It cost the Prime Minister a couple of cabinet ministers along the way, but the British government has now outlined the future relationship it would like the UK to have with the EU post-Brexit. A three page summary of its vision was published following a Cabinet away day at Chequers last Friday, while today a white paper giving much more detail is due to appear. The government now faces the task of persuading the EU to sign up to its proposal – and of convincing both MPs and voters that its implementation would represent a good deal for the UK.
What are its chances of winning over voters (of whose views MPs can be expected to take at least some cognisance)? One way of addressing that question is to assess how far the content of the UK government’s proposal matches the hopes that voters expressed before the Brexit negotiations began. In autumn 2016 and again in winter 2017, that is, not long after the EU referendum but before the UK government triggered Article 50, we conducted two surveys of attitudes towards the possible contents of Brexit. How does the Chequers Agreement measure up against their results?
Two findings particularly stood out from that research (and indeed these have been replicated in more recent surveys of ours conducted during the course of the Brexit negotiations). The first was that around nine in ten supported maintaining free trade with the EU in both goods and services. This desire was seemingly underpinned by the fact that around two-thirds agreed that British firms should have to comply with EU regulations on the design and safety of all the goods that they make (a view that would seem to accept the need for ‘regulatory alignment’) and that a similar proportion endorsed the principle of ‘bank passporting’.
The second key finding was that at least two-thirds believed that those wishing to migrate to Britain from the EU should have to apply to do so in the same way as people from outside the EU, while there was a similar level of support for placing a limit on the number of EU citizens able to come to Britain to live and work. Indeed, seven in ten also accepted that British citizens who wanted to move to a EU country should have to apply to do so.
These expectations have, of course, always seemed impossible for the UK government to meet given the EU’s firm belief that free trade and freedom of movement go hand in hand with each other. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the Chequers Agreement looks like something of a half-way house. It envisages free trade (and acceptance of a ‘common rule-book’) on goods but not on services (including financial services). At the same time, it affirms that there will be an end to free movement but leaves open the possibility of a ‘mobility framework’ that might mean that it will be easier for EU citizens than non-EU citizens to come to Britain.
Such a half-way house might be thought to offer something for everyone and thus represent a compromise to which most voters might be willing to accommodate themselves. However, the risk is that few feel a sense of ownership, while many are aware of the building’s shortcomings.
Initial polling on voters’ attitudes towards the Chequers Agreement suggests that this risk is a real one. In a poll conducted by Survation immediately after the Chequers meeting, only 34% described the agreement as a ‘sensible compromise’. Meanwhile, although only 23% said they actually disapproved of the deal, equally only 26% felt that it was the ‘right deal for Britain’. Meanwhile, in a poll undertaken on Sunday and Monday, YouGov found that only 14% were willing to say that the Chequers agreement would be good for Britain. Leave voters appear more or less as unenthusiastic about the agreement as Remain voters.
In truth, both polls also suggest (unsurprisingly) that many voters have yet to make up their minds about the government’s proposal. Even so, there is an apparent nervousness in the air. Both YouGov’s poll and another poll conducted by ORB over the weekend have found that approval of the government’s handling of Brexit and confidence in its ability to get a good deal have now fallen to an all-time low. The government needs today’s white paper to help steady those nerves. Otherwise Mrs May might find her proposal being disowned by voters on both sides of the Brexit debate.
UPDATE: Further polling from YouGov, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday (after Boris’ Johnson’s resignation) and published today, confirms the impression that the Chequers Agreement is so far failing to secure the enthusiasm of voters, including not least those who voted Leave. Still only 13% think that the agreement would be good for Britain, while the proportion who think it would not be good has increased from 33% to 42% – a movement primarily accounted for by a 18 point rise (from 33% to 51%) among Leave voters. At the same time, approval of the government’s handling of Brexit has fallen yet further – not least thanks to sharp decline among Leave voters, the proportion of whom who think the government has been handling things well has halved during the last week from 32% to 16%.