Far from securing the landslide that she felt would strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, the general election saw Theresa May’s majority disappear entirely. This has inevitably led some to claim that the outcome represents a rejection of her vision of a ‘hard’ Brexit, and thus is indicative of a change of public mood.
However, it is never wise to use election results to make claims about the public mood on any particular issue; voters vote the way they do for a wide variety of reasons while their judgements are distorted by the prism of a non-proportional electoral system. True, as we noted during the election campaign, people’s existing views about Brexit were reflected to some degree in their relative propensity to swing towards the Conservatives or Labour, but that does not necessarily mean that the election instigated a significant change in people’s views about Brexit
In this blog, we look at the evidence in the polls on attitudes towards Brexit in the wake of the general election. We focus on four key questions:
- Have we changed our minds about leaving?
- Have we changed our minds about the kind of Brexit we want?
- What do we think now about leaving without a deal – or only after having had a second referendum?
- Has the election changed our view of the government’s competence at handling Brexit?
Remain or Leave?
Not least of the reasons why it has been suggested that the public might have begun to change their minds about Brexit is that the economic news of recent weeks has been relatively gloomy. Indeed, at 25%, the proportion who according to YouGov now think Britain will be better off as a result of Brexit is as low as it has ever been. Equally, at 40%, the proportion who think that we will be worse off is only a point behind the all-time high registered during the last year.
Meanwhile, ORB report that, at 39%, the proportion who agree that the economy will be better-off post-Brexit is lower than it has been at any time since November, and is now for the first time in this series almost matched by the proportion who agree (38%). So there are some signs that we are now relatively pessimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit. However, at the same time the two companies both find (here and here) that there is still a widespread expectation that Brexit will serve to reduce immigration.
The best measure we have of whether the level of support for Brexit has changed or not is a question YouGov have asked on a regular basis ever since last August. It asks, ’In hindsight do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the EU?”. Typically, the question has found slightly more people saying ‘right’ than saying ‘wrong’. Indeed, in each of March, April and May, on average 45% said right, 43% wrong, a two-point difference that was typical of the figures the company had obtained ever since last August.
However, in the three polls conducted in June, on average the 44% who said ‘right’ were just outnumbered by the 45% who said ‘wrong’. The movement is very small, and might yet still be the product of the chance variation to which all polls are subject. That said, June was the first month in which more said ‘wrong’ than ‘right’ and so we should not dismiss the idea that it might be indicative of a real, if small movement of opinion away from leaving the EU – though certainly not one that allows us to say anything other than that the country remains more or less evenly divided about Brexit.
Further apparent evidence that opinion may have shifted somewhat away from leaving is to be found in two other recent pieces of polling. The first comes from YouGov’s Eurotrack series which has long regularly asked its respondents (in Britain and in six other European countries) how they would vote in a referendum on membership.
After a gap of three months the most recent reading has now appeared and finds that 46% would vote Remain, up two points on March, and Leave on 42%, down one. Again the movement is but a small one, but it is enough to put Remain further ahead than it has been in this particular series at any time since last year’s referendum.
The second piece of evidence comes from Survation, who on three occasions in recent weeks have asked people how they would vote now in response to the question that appeared on the referendum ballot paper, ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’. Each time the company found more people saying they would vote Remain than saying they would vote Leave, most recently by as much as 54% to 46% (once Don’t Knows are left to one side).
However, another company, Panelbase, tracked how people would vote in another referendum on a weekly basis throughout the election campaign, and every time put Leave ahead. Indeed, their most recent reading, in a poll conducted a week or so after the general election, put Leave on 52%, Remain on 48%, figures that replicate exactly the outcome twelve months ago. In short, while there is some reason to believe that there might have been a small swing against Brexit, the evidence that this has happened is still not wholly consistent.
The Shape of Brexit
Some of the most detailed and thorough attempts to measure attitudes towards Brexit have been undertaken by Anthony Wells of YouGov. He revisited the issue shortly after the election. Amongst the questions that he repeated from his earlier efforts was one that summarises the negotiating stance outlined by the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House speech in January (that is, that the UK should leave the single market and no longer adhere to the freedom of movement provisions of the EU) and asks respondents whether they would be happy or unhappy with such an outcome.
