Voters’ Half-Time Brexit Judgment: Not Going Well, But Little Change of Heart

Posted on 6 December 2017 by John Curtice

It has been an eventful few months since we last reported (in March) any new research of our own on attitudes towards Brexit. At the end of March the government gave formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave the EU. In April, the Prime Minister called an election in the hope of securing a landslide that would help her deliver her vision of Brexit – only to lose her majority entirely in the ballot in June. Soon thereafter the negotiations with the EU about the terms of the UK’s withdrawal finally got under way, only for the EU to declare in October that insufficient progress had been made on the phase 1 issues for the talks to proceed to phase 2 on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

All in all, plenty for the electorate to absorb.  Meanwhile we are now just over half-way between the date of the EU referendum and the date the UK is due to leave the EU – 29 March 2019. It thus seems a good time to assess what voters have been making of it all. Today, we issue a new report that does just that. We look in particular at two issues. First, how well do voters think the negotiations are being handled, and what do they now think is the likely outcome of the Brexit process? Second, is there any sign that the experience of recent months has changed voters’ views about the kind of Brexit the UK should be seeking – or, indeed, about the merits of leaving in the first place?

Our evidence comes from two further waves of interviews with members of NatCen’s unique random probability mixed mode panel. The first of these two waves was undertaken in July, just after the election, the second in October, by which time the negotiations were well under way. In both cases, just under 2,200 respondents completed the survey, representing just over 60% of all those who were invited to participate. Between them these two rounds of interviewing update and extend the picture painted by two previous waves of interviewing conducted last autumn and in February of this year and on which we reported here and here.

Our new data point to two important conclusions. First, voters, including not least those who voted Leave in the EU referendum, have become more critical of the way the negotiations are being handled and more pessimistic about what the consequences of Brexit will be. However, and second, this development has apparently not changed the balance of public opinion on what the eventual shape of Brexit should be.

On some of our measures the increase in pessimism about the Brexit process has been quite marked. For example, back in February, one in three voters thought the UK would get a ‘good deal’ out of the negotiations with the EU.  Now a little under one in five (19%) hold that view. Equally, whereas in February 41% thought the UK government was handling the Brexit talks badly, now as many as 61% express that opinion.

On other measures the change has not been so sharp – but still points in the same direction.  In February 46% thought that the economy would be worse off as a result of leaving the EU. Now over half (52%) feel that will be the case.  In July 59% reckoned it was ‘very’ or ‘quite’ likely that there would continue to be free trade between the UK and the EU; now only a half (50%) anticipate that will be the outcome of the talks.

It might be thought these trends are primarily the result of Remain voters becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Brexit process. However, this is not what has happened. Rather, pessimism has become much more widespread amongst those who voted Leave.

The proportion of Leave voters who think the UK will secure a good deal out of Brexit has fallen from 51% on February to just 28% now. At the same time, only 21% of Leave voters think the UK government has handled the Brexit negotiations well, down from 42% in February.

Nevertheless, the balance of public opinion on what kind of Brexit the UK should be seeking has not changed markedly during the course of this year. As many as 64% still think that ‘people from the EU who want to come to live here’ should have ‘to apply to do so in the same way as people from outside the EU’, only slightly down on the 68% who backed this provision in February. Above all, at 53%, the proportion who think we should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow freedom of movement for EU citizens in return for securing free trade with the EU is no higher than the 54% who expressed that view in February.

Meanwhile, although our latest survey points to a two-point swing in favour of Remain as compared with how our panellists voted in the EU referendum, that swing is also no higher than it was in February. Moreover, most of the swing is a consequence of Leave voters being more likely to say they would abstain and of those who did not vote in 2016 being more likely to say that they would now vote Remain rather than a product of Leave voters now saying they would switch in favour of Remain.

Between them our two key findings point to an important lesson – it should not be presumed that growing disappointment and discontent with the Brexit process (of which there already seems to be plenty) will necessarily persuade voters to change their minds about the kind of Brexit the UK should be seeking, or their view about the wisdom of leaving the EU in the first place. So far, at least, voters seem inclined to blame the actors in the Brexit process for their perceived failure to be delivering what voters want rather than draw the conclusion that the act of leaving is misguided. A difficult Brexit could simply prove politically costly for Mrs May and her beleaguered government rather than a catalyst for a change of heart amongst the public about Brexit.

