The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

22 Jan 2018

Politics and Society

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn face significant challenges within their own parliamentary parties over Brexit, a new survey of MPs has found.

Almost three-quarters of Conservative MPs surveyed (74%) think it would be unacceptable for freedom of movement to continue during a transition period, while 63% oppose the European Court of Justice having jurisdiction in the UK after March 2019.

The Prime Minister suggested in her Florence speech, in September, that the UK would be prepared to accept EU rules during a transition arrangement.

On the other side of the House, 90% of Labour MPs believe single market membership is compatible with Brexit, in contrast to what Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly claimed. In this respect, Labour MPs seem more aligned with the party membership than the leadership.

A recent poll of Labour party members found 87% believe Britain should stay in the single market.

The research was conducted by Ipsos MORI in November and December 2017 on behalf of The UK in a Changing Europe together with the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London. Interviews were conducted with 105 MPs, face-to-face, and findings are weighted to reflect the composition of the House of Commons.

There has been a significant shift in position among Conservative MPs when it comes to Britain’s future membership of the single market over the last year. In December 2016, 44% of Conservative MPs felt the referendum prohibited remaining in the single market – now 76% of Conservative MPs believe this. Last year 66% of all MPs felt remaining in the single market was compatible with respecting the referendum result, now only 56% do.

While 85% of MPs support the idea that a transition is needed, there are stark differences over what this should mean in practice. Ninety per cent of Labour MPs are relaxed about a role for the ECJ in this period, and 74% accept the idea that freedom of movement will need to continue.

There is support for the two-year transition period that has been widely touted by the government. But if the government is looking for flexibility from its backbenchers, then it will struggle to find it: just 12% of Conservative MPs surveyed supported the idea that the transition period should be ‘open-ended’. Some 45% of Labour MPs feel the transition should be as long as necessary – with just 25% believing transition should be capped at two years.

The Brexit disconnect between the Labour leadership and the parliamentary party is clear. Sixty per cent of Conservative MPs felt a Conservative government with a large majority made their preferred final outcome most likely. Only 38% of Labour MPs felt the same about a large Labour majority.

Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, said: “Brexit presents a stark challenge to the leaderships of both major political parties. Their views are at odds with those of their own MPs. This promises to cause significant problems for both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

The prime minister, in particular, might face considerable opposition from her own backbenchers when it comes to securing the kind of transitional deal she has indicated she wants.”

The final deal: soft vs hard Brexit

MPs were presented with a choice between four varieties of Brexit: from the ‘softest to the hardest’: single market membership; comprehensive trade deal-(aligning with EU rules); limited trade deal; and no trade deal:

  • An overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs favour the second-softest Brexit – an agreement that meant no tariff, and a minimisation of non-tariff, barriers. This was supported by 80% of Conservative MPs; only 10% favoured a more limited trade deal
  • There is overwhelming support among Labour MPs for the single market option. But there is also significant support for a bespoke deal that keeps Britain close to the single market: 56% of Labour MPs supported retaining membership of the single market; 40% favoured a bespoke deal.

A majority of MPs (by 52-42) do not believe that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ (with 6% ‘neither agreeing nor disagreeing’). However, again, the parties diverge on this. Almost two-thirds of Conservative MPs (65%) agreed that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’; 77% of Labour MPs strongly disagreed.

Professors Tim Bale and Philip Cowley, from Queen Mary University of London, helped design and conduct the survey. Professor Bale said: “The sheer number of Tory MPs seemingly prepared to countenance crashing out of the EU without a deal is one of the most striking findings to emerge from this research.

Who knows, though, if push does come to shove, whether they really will refuse a compromise? If they do, then Theresa May could be in some serious parliamentary trouble later on this year.”

The future

In 2016, just 6% of MPs believed it was ‘very likely’ that the EU would succeed without Britain. That number has risen to 31%. Ninety per cent of Labour MPs now feel it is likely or very likely the EU will thrive in the future. In contrast, by 53-46 (1% don’t know) Conservative MPs were negative about the European Union’s prospects.

There is a significant party split on how optimistic MPs are about the future of the British economy. Conservative MPs are overwhelmingly positive, with 89% believing the economy will get better over the next decade; over 80% think the UK will be able quickly to sign trade deals with countries such as China and the US, and 54% thinking these deals will more than compensate for any loss of trade with the EU.

Forty-four per cent of Labour MPs believe the economy will get worse; only 23% forecast an improved economic situation in Britain over the next ten years, and are much less positive about the ability of the UK to sign trade deals or for those deals to compensate for any loss of trade.

In the next year, there is slightly more cross-party agreement. Only 19% of MPs believe the economy will improve in the year ahead. Just 37% of Conservative MPs forecast an immediate uptick in the economic picture.


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