Inside Story

Getting Brexit undone

Voter sentiment has shifted decisively, leaving the major parties in a quandary

Sam Freedman London 20 February 2023 2695 words

The swing is on: pro-Europe protesters outside Britain’s Houses of Parliament last October. Tolga Akmen/EPA

The speed at which the British public has turned against Brexit has taken the political establishment by surprise, with no one quite sure how to react. After all, the reason “Get Brexit Done” was such a successful slogan during Britain’s 2019 election was that most people, including a large chunk of Remain voters, were heartily sick of the topic. It was never going to go away as an issue — Britain’s relationship with continental powers has been a key factor in its politics for centuries — but there was an expectation it would be a while before serious conversations about a different relationship began.

Up to mid 2021 this looked about right. Although enthusiasm for Brexit had gently declined since 2016, sentiment had not shifted dramatically. But since then, support has fallen much faster and, fuelled by Britain’s economic malaise, debate has intensified. In August 2021, 46 per cent of people told YouGov Britain was wrong to leave the European Union and 42 per cent said it was right. Those figures are now 54 per cent and 34 per cent. Just 18 per cent think the government has handled Brexit well.

Both the government and the opposition are studiously, and understandably, ignoring this shift in opinion. Within the Tory membership and the parliamentary party, support for Brexit remains strong. Prime minister Rishi Sunak is in a weak position, doing poorly in the polls and under attack from the most aggressively anti-European faction in his party, supported by his predecessor Boris Johnson. The government can do little beyond quietly trying to improve relations with European partners, as we are seeing with its attempt to resolve vexed issues over Northern Ireland.

Labour’s base strongly opposes Brexit but, given Remainers have nowhere else to go, the opposition’s focus is on winning over socially conversative but economically left-wing voters in marginal seats. Attacking Brexit would be actively unhelpful with this group. Labour leader Keir Starmer and his team are also clearly terrified about being attacked as soft on immigration — hence his repeated emphasis that free movement of people would be off the table under a Labour government.

But if opinion continues to shift against Brexit, this can only be a temporary strategy for both parties, and will eventually become unsustainable.

Support for Brexit was always likely to decline over time because of the age profile of the groups that voted Yes and No in the 2016 referendum. A majority of under-fifty-year-olds voted Remain; pensioners were always the biggest backers of Leave. Given very few Remain voters have changed their minds over the past six and a half years, and people who were too young to vote in 2016 overwhelmingly oppose Brexit, natural voter replacement is generating an inevitable shift.

Professor Simon Hix and colleagues estimate around 35 per cent of the drop in support for Brexit since 2016 is due to this replacement effect. It’s likely that if the initial referendum took place next year Remain would now win — even if everyone who could vote in 2016 voted the same way.

Brexit enthusiasts always ran a risk in depending so greatly on older voters, which makes it all the more strange that they doubled down on appealing to their existing supporters rather than attempting to make a case that might appeal to younger, more liberal voters. As a result, alongside the replacement effect, the age gap has got even bigger. An analysis of YouGov data shows people born between 1985 and 1994 have shifted hardest against Brexit, whereas those born before 1944 are even more supportive than they were in 2016. This will exacerbate the impact of replacement over the next five to ten years.

This powerful effect means that Brexit will continue to get less and less popular even if no one else changes their mind. So those who want to stay well clear of the EU need to convince younger voters that it was a good idea. At the moment, that clearly isn’t happening — the proportion of Remain voters who’ve changed their minds is tiny. Nor is there are any reason to believe this will change in the next few years, given that no obvious benefits are about to become apparent.

The only factors that might push opinion in the other direction would be a strong economic recovery for which at least some credit was given to Brexit, deserved or not, or, more possible though still unlikely, a major crisis within the EU that makes Britain look like a safe haven. Tensions certainly exist that could turn into something more existential. For instance, in late 2022 we saw Hungary blocking a bailout to Ukraine as part of an ongoing argument over Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic rule. And many EU states, including France, are still unhappy with Germany’s behaviour over the energy crisis.