In his most recent poll Wells found that as many as 50% said that they would be happy, little different from the 49% who expressed that view in March, though at 30% the proportion who said they would be unhappy was five points up on the previous reading. Similarly, 52% said that thought such a deal would be ‘good for Britain’, while 24% reckoned it would not be good, figures that are little different from what they were in March.
The key choice that it is widely thought Britain faces over Brexit is whether to remain in the single market or to seek control over immigration. There have been a number of recent attempts to ascertain the current balance of opinion on this issue. Some have found little or no change. Opinium reported shortly before polling day that 38% backed ‘ending free movement of labour even if it means we leave the single market’, while 37% chose ‘staying in the single market even if it means allowing free movement of labour’, figures that were similar not only to those that were repeatedly obtained throughout the election campaign but also to readings back in March. Similarly ORB report that 43% agree that ‘having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU’ almost the same as the 42% who disagree.
That actually represents a four-point increase in the proportion who agree as compared with early April, though that poll produced what now looks like a rather unusual reading – the latest figures are in fact almost identical to those the company obtained when it first asked the question in November.
So there is little consistent evidence that attitudes towards the kind of Brexit Britain should seek have changed in the wake of the election campaign. That said, there is one piece of YouGov polling of late that has suggested that attitudes may have altered somewhat since June of last year. On the first anniversary of the referendum the company posed a question that it had last asked on the eve of the referendum ballot.
As many as 58% said the greater priority was ‘British businesses having free access to trade with the EU, but Britain having to allow EU citizens the right to live and work in Britain’, up five points on the position twelve months ago, while only 42% opted for ‘Britain having full control over immigration from Europe, but British businesses no longer having free access to trade with the EU’, down five points.
But even if it is the case that public opinion is more inclined now to prioritise access to free trade than it was twelve months ago, given all the other polling evidence we have cited here we certainly cannot assume that this is a recent development, occasioned by the election campaign.
But perhaps what above all still needs to be borne in mind is that the balance of opinion on this topic depends heavily on how the question is asked. For example, when in early May Lord Ashcroft presented respondents with a zero to ten scale that was labelled at one end as ‘securing access to the EU single market at all costs’ and at the other as ‘being able to control immigration at all costs’, as many as 47% gave themselves a score that placed them closer to the control of immigration end of the scale, while just 29% put themselves closer to securing access to the single market – figures that were not dissimilar to those obtained when the question was posed both in March this year and as long ago as August of last year.
On the other hand, in a poll it conducted immediately after the election 48% told Greenberg Quinlan Rosner that ‘when negotiating Brexit the priority should be to make sure our economy doesn’t suffer from reduced trade with Europe’ while only 39% opted for ‘when negotiating Brexit the priority should be to make sure we can control immigration’.
Equally, Survation found that 55% back a ‘soft Brexit, not involving the single market and customs union’ while only 35% prefer a ‘hard Brexit, involving leaving the EU single market and customs union’. Doubtless avoiding damage to the economy or having a ‘soft’ Brexit sounded more attractive than securing access to the single market.
Equally it should be borne in mind too that many voters do not accept that the UK should be faced with a choice between being in the single market and being able to control immigration. As many as 39% recently told YouGov that the UK should be able to enjoy tariff-free trade and control immigration, much as 40% did in March. It is thus, perhaps, unsurprising that attitudes should be sensitive to exactly how the choice about Brexit is framed.
No Deal and a Second Referendum
One of the most widely quoted passages of the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in January was her claim that ‘no deal would be better than a bad deal’, suggesting that the UK government might walk away from the talks with the EU if the proposed terms of withdrawal were thought too harsh. But how much support does this proposition have now that the election is over?
In truth, this is a subject above all where the answers obtained by polls depend on how the question is asked. If voters are asked directly whether they agree or disagree with the Prime Minister’s claim, they are more inclined to agree than disagree. YouGov have done this on three occasions. Most recently at the beginning of May, they found that 48% agreed with the proposition while just 20% disagreed, figures that were little different from the two previous readings. Opinium did much the same thing at the end of June, and found that 40% agreed and just 26% disagreed.
