Anand Menon and Sophie Stowers unpack the findings of UK in a Changing Europe’s new major report with Public First on ‘Brexit regret’, highlighting that neither the Conservatives nor Labour stand to gain much from focusing on Brexit.
Brexit rumbles on. It haunted the fringe at Tory conference in Manchester, and Rishi Sunak hinted it would be an issue he could deploy against Keir Starmer. Meanwhile, a row was simmering ahead of the Labour shindig in Liverpool, with grandees such as Neil Kinnock backing a motion urging the party to ‘make rebuilding our relationship with our European neighbours a priority for our first term in office’.
Which is all very interesting, except a report released today by UK in a Changing Europe and Public First suggests that neither party stands to gain much from focusing on the issue.
In his conference speech last week, Rishi Sunak declaimed the benefits of Brexit. The UK economy, he claimed, has grown faster than that of France and Germany not ‘despite Brexit, but because of Brexit.’ Regulatory freedoms ‘make us ever more competitive,’ while trade deals offer significant economic potential.
Yet the Prime Minister is going to struggle to convince the public of that argument. Just 18% of those who voted Leave in 2016 think Brexit is going well; 22% think it’s going either badly or very badly. A quarter think the British economy has weakened since 2016.
The idea that Brexit has been a roaring economic success may, then, be a hard sell even to those who voted for it. But that’s not because Leavers think Brexit is a bad idea in and of itself. Many Leavers have not changed their minds – just 16% say they would have voted Remain knowing what they do now, with 72% saying they’d vote the same way.
Instead, and perhaps more damagingly for the Conservatives, many Leave voters blame the government for their unhappiness with Brexit so far. 51% of Leavers voters who think Brexit has not gone as well as it could have cite the ineffectiveness of UK politicians as a reason.
Nearly half of Leavers who think Brexit is going badly say there was a way politicians could have made Brexit work, but they didn’t even try. A significant number of respondents (two in five) believe there are ways leaving the EU could have benefited the economy, but politicians have failed to take advantage of these.
Sunak also used his conference speech to contrast his stance on UK-EU relations with that of Keir Starmer, a ‘flip flopper’ who ‘can’t be trusted’ on Brexit. Starmer may well be vulnerable to accusations of inconsistency and a lack of principles. That being said, his approach – discussing ‘Tory Brexit’ (as opposed to Brexit per se) as an economic issue that has contributed to the cost-of-living crisis is probably the optimal way for him to address the issue.
Indeed, many Leave and Remain voters are now associating issues in their day to day lives with Brexit. Many of those who had noticed food shortages (75%), NHS staff shortages (76%) and travel delays (73%) say that Brexit is either ‘entirely’ or ‘partially’ responsible. Proposing a closer working relationship with the EU as a pragmatic way to tackle some of these issues would likely go down well.
In our poll, 34% say that were Labour to propose a closer relationship with the EU, this would make them more likely to vote for the Party. Yet the position supported by Kinnock (senior) et al. comes with its own risks. 38% say proposing a closer relationship will have no impact on their vote, while 15% say it would make them less likely to vote Labour.
And if Labour’s mission is to win over new voters (remember, they need 123 seats for a majority of one), they will need policies which appeal to dissatisfied Conservatives and swing voters. Yet 27% of those voters who are open to switching to a different party or ‘don’t know’ who they will vote for at the next election say if Labour proposed a closer relationship with the EU, it would make them less likely to vote for Keir Starmer. Our data suggests that a pro-EU policy simply shores up Labour support amongst those who will probably vote for the party anyway.
And finally: does anyone really want to talk about Brexit anymore? Not really. Our respondents express a real sense of fatigue around the Brexit debate and high levels of indifference towards the future of the UK-EU relationship. Even around a third of Remainers now feel indifferent about its current status.
The dominant feeling among those we talked to was simply ambivalence. For many, there are more pressing issues – the economy, NHS, immigration – to talk about. For Labour, a wholesale rethink of the UK-EU relationship may not have the electoral payoff many expect.
For both Conservatives and Labour, while each may harbour hopes of weaponsing Brexit to their own benefit, our report makes for salutary reading. A significant number of people are unhappy with Brexit. Far fewer seem to want to think about it or back moves to address the problems though. In a word, meh.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director, and Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.