two important conclusions. First, voters, including not least those who voted Leave in the EU referendum, have become more critical of the way the negotiations are being handled and more pessimistic about what the consequences of Brexit will be. However, and second, this development has apparently not changed the balance of public opinion on what the eventual shape of Brexit should be.
On some of our measures the increase in pessimism about the Brexit process has been quite marked. For example, back in February, one in three voters thought the UK would get a ‘good deal’ out of the negotiations with the EU. Now a little under one in five (19%) hold that view. Equally, whereas in February 41% thought the UK government was handling the Brexit talks badly, now as many as 61% express that opinion.
On other measures the change has not been so sharp – but still points in the same direction. In February 46% thought that the economy would be worse off as a result of leaving the EU. Now over half (52%) feel that will be the case. In July 59% reckoned it was ‘very’ or ‘quite’ likely that there would continue to be free trade between the UK and the EU; now only a half (50%) anticipate that will be the outcome of the talks.
It might be thought these trends are primarily the result of Remain voters becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Brexit process. However, this is not what has happened. Rather, pessimism has become much more widespread amongst those who voted Leave.
The proportion of Leave voters who think the UK will secure a good deal out of Brexit has fallen from 51% on February to just 28% now. At the same time, only 21% of Leave voters think the UK government has handled the Brexit negotiations well, down from 42% in February.
Nevertheless, the balance of public opinion on what kind of Brexit the UK should be seeking has not changed markedly during the course of this year. As many as 64% still think that ‘people from the EU who want to come to live here’ should have ‘to apply to do so in the same way as people from outside the EU’, only slightly down on the 68% who backed this provision in February. Above all, at 53%, the proportion who think we should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow freedom of movement for EU citizens in return for securing free trade with the EU is no higher than the 54% who expressed that view in February.
Meanwhile, although our latest survey points to a two-point swing in favour of Remain as compared with how our panellists voted in the EU referendum, that swing is also no higher than it was in February. Moreover, most of the swing is a consequence of Leave voters being more likely to say they would abstain and of those who did not vote in 2016 being more likely to say that they would now vote Remain rather than a product of Leave voters now saying they would switch in favour of Remain.
Between them our two key findings point to an important lesson – it should not be presumed that growing disappointment and discontent with the Brexit process (of which there already seems to be plenty) will necessarily persuade voters to change their minds about the kind of Brexit the UK should be seeking, or their view about the wisdom of leaving the EU in the first place. So far, at least, voters seem inclined to blame the actors in the Brexit process for their perceived failure to be delivering what voters want rather than draw the conclusion that the act of leaving is misguided. A difficult Brexit could simply prove politically costly for Mrs May and her beleaguered government rather than a catalyst for a change of heart amongst the public about Brexit.