However, if the prospect of no deal is divorced from Mrs May’s soundbite, a very different picture emerges. Just after the election Survation reported that as many as 66% believe that leaving the EU without ‘a mutually agreed deal’ would be bad for Britain, while just 26% reckon it would be good for the country. Meanwhile, in May ComRes found that 47% agreed with the proposition that ‘Britain should not leave the EU without a Brexit deal in place first, even if this undermines our negotiating position’, while only 32% disagreed.
Perhaps the best sense to make of this seemingly contradictory evidence is that the Prime Minister’s statement is a truism. Who, after all, would like the UK to emerge with a supposedly ‘bad’ deal? Meanwhile, the public appear to be inclined to the view that we should at least be willing to walk away from the talks, if necessary. At the time of the manifesto launches 40% told YouGov that it was a ‘wrong priority’ to rule out the possibility of leaving the EU without a trade deal, while just 31% reckoned it was a good idea. However, that does not mean that the public are keen on leaving without a deal – not least perhaps because they are inclined to the view that doing so would not be in the UK’s interest. According to Panelbase, 38% reckon that the UK has more to lose if no Brexit deal is reached, while just 28% feel the EU would come off worse.
Ever since the EU referendum in June of last year most polls that have asked people whether there should be some kind of second referendum on Brexit have found relatively little enthusiasm for the idea. For the most part, this still continues to be the case. YouGov have addressed the issue in a number of different ways during and since the general election, and in each case have found clear majorities opposed to the idea (see here, here and here). Survation have also obtained much the same result since the election, with 36% saying there should be a second referendum and 55% not.
It is thus somewhat curious that Survation have also reported since the election the results of other polling that suggests that public opinion is evenly balanced on the issue, with, most recently, 46% supportive of the idea and 47% opposed. Again, however, wording could well be crucial.
Survation’s question that has elicited a rather higher level of support for a second referendum asks whether people they would support or oppose ‘holding a second EU referendum to allow the public to vote on a Brexit deal when the details are known’ – the elaboration in the text that a second referendum would involve giving the public a vote perhaps makes the idea rather more attractive than it seems when people are simply asked whether there should be a referendum or not.
So far, then, we have found at most only limited evidence that public attitudes towards Brexit have changed in the wake of the general election. However, this proves not to be the case when it comes to the public’s confidence in the ability of the Prime Minister and the government to deliver Brexit. This has, in truth, taken a severe knock.
Opinium tracked regularly during the election campaign how well people felt that the Prime Minister was thought to be handling the process of leaving the EU. On 19-20 April, immediately after the election was called, no less than 49% said they approved of her performance, while just 26% said they disapproved.
The figures were, in truth, still relatively good for the Prime Minister immediately before polling day when as many as 42% still said they approved and only 34% that they disapproved. However, now that the election is over – and been ‘lost’ by the Prime Minister – only 32% approve and 41% disapprove.
On this measure, at least, confidence in the Prime Minister’s abilities is now even lower than it was before her Lancaster House speech (which served to boost the Prime Minister’s reputation on Brexit). Much the same picture is painted by ORB’s regular monthly polls on Brexit, the most recent of which finds that just 34% are confident that the Prime Minister will get the right deal for Britain, while 43% are not confident.
Meanwhile, ever since last autumn YouGov have regularly been asking their respondents how well they think the government has been doing at negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. Now just 24% think it is doing well, while as many as 51% believe it is doing badly. In contrast, when the election was called, rather more (40%) thought it was doing well that reckoned it was performing badly (35%).
Again, evaluations are now at least as negative as they were before the Lancaster House speech. Meanwhile, ORB report that 56% now disapprove of the way the government is handling the negotiations, while only 44% approve. This represents a ten-point swing against the government as compared with the figures just before the election.
Britain may not have significantly changed its mind about what it wants from Brexit in the wake of the election, but it is certainly now much less confident in the ability of Theresa May and her government to deliver the Brexit they want. That, ironically, appears to be the key legacy of an election that was meant to strengthen the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand in her talks with Brussels.
By Professor John Curtice, research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured on WhatUKthinksEU.