The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

24 Jun 2017

UK-EU Relations

The EU referendum was a historic democratic exercise that has given the British Government a popular mandate for leaving the EU. Yet, the choice between leaving or remaining in the EU provided little in the way of guidance as to what type of Brexit the public wanted. As the Government starts to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU, we asked whether the public remains divided and what people actually want from Brexit.

Our survey evidence shows that, while the public remains almost equally divided on whether leaving or staying is a good idea, there is an emerging consensus about what Brexit should look like, and there are high levels of support for a “hard Brexit” along the lines proposed by Theresa May.

No regrets as the public remains divided

While many commentators speculated that voters would change their opinion on Brexit after the implications of leaving the EU became clearer, public opinion surveys so far tell a very different story. In fact, very few people have changed their minds about the way they voted. When asked “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?”, polls show almost no change since the referendum: people who voted Remain continue to think it was wrong to vote to leave the EU, while people who voted Leave think it was right (see figure above).

Interestingly, the continuing divide between those who favour and oppose Brexit appears to have given rise to a set of new political identities in Britain. It is well established that many people feel attached to a political party and this attachment shapes their attitudes to all sorts of things. The EU referendum, however, was a highly unusual event. The two main parties were openly split over the issue. The electorate was also divided: around 40per cent of Conservative supporters voted Remain, while a third of Labour supporters voted Leave.

The referendum has given rise to a new form of political attachment based on the Leave-Remain divide. A year on, nearly three quarters of people think of themselves as “Leavers” (38 per cent) or “Remainers” (35 per cent). These groups are similar in size to the proportion of people who identify with political parties. It is primarily the people who voted Remain who have come to identify strongly with this perspective after the election. The prospect of Brexit has made some people more committed to EU membership. A crucial question for the future of British politics is whether these new political identities dissipate over time as Brexit becomes a reality, or persist. This is likely to depend on whether, and how, political parties mobilise this new fault line in British politics.

What do people want from Brexit?

The negotiations between the British Government and the EU involve an array of complex policy questions. The most prominent so far has been the trade-off between the Government prioritising preferential trade agreements with the EU or prioritising control over EU immigration rates. But there are many other policy choices that relate to the “divorce bill”, continuing EU budget contributions and access to EU funds, jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, border controls with the Republic of Ireland and so on. These questions did not feature on the referendum ballot paper, nor are they issues that many people necessarily gave much thought to before the referendum. However, it is crucial for the Government that the outcome of the negotiations is perceived to be legitimate by the people.

Our research shows that, when asked to choose between outcomes resembling what have become known as “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit”, a large majority of the public favour the latter. Perhaps more surprisingly, when asked to choose between the Government’s preferred outcome of hard Brexit and a “no deal” alternative, there is a majority in favour of walking away from the table without any kind of deal. In the survey we conducted in late April this year, each of these scenarios was described in detail – crucially without the “soft”, “hard” and “no deal” labels – and people were asked to make a choice between a series of pair-wise options of different negotiation outcomes. Our survey shows that Leavers are relatively united in preferring the hardest version of Brexit when given a choice. This is driven primarily by a desire to control immigration, to limit the powers of the European Court and to avoid paying any sort of settlement bill to the EU. In contrast, Remainers are much more divided: while a small majority favours a soft Brexit over a hard Brexit, 40 per cent prefer the latter. On the whole, Remainers and Leavers are looking for many of the same things from Brexit: greater sovereignty, good trade arrangements and no settlement bill. They differ over the questions of controlling immigration and giving rights to EU citizens resident in the UK.

One year on, the electorate remains divided on whether a vote on Brexit was a good or a bad thing. However, those divisions are much less stark when we focus on what citizens want from Brexit and what they will accept. Theresa May’s hard Brexit is popular not only among Leavers, but also among a sizable proportion of Remainers. Moreover, when asked how the Government is handling the Brexit negotiations, the percentage of people who say “well” has increased from just 20 to 35 per cent over the last six months. As negotiations with the EU start in earnest, the Government may also benefit from a rally “round the flag” effect from both Leavers and Remainers. At the same time, however, the possible costs of Brexit will also become more apparent as the negotiations proceed: these could harden opposition among those who continue to identify themselves as Remainers.

By Professor Sara Hobolt, research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe, Thomas Leeper Assistant Professor in Political Behaviour at LSE and James Tilley, Professor of Politics at Oxford University. 


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