Sophie Stowers looks at polling from our new report on UK-EU relations, suggesting that whilst Brexit’s hold over British politics remains strong there are signs it is becoming less divisive than it used to be among the public.
If you were watching Prime Ministers’ Questions yesterday afternoon, you may have noticed two things. Firstly, a plug for our fantastic new report on the future of UK-EU relations. But secondly, that MPs continue to press the Prime Minister on Brexit and the consequences of leaving the EU on a weekly basis, over six years since the referendum.
It’s clear that Brexit and its hold over British politics remains strong. Indeed, since 2016, Britain has been split into two distinct camps: ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’. As bitter Parliamentary disputes over the future of the UK-EU relationship erupted, attachment to these identities hardened. By the time that Boris Johnson passed the revised EU Withdrawal Bill in 2019, around 45% of people described themselves as a ‘very strong’ Leaver or Remainer, and another third said that they were ‘fairly strong’.
The legacy of those labels – and the effect they have on how voters view politics – are still clear to see. One of the key attack lines used against Liz Truss by her competitors in the Conservative leadership contest was that she was a Remainer. Yet, in truth, the key reason she won that contest was because she was the candidate for the Leave majority in the Conservative Party in Parliament and the country.
Meanwhile, Labour’s 2019 Brexit policy still haunts Keir Starmer, who now campaigns for a pragmatic approach to economic growth while making the case that leaving the EU’s single market has had no economic impact at all.
Yet in the last year, we have begun to see a shift which might suggest that Brexit is becoming less divisive than it used to be. The most obvious clue is that while identification with Leaver/Remainer labels remains high, this has lessened somewhat, with an increasing number of people saying they identify with neither.
Polling for our latest report has also found that a narrow majority for Remain over Leave began to develop in 2022, with support for EU membership reaching 56% by the end of the year. This is, of course, a small majority, but it does suggest that instead of stubbornly sticking with the decision they made in 2016, some voters have become more open to changing their mind.
We see this phenomenon particularly among Leave voters, of whom 70% now say that leaving the EU was the right thing to do, compared to 88% in June 2021. We also see that although most Remainers still believe that leaving the EU was the wrong decision, a marked number say they would no longer vote to re-join the Union either.
And, in the aftermath of a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attitudes towards the EU have also become less polarised. Voters – including Leavers – have become more inclined to say that the UK should work constructively with the EU, particularly on issues such as defence and trade.
What explains this shift? Firstly, the fact that Brexit is simply less of a priority for voters. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, amidst fractious debates about the future of the UK outside of the EU, Brexit was named as one of the most important issues facing the country by 60% of voters. Yet by the beginning of 2022, just 22% said the same. By year’s end, after the onset of war on the continent and the onset of a recession, Brexit was swiftly eclipsed by health and the economy, and wasn’t even ranked by the public as one of the top ten issues facing the UK.
After a year of rocketing interest rates and a squeeze on the cost of living, both Leavers and Remainers have become more likely to say that the UK economy has weakened as a result of Brexit – 56% of voters said so in October 2022. This shift has been driven primarily by 2016 Leavers who state that the economy is worse as a result of Brexit, and now recognise some of the appeal of EU membership.
All this is not to say the Remain-Leave divide is no longer relevant – for a majority of voters (56% in UKICE’s latest poll) whether a politician was a Leaver or Remainer in 2016 is still a key factor when it comes to judging their record in office. Almost three quarters also still think of themselves as one of the two labels.
But the fact that five years later we are beginning to see some softening of attitudes, suggests that British politics might – might – just be moving on from the Brexit divide.
By Sophie Stowers, Researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.