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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

12 thoughts on “Voters’ Half-Time Brexit Judgment: Not Going Well, But Little Change of Heart

  1. I wish people would stop being asked whether they want “a second referendum”. This is interpreted as meaning “Would you like a re-run of the 2016 EU referendum?” i.e. a referendum in which the question is repeated and campaigners for LEAVE would use the same tactics.
    The question that any patriot who isn’t an extreme Brexiteer would like to see asked is whether the terms the govt has got should be ratified, or whether the trade deal the govt has got should be accepted. Whatever the Prime Minister may have said, it will only be when the terms are known that it will be known what Brexit means. And it’s whether “the people” want to go ahead with it meaning what it does that needs to be determined.Report

  2. Sadly, I listen to most of the debates in Parliament and I think the dissatisfaction can be put down entirely to Labour. They have chosen to attack the government no matter what, and as the Government delivers, they (Labour) move even more to the remain side. So because they have the loudest voice on the BBC and social media; I am completely shocked that the results stated in this article are still holding up at all. I think labour have now actually decided to remain, but of course cant tell their voters (nor their leader – Corbyn) that is the case, so they dress it up by hammering on about staying in the customs union and the single market and the BBC don’t point this out, except on an occasional Daily Politics show. I think in any referendum where both sides had equal air time Leave would still win but with an increased majority. Who knew so many people hated democracy in this country. I think the knew Mantra should be ‘Brexit – despite Labour’Report

    1. Mystifying. Labour supported Remain and over 60% of Labour voters supported Remain. This poll suggests that nobody’s views have moved that far, so yes obviously there is a large group of Labour supporters who are very unhappy with the outcome and very worried about how it will affect our economic future. Report

  3. I think May is doing a very bad job with these negotiations. I am in favour of just leaving and get on with dealing with the EU on WTO terms. That would offer clarity to everyone..

    This talk of staying in the single market and under ECJ jurisdiction is a joke. Under that scenario we would have to accept their terms without having a say in them. That would also do real damage to any trade agreements we try to make with non EU countries.

    Sir James Dyson already deals with the EU countries and others on WTO terms and is very successful. So why can’t other companies do the same? From what I can tell we’d likely only be hit by some 3% tarrif difference under WTO rules so what’s the problem with that?

    I’m afraid the May has proved to be a loser and simply doesn’t understand the view of the British people. She is being bullied by the EU and she needs to stop being intimidated by them.

    I mean why on earth did we accept phase 1 to be about a divorce bill, Ireland and Immigration. Surely all that should be done after free trade talks get going?Report

    1. James Dyson took EU money to subsidise building a factory in the UK and as soon as the qualifying period was over moved it to Singapore. How can you trust the word of someone like that? He doesn’t care about British jobs – he cares about maximum profit for himself.Report

  4. A month or two ago I wrote to my local Tory MP, advising him that if May did not lead the country to a clean break with the EU, then they could kiss their backside good-bye to ever receiving my vote again.

    Last year the question asked on the ballot paper was ‘Should the UK remain a member of the EU, or leave the EU’? David Cameron’s leaflet stated, ‘This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide’. Britain voted to leave, and – to retain the credibility of both British democracy and the Conservative party – the Tory government must give substance to its own words.

    True, the EU’s conduct has been at best, difficult and detached, and at worst, downright dishonest and deplorable…….as has the scheming of the likes of the most senior civil servants, Mandelson, Blair, Clegg, Starmer & co., whose every utterance has been supported by the BBC, academics and think tanks. The government has a stinkingly egregious array of forces aligned against it.

    That said, the British people respect strong leadership – where is it?

    Brexit involves uncertainties; but not leaving the EU cleanly would definitely be a disaster…….the lack of faith in the political class would be difficult to repair, especially after 5yrs of a Momentum-inspired government.


  5. But one would have expected opoinion to rally behind the result of the referendum. That, indeed, is what most politicians, the government and the PM have done. So, if some have shifted to accepting/backing Leave, but the polls show the same split as before, there must be an equal number who have shifted the other way: Leave voters who already have their doubts. There are likely to be more as the chaos, confusion and costs of Brexit continue to fill the headlines Report

  6. I think those who voted leave have become resigned that they are not going to get what it said on the ballot paper. Leavers are less likely to vote Conservative next time – unless there is a sharp change of direction.Report

  7. Of course the more negative a view of how negotiations are going, the less satisfactory a deal people may expect and the less favourably they see the economic prospects, the more determined leave voters may become leave the EU. Firstly they will blame the EU for their gloomier view of the prospects and, secondly, it will re-enforce their hostility towards the EU and belief in the EU’s hostility to us and that membership of the EU is not in our interests. Report

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