Brexit should now be more popular among voters as a whole than it was in 2016. Yet, in truth, polls show no sign of voters falling in behind the decision to Leave.
First published in February 2021.
So opens (without the question mark) a hymn widely sung in Christian churches and chapels at Easter. But might it now also be an accurate summary of the state of the debate about Brexit? After all, the UK’s exit from the EU single market and the customs union at the beginning of last month marked the final phase in the delivery of Brexit. Despite the intensity of the Brexit debate in the last four years, we might anticipate that public opinion is now showing signs of moving on.
But what might ‘moving on’ mean? One possibility is that irrespective of whatever view they had when the UK left the EU just over a year ago, most Remain voters now believe that there is little point in questioning a decision that has not only been made but fully executed. They therefore now accept the decision to Leave – and certainly would not contemplate re-joining the EU. Meanwhile, as a result of this change of heart, Brexit should now be more popular among voters as a whole than it was when the country went to the polls in the June 2016 referendum.
Yet, in truth, there is little sign of this being the case. The question about Brexit that has been asked most often in recent months has been YouGov’s ‘In hindsight’ question. This asks voters whether they think the decision to leave the EU was right or wrong.
In four readings taken in January, on average only 41% of all voters said that they thought that the decision was right, while 48% reckoned it was wrong. These figures are little different from those of 40% and 49% respectively that were registered in four polls in December, just before the free trade deal with the EU was unveiled, or indeed those of 40% and 48% that were obtained in half a dozen polls in January 2020, just before the UK left the EU.
Meanwhile, although they have been much less frequent, those polls that have asked people how they would vote if the 2016 referendum were to be rerun again (see here and here) show no sign of voters falling in behind the decision to Leave.
In the last half dozen polls that have included such a question (all undertaken between November 2020 and January 2021), on average 54% have said that they would vote Remain (after Don’t Knows were excluded) and 46% Leave.
These figures are little different from those of 53% and 47% respectively that pertained in the last half-dozen polls prior to the end of January last year. On average 89% of Remain voters now say that they would vote Remain again – slightly more than the 84% of Leave voters who say they would vote the same way as they did in 2016.
Indeed, according to a set of polls recently commissioned by The Sunday Times, Remain currently outpolls Leave in all four corners of the UK. Not only did these polls find that there is still a substantial lead for Remain over Leave in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they also recorded a record high lead for Remain over Leave in Wales as well as a substantial one in England. In short, there was little sign in this exercise that Remain voters have fallen in behind the decision to Leave.
However, it might be argued that given that the UK has now left the EU, how people might vote if the 2016 ballot were to be rerun is of little relevance. Even if those who voted Remain in 2016 say they would vote the same way again, this does not necessarily mean that they would now seek to overturn the Brexit decision by backing any attempt to re-join the EU – and so in practice they may have come to accept the decision to leave.
Some Remain supporters do hold this point of view. In a recent Britain-wide poll YouGov asked the same set of voters whether they would vote Remain or Leave in a rerun of the 2016 ballot and whether they would vote for or against joining the EU. After leaving aside Don’t Knows, 57% indicated that they would vote Remain, whereas only 51% stated that they would vote to join, a difference of six points. Only 76% of Remain voters said that they would vote in favour of joining the EU, well down on the 89% who said that they would vote Remain again. In contrast Leave voters were almost as likely to say that they would vote against joining the EU (79%) as they were to say they would vote Leave again (81%).
This finding replicates the result of a similar exercise that we carried out on the NatCen panel in July last year. That survey asked its respondents a slightly different question from YouGov’s about how they might vote in a possible post-Brexit future referendum. It asked whether they would vote to ‘re-join’ or ‘stay out’ of the EU. Nevertheless, what proved to be a five-point lower level of support for re-joining than for remaining proved to be close to the six-point difference uncovered by YouGov in their recent poll. In our survey too, 89% of 2016 Remain voters said that they would vote Remain again, while only 80% stated that they would vote to re-join. In contrast, 80% of Leavers would vote Leave again but 84% would back staying out of the EU.
Other evidence also suggests that going back into the EU is some five to six points less popular than Remain. Firstly, the duo of questions that YouGov asked on their recent GB-wide survey was also asked on the four separate polls in the different parts of the UK commissioned by The Sunday Times. After leaving aside Don’t Knows, in England, these uncovered a difference of seven points between the level of support for Remain and that for joining, and in Wales a six-point gap (see here and here), although in Scotland (here and here) and Northern Ireland (here and here), where of course most voters backed Remain in 2016, the difference proved to be only two points.
Secondly, we can examine the results obtained by Kantar when – as they have done regularly since July 2020 – they have asked their respondents whether they would vote ‘to stay out’ of the EU or in favour of applying to join. On average 49% have said that they would vote in favour of joining while 51% favoured staying out. This contrasts with a tally of Remain 53%, Leave 47%, in all those polls that over the same seven-month period have asked people how they would vote in response to the question on the 2016 ballot paper.
So, a consistent body of evidence is emerging that some Remain supporters would not vote in favour of reversing Brexit even though they would still prefer Britain to be part of the EU. To that extent there is an apparent acceptance on their part that Brexit is done and dusted. However, it is evidently only a minority of Remain voters – perhaps numbering no more than one in eight – who feel that way. Moreover, even when we take their views into account, voters as a whole still emerge as being almost equally divided between those who would like to be back inside the EU and those who would not.
At the moment, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (though not the SNP) have vacated the Brexit battlefield, as they lick the wounds inflicted on them by Boris Johnson’s call in the December 2019 election to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Neither seems at all inclined to open a new chapter in Britain’s Brexit story.
However, we should not presume that this means that ‘the strife is o’er’ so far as voters’ hearts and minds are concerned.
▫ Sir John Curtice, political scientist, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.
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