As the Brexit talks continue for some time, a reminder of the electoral calculus facing Boris Johnson in choosing a deal or no deal with the European Union.

First published in December 2020.

After missing deadline after deadline, the EU and the UK have now reached a point where they are going to have to decide in the next week or so what will happen when the Brexit transition period terminates at the end of the year. Is a deal to be struck whereby the UK’s membership of the single market and the Customs Union is replaced by a free trade agreement, or is the UK to exit without a deal?

One of the considerations that the UK government will have in mind is which course of action is more likely to prove electorally advantageous.  

An initial glance at the polls suggests that the answer is straightforward. Leaving without a deal is very much a minority preference, backed by no more than a fifth or so of voters.  

In recent weeks, a number of polls have asked people to choose between leaving without a deal and one or more alternatives. These alternatives have varied from poll to poll, yet the level of support for ‘no deal’ has been much the same.

Both Kantar and YouGov have presented people with the simple choice of leaving with a deal and leaving without. In response 19% told Kantar that they would prefer no deal, while 44% indicated they would prefer to leave with a deal – the company also obtained a similar result when it asked the question earlier this year. Similarly, in YouGov’s poll 18% said they preferred no deal, while as many as 61% backed leaving with a deal. (Many more people said ‘Don’t Know’ in Kantar’s poll than YouGov’s.)

Two recent ComRes polls presented respondents with not only leaving with a deal or without, but also the possibility of extending the transition period. On average 20% chose no deal, while 36% preferred exiting with a deal and 20% wanted to extend the transition period.

Meanwhile, on a number of occasions in recent weeks Opinium have offered people the options of leaving without a deal, leaving with a deal that represents a ‘clean break’, leaving with a deal that means the UK is still ‘closely aligned’ with the EU, and asking to rejoin the EU. Given that in this instance respondents were presented with more options, it is not surprising that somewhat fewer (15%) have on average picked no deal. Even so the responses to this question also indicate that only a minority of voters as a whole regard ‘no deal’ as an ideal outcome.

Are you supportive of rejoining the EU, of a trade deal where the UK is closely aligned with the EU, of a trade deal where the UK has a clear break from the EU, or of ending the transition period without a deal? | What UK Thinks: EU

However, while these figures provide us with an indication of the pattern of attitudes among the public as a whole, their relevance to the UK government’s electoral calculation is limited. The Conservatives won the December 2019 election by winning the support of nearly three-quarters of those who voted Leave in 2016. It is the possible reaction of this particular constituency that will matter in the government’s electoral calculus.  

The difficulty facing the government now becomes clearer. Leave voters are divided on the issue. Although they appear somewhat more inclined to back a deal than no deal, as many as a third or so believe that leaving without a deal would be the better option.

For example, YouGov found that 34% of those who voted Leave in 2016 preferred no deal, while 49% backed having a deal. Kantar also reported that 34% were in favour of no deal, while in this instance exactly the same proportion backed leaving with a deal.

Meanwhile, when faced with Opinium’s more numerous options, 31% selected no deal, while 42% preferred what might be thought to be kind of deal that the government is pursuing, that is, a ‘clean break’ Brexit, while 11% would opt for an agreement that provided for close alignment with the EU.

Still, despite the division of opinion among Leave voters, these figures might be thought to mean that securing a deal would be the safer option for the government. However, circumstances alter cases. According to Deltapoll, on average only 24% of Leave supporters believe that the UK government ‘should be willing to make more compromises’ in order to secure a deal. As many as 57% believe it should try for a deal but not be willing to compromise, and 10% feel that the government should simply give up on the quest for an agreement.

In short, many Leave voters might yet reject any deal that was thought to involve too many concessions to the EU. And after all, Leave voters are more inclined to blame the EU than the government for any failure to reach a deal. YouGov found that 56% blame the EU and only 7% the British government, while Deltapoll on average put the figures at 42% and 17% respectively. No Deal might yet be the better option so long as the government can persuade its supporters that the fault for the failure to reach agreement lies with the EU.

Moreover, we should perhaps bear in mind that although Leave supporters might prefer one course of action than another, ‘getting Brexit done’ somehow may matter more to them than precisely how it is done.  

Indeed, further questioning by Opinium reveals that most Leave voters would regard both exiting the single market with a ‘clean break’ deal and leaving without one as an ‘acceptable’ outcome. A substantial body of indifference towards how the UK leaves the single market among Leave voters has also emerged when Deltapoll have asked whether leaving without a deal would be a ‘good’ or ‘bad thing’; on average no less than 40% said that it would be neither good nor bad.

Yet there are some Leave supporters for whom the choice between deal and no deal does matter. On average 10% say that leaving with a ‘clean break’ deal would be ‘unacceptable’, while as many as 22% say the same about leaving without a deal. Keeping both these groups on side is unlikely to be easy.

But at least perhaps soon we will finally discover how the Prime Minister has decided to resolve his dilemma.🔷

Sir John Curtice, political scientist, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.

[This piece was originally published in WhatUKthinks and re-published in PMP Magazine on 4 December 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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