But at the moment nothing seems likely to give Remain voters pause. That puts the focus on Leave voters. If they stay supportive of Brexit then it will take longer for a major shift in policy to become a political necessity for the main parties. At the moment 18 per cent of those Leavers are telling YouGov they now think leaving was the wrong decision — higher than a year ago — but 74 per cent are sticking with their initial decision.

Yet when you dig into how people feel about Brexit, that support looks like it could drop a fair bit more, especially among younger Leave supporters. JL Partners’ polling in October showed that just 24 per cent of Leave voters think Brexit has helped the economy compared with 34 per cent who think it’s made it worse. Across every area JL Partners tested — from better public services to the cost of holidays — Leave voters were more likely to say Brexit has made their lives worse than better. A Public First poll in December for the charity More in Common found that, of Leave voters who had changed their minds, 69 per cent cited damage to the economy as a reason.

Why then do 74 per cent still say it was right to leave? Mainly, it seems, because they are still hopeful there will be benefits in the coming years. While JL Partners found little hope among Remainers that any benefits might be forthcoming, a majority of Leavers felt trade deals with the rest of the world and “better UK laws” would bring future improvements. Critically, though, most expected to see those benefits in the next five years. My sense is that if they don’t, and there’s no reason at the moment to think they will, then support among Leavers will continue to drop, on top of the age effects.

If it seems fairly clear that people are unhappy with Brexit so far, even if some are still hopeful, what people want instead is harder to read. This is partly because, as ever, most people don’t spend much time thinking about politics, let alone policy detail, and so don’t have formed views on the benefits of joining the single market versus a bespoke trade deal. It’s also down to the complexity of the issue.

Thanks to the kind people at focaldata I’ve been able to ask some of my own polling questions to test how well people understand one of the key concepts that comes up in discussions of how Britain might deal with the post-Brexit malaise. To do that, I gave four short (and by necessity simplistic) descriptions of the single market to see if people knew what it actually means. Thirty-eight per cent correctly chose “Agreeing to participate in the free movement of goods, people, services and capital with European Union states” and 35 per cent nominated another option I’d phrased to be almost right. But another 27 per cent chose options — “a bespoke deal with the EU” or “rejoining the EU” — that were completely wrong.

There’s also the matter of how you frame the questions. As ever, small changes in wording can make a huge difference. When I asked if people thought Britain should join the single market but stay out of the European Union, I found 55 per cent in favour and 26 per cent opposed. Opinium Research asked if people supported “gaining access to the European single market” and found 63 per cent supporting and 14 per cent opposed. Both JL Partners and Public First asked (different) multi-option questions that gave quite different results for how many people would prefer joining the single market versus some other type of closer relationship.

Given all this, we have to be careful about overreading the data. But I think we can say the following: not many people want to keep the status quo and only a very small minority want to move even further away from the EU. A substantial majority, including most Leavers, want some kind of better relationship, though short of rejoining. They are particularly concerned about the economy but are also bothered by the inconvenience of travelling abroad, and they support closer security relationships and sharing of police information.

What is really hard to judge is which trade-offs people are prepared to accept. Things can be done to develop a closer economic and security relationship with the EU, short of single-market membership or rejoining, but they are limited. Both single-market membership and rejoining would certainly help the economy, but both would have costs, including payments to the EU, accepting free movement (though most people don’t want higher immigration) and, if Britain were not a full member, having to follow rules that it had no say in forming.

In my poll I tried to get at this issue by asking people what would worry them most about rejoining the EU — with a list of options. My hypothesis was that free movement would be way out in front as the biggest concern. But it wasn’t at all. Just 12 per cent said it was their main concern, and only 19 per cent of Leavers. The greater worry, at 21 per cent (24 per cent of Leavers), was paying money to the EU, which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise given the arguments about that damn bus advert. The other concerns that registered double figures were loss of sovereignty (15 per cent); going back to political arguments about membership (12 per cent); and concern about overturning the referendum (10 per cent).

Of all the public’s views at the moment, how strongly people feel about immigration is one of the hardest to get a grip on. But I can’t help thinking that politicians are overly worried about it compared with other factors, particularly the state of public services and the economy.

