It is now nearly a year since the formal process for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was concluded. At the end of last year, the UK left the single market and customs union, and since then it has been trading with the EU on the basis of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement that was unveiled last Christmas Eve. That means voters have now had some opportunity to assess in the light of actual experience how good or bad a deal the UK has obtained in its dealings with the EU. The conclusion to which they have come so far is addressed in our latest briefing on public attitudes to Brexit released today.
The deal does not get very many plaudits. In our latest survey, conducted in August via the NatCen mixed mode random probability panel, just one in eight say that the UK has obtained a good deal, while nearly half (48%) say that it has a bad one. After a degree of relative optimism about the deal when we previously surveyed in January, just after the new trade agreement with the EU had been unveiled, the balance of opinion has now returned to where it stood in the middle of 2020, long before the conclusion of the trade negotiations.
Those who voted Remain in 2016 are, of course, more critical of the deal than those who supported Leave. Yet even among the latter only 22% believe that Britain has secured a good deal, while 36% believe it has a bad one.
How can we account for the negative overall evaluation, and, in particular, the swing in that direction since January? It appears to have little to do with perceptions of the consequences of Brexit for either immigration or the economy. Those who think that immigration will fall as a result of Brexit (51%) are almost as likely as those who think it will stay the same or increase (46%) to say that Britain has a bad deal (a pattern that reflects the fact that Leave voters are no longer more inclined than Remain supporters to say that immigration will fall).
In contrast, those who think that the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit (72%) are much less likely than those who believe it will be better off (33%) to say that Britain has a bad deal. However, at 52% the proportion who think the economy will be worse off is no higher now than it was at the beginning of the year, so cannot account for the movement since then.
Voters’ views of how well the EU has handled Brexit appear not to matter either, even though, at 53%, those who believe it has done so badly heavily outnumber those (15%) who feel it has handled the matter well. However, there is little difference between these two groups in their view of how good or bad a deal the UK has obtained.
The same cannot be said of evaluations of how well the UK government has handled Brexit. As many as 70% of those who feel that it has done so badly say that the country has obtained a bad deal. In contrast, just 16% of those who believe that the UK government has handled Brexit well feel Britain has a bad deal. Moreover, at 57%, those who feel that the UK government has dealt with Brexit badly not only substantially outnumber the 16% who feel that it has done so well, but also voters are now somewhat more critical of the government’s handling than they were in January.
What though also appears to have played a role in accounting for the increase since January in the proportion who think the UK has a bad deal is a more marked increase in discontent among those who think that Britain should have a close relationship with the EU.
No less than 71% of those who think that the UK should have a ‘very close’ relationship with the EU say that the UK has obtained a bad deal, up 14 points on the equivalent figure in January. In contrast, among those who say the UK’s relationship with the EU should be ‘neither close nor distant’ just 30% believe that Britain has secured a bad deal, up a more modest nine points. At the other end of the spectrum, at 51%, the proportion of critics among the relatively small number (just 9%) of voters who say that the UK should have a ‘distant’ relationship with the EU is also somewhat higher, but it has increased by just five points since January.
This pattern appears to be indicative of a wider story. Most Remain voters believe that the UK should have a close relationship with the EU – and perhaps unsurprisingly few of them are content with the relatively ‘hard’ Brexit delivered by Lord Frost in the trade negotiations. In contrast, Leave voters are more evenly divided between those who say they would like at least a fairly close relationship and those who would not – and satisfying both these groups was, perhaps, always going to be difficult. As a result, the enthusiasm of Leave voters for what has been achieved falls well short of the level of disapproval apparent among those voters who did not want Brexit to happen in the first place. Persuading the public that the deal Britain has with the EU is a good one may be more difficult than perhaps the government realises.