Making social science accessible

John Curtice unpacks the recent drop in support for re-joining the EU, highlighting a swing among those who do not think Brexit has made much difference to Britain’s economy or its control over its own affairs.

UK in a Changing Europe’s Redfield & Wilton Brexit tracker polls can be found here, and the data tables can be downloaded here.

The latest poll from Redfield and Wilton Strategies for UK in a Changing Europe shows something of a drop in support for re-joining the EU. Once those who say ‘don’t know’ or indicate that they would not vote are left aside, 56% now say they would vote to re-join, while 44% state they would back staying out. That represents a three-point swing in favour of staying out as compared with the previous poll in October – and indeed as much as a five-point switch since that undertaken in August.

On its own this movement might be thought somewhat inconsequential. Perhaps it could be no more than the product of the random variation to which all polls and surveys are subject. However, it is not an isolated finding. Most other polls have recorded a fall in support for re-joining in recent weeks.

In their last two polls, Omnisis/WeThink, who ask people every week how they would vote in another Brexit ballot, have put support for re-join at 57-58%. In contrast, four of the five readings they took in November put the figure at 60%. Deltapoll, who also poll on the subject every week, now suggest that only 52-53% would vote to re-join. In November their average was 57%. Meanwhile, in their latest monthly reading BMG put staying out narrowly ahead, by 51% to 49%. This represented a swing of three points against re-joining and was the first poll since May 2022 to put staying out ahead.

Are there, then, any clues in the finer details provided by the Redfield & Wilton poll as to why re-joining may have become somewhat less popular?

The swing appears to have occurred irrespective of how people voted in 2016. Table 1 shows the relationship between how people voted (or did not vote) in 2016 both in October and in our latest poll. As compared with two months ago, those who voted Remain in 2016 are now three points more likely to say they would vote to stay out. Equally, those who backed Leave are three points less likely to state they would vote to re-join. Meanwhile, support for staying out has increased by as much as eight points among those who did not vote seven years ago.

Table 1: Current EU preference by 2016 referendum vote, October and December 2023

October 2023 December 2023
2016 Vote 2016 Vote
Remain Leave Did not vote Remain Leave Did not vote
Current Preference % % % % % %
Re-join 80 22 51 79 19 53
Stay out 12 70 18 15 72 26
Don’t know etc 8 8 31 6 9 20

Note: Data not weighted by reported likelihood of voting.

Yet there is little sign of any marked change in voters’ evaluations of the consequences of Brexit. Table 2 shows, for the three key issues in the 2016 Brexit debate, the economy, sovereignty, and immigration, how voters regard those consequences now and two months ago. Also included is how voters view Brexit’s impact on the handling of the pandemic, an issue which we have previously shown has some influence on Leave voters’ current Brexit preferences.

The figures for the two months are very similar to each other. There is certainly no consistent evidence that the consequences of Brexit have come to be regarded more favourably in recent weeks. Voters are still inclined to believe that, thanks to Brexit, immigration is higher and that the economy has suffered, while they are divided on whether or not it has given Britain more control over its own affairs.

Table 2: Evaluations of the consequences of Brexit, October and December 2023

October 2023 December 2023
Better Similar Worse Better Similar Worse
Control over own affairs 34 23 31 34 23 31
Influence in world 18 26 43 19 27 43
Economy 21 18 49 20 20 48
Cost of living 57 21 12 55 21 13
EU immigration 20 24 40 19 25 42
Non-EU immigration 14 24 46 14 22 49
Response to pandemic 28 28 30 28 27 30

Note that in the case of immigration, ‘higher’ has been classified as ‘worse’.

If how people would vote in another referendum has changed but evaluations of the consequences of Brexit have not, there must have been a change in the relationship between people’s evaluations of Brexit and how they would vote in another referendum.

We have previously reported that, for 2016 Leave voters, statistical analysis reveals that their current Brexit preference is most strongly related to their perceived impact of Brexit on (i) Britain’s economy and (ii) how much control Britain has over its own affairs. In fact, the equivalent analysis among those who voted Remain in 2016 reveals that these two evaluations are the ones most strongly related to their current Brexit preference too. Meanwhile, the economy also appears to be the central issue for those who did not vote in 2016.

Table 3 therefore looks more closely at the relationship between people’s evaluations of the economic consequences of Brexit and how they would vote in another referendum.

Table 3: Current Brexit preference by 2016 EU referendum vote by evaluations of the economic consequences of Brexit, October and December 2023

October 2023 December 2023
Stronger Same Weaker Stronger Same Weaker
% % % % % %
Remain voters
Re-join 73 57 88 73 48 88
Stay out 19 33 7 24 42 8
Leave voters
Re-join 13 14 42 15 10 38
Stay out 84 75 49 83 86 51
Non-Voters
Re-join 45 34 69 46 33 72
Stay out 29 29 14 46 44 15

 

One striking pattern stands out. Among all three groups of voters, the swing in favour of staying out of the EU since October has been most marked among those who think the economy is in much the same state as it would have been if Brexit had not happened. In the case of 2016 Remain voters there has been a nine-point increase in support for staying out among those of that view, while among Leave supporters and non-voters the equivalent figures are 11 and 15 points respectively.

Table 4 undertakes the equivalent analysis of people’s evaluations of the impact of Brexit on Britain’s ability to control its own affairs. Here too, among 2016 Leave voters and non-voters at least, there has been a marked increase (of seven and twelve points respectively) among those who think Brexit has not made much difference, though in the case of Leave voters those who think Britain has less control are also especially less likely to say now that they would vote to re-join the EU.

Table 4: Current Brexit preference by 2016 EU referendum vote by evaluations of the impact of Brexit on Britain’s control of its own affairs, October and December 2023

October 2023 December 2023
More Same Less More Same Less
% % % % % %
Remain voters
Re-join 70 80 88 63 82 92
Stay out 23 13 6 32 12 5
Leave voters
Re-join 9 23 59 11 19 39
Stay out 87 64 38 85 71 51
Non-voters
Re-join 54 50 64 48 50 65
Stay out 30 13 18 42 25 24

 

Two implications follow.

First, it is far from certain that another referendum would produce a majority for re-joining. Despite widespread doubts about the benefits of Brexit, the anti-Brexit lead in the polls is not that large, differs between polling companies, and is far from invulnerable.

Second, much might rest in any referendum on the preferences of those who reckon Brexit has not made much difference. Seemingly many of them could yet decide it would be better for Britain to make the best of the bed it has now made for itself rather than pursuing the uncertain prospect of trying to reclaim its old one.

By John Curtice, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research, and Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde.

This post also appears on the What UK Thinks website.

The December data tables can be downloaded here.

MORE FROM THIS THEME

Core vs swing voters: unpacking Labour’s electoral dilemma

The restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland: back to the old routine?

What does the launch of Popular Conservatism mean for the Conservative Party?

Will Labour’s stance on Gaza harm its electoral prospects?

For Scotland: the SNP’s general election campaign launch

Recent Articles

Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required