When YouGov and Public First explicitly cite free movement as a consequence of joining the single market or striking a “Swiss-style” deal, they seem to get similar responses to when they don’t, and in each case they register clear majority support for these options. LSE researchers explicitly tested a “free movement” deal with the EU and found majority support among Leavers.

But that doesn’t mean the real-world argument for these options, or rejoining, would be easy to win. Only 19 per cent of voters, and only 30 per cent of Remainers, had no concerns at all about rejoining. While the concerns are more diffuse than I expected, they are there, and would, of course, come more to the forefront of the debate if the government pushed for a more dramatic change in the EU relationship.

Given the shift in opinion against Brexit, and given that, barring a dramatic economic recovery or the implosion of the EU, the trend is very likely to continue, what does that mean for the current Tory/Labour positions?

Neither party faces any immediate pressure to change policy. Sunak has no room to shift even if he wanted to. The Tories will go into the election citing “Get Brexit Done” as a success, though they won’t make it a centrepiece given how little benefit voters have seen.

Labour will stick to its current position too — “Make Brexit Work” — and stay out of anything that would require the return of free movement. What making Brexit work means in practice is harder to define, but it will include closer regulatory alignment on a number of areas, trying to reduce trade barriers, and closer security arrangements. This is extremely safe ground, backed by most Leave voters and an overwhelming majority of Remainers.

I suspect Starmer could go a bit further, without talking about any specific mechanism, in his warmth towards future relationships without doing any harm electorally. And he certainly doesn’t need to pretend, as he did the other day, that joining the single market wouldn’t bring economic benefits.

But, of course, I can understand the caution. Proposing to rejoin now would undoubtedly be a mistake. As Luke Tryl notes, his More in Common polling shows that “swing voters — those who have either switched to Labour since 2019 or who voted Tory and now are undecided — say by a margin of 47 to 16 per cent that if Labour pledged to rejoin they would be less, rather than more likely to vote for the party.”

I suspect things will start to move a bit faster after the election. Labour will have to engage with the issue within its first year because Britain’s 2020 trade agreement with Europe is automatically reviewed every five years. The party base will urge the new government to maximise alignment.

My view is that Labour should, on taking office, immediately commission an analysis of the costs and benefits of Brexit to inform the review, and should try to bring in sensible Leave backers to make the conclusions as widely accepted as possible.

If a new deal, following the review, has some limited benefits, and goes down okay with key voter groups, pressure will grow for something more comprehensive. The timeline here will depend on a number of things:

• Will Leave voters start to shift in greater numbers, or will ongoing drift in opinion depend entirely on replacement?

• Will anything happen that might push against that drift (economic recovery/EU crisis)?

• Will a disgruntled Labour faction — perhaps built around ministers fired in an early reshuffle — make getting back into the EU a loudly popular cause among the base?

• Will EU states be keen to bring the UK back into the fold, given that its politics would further complicate existing dynamics and there are some advantages of keeping it outside as an example of why holding the EU together matters?

• What will the Tories do?

This last question is a hard one to anticipate. On the one hand, parties that lose elections tend to retreat into their comfort zone quickly and for some time. It’s easy to imagine someone like business and trade minister Kemi Badenoch — a figure popular with the party base and the current favourite to take over the Tories after an election loss — doubling down on Brexit and choosing to fight Labour on immigration and culture wars. But if the result is really bad it may force an earlier acknowledgement of reality than happened after 1997.

Yes, a complete reversal on Brexit among Conservative MPs seems implausible given how committed so many in the party are to it, but a gentle back-pedalling is possible if they have a leader who sees how precarious their position is among younger voters. If they choose to downplay it, and not make it a big part of their pitch, that makes it easier for Labour to change position too.

One way or another, though, things will feel very different as we approach 2030. Britain is likely to be moving towards a closer relationship with the EU rather than the intransigence that has marked the past six years. Voter opinion will very likely be overwhelmingly in favour of this and substantially in favour of a more formal relationship of some kind. It will, by then, be fourteen years since the referendum. There will be thirty-two-year-olds who weren’t old enough to vote in 2016.

I don’t know if Britain will ever formally rejoin the EU, but I would be very surprised if it doesn’t have a dramatically different relationship within a decade, and that may well include de facto, if not de jure, membership of the single market. •