What Might Lead Voters To Change Their Minds About Brexit?

Posted on 5 September 2018 by John Curtice

The Brexit negotiations are coming to a crunch. By the end of the year (if not sooner), the UK and the EU need to agree the legal text of the treaty that will give effect to the UK’s withdrawal, together with the outline of an agreement as to what the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU should be. When the negotiations are concluded, voters will decide whether they think the deal (if any) is good or bad and thus, perhaps whether  they think Brexit should still be pursued or not – and how they react may well influence the view taken by MPs, whose consent to the outcome of the talks will be required and seemingly cannot be taken for granted.

But what considerations and arguments are likely to shape the judgement that voters will make? In particular, what aspects of the deal are likely to influence whether voters decide, in light of the outcome of the talks, that leaving the EU is, after all, a good idea or not? Today we publish a new analysis paper that addresses this question. Based on the latest in a series of surveys on attitudes towards Brexit that we have conducted during the course of the last two years, it identifies what considerations have so far persuaded some voters to change their minds about Brexit – and what seems to persuade those who did not vote two years ago of the relative merits of leaving or remaining in the EU.

Although it is often argued that voters are viewing Brexit through a partisan lens that means the same event or development is interpreted very differently by Remain and Leave voters, our survey shows that, in some respects at least, voters have changed their minds quite considerably about various aspects of the Brexit process over the course of the last two years. Voters seem, for example, to have become somewhat less concerned about controlling EU migration, less convinced that British companies will be able to trade freely in the EU after Brexit, and much less inclined to believe that the UK will secure a good deal from the negotiations. Moreover, while they might, perhaps, have reached these conclusions for different reasons, these patterns are just as much in evidence among Leave voters as their Remain-supporting counterparts.

However, it seems that none of these attitudes and evaluations are having much impact on voters’ continued willingness to back Leave or Remain, or on the preference for staying or leaving now expressed by those who did not vote two years ago. Rather, what matters above all in both cases is what voters think the economic consequences of Brexit will be.

Over 90% of those voters who voted Remain in June 2016 and who think that Britain’s economy will get worse as a result of Brexit say that they would vote the same way again in a second referendum. Equally, over 90% of those who backed Leave two years ago and who think the economy will be better off in the wake of Brexit state that they would vote Leave again. In short, hardly anyone who endorses ‘their’ side’s economic argument has changed their mind.

However, these figures fall off quite markedly among those who take a different view of the economics of Brexit. Only around three-quarters of those Remain voters who think that leaving the EU will not make much difference to the economy say they would vote Remain again, while the equivalent figure among Leave voters is much the same. Meanwhile, less than half of those Remain voters who are now of the view that Britain’s economy will be better off as a result of Brexit would vote the same way, while the same is true of Leave supporters who believe the economy will be worse off.

Compare this picture, for example, with the one that we obtain if we look at the link between voters’ willingness to vote the same way again and their perceptions of how good or bad a deal Britain will obtain from the Brexit process. Again, at least 90% of Remain voters who think Britain will secure a bad deal and 90% of Leave voters who reckon the country will obtain a good one say that they would vote the same way again. But even among Remain voters who think Britain might win a good deal, around two-thirds would still vote Remain again, while no less than three-quarters of those who voted Leave and think there deal will be a bad one would still vote the same way – not least because in many cases they are inclined to blame the EU for this prospect. In short, voters’ perceptions of the kind of deal Britain will get are much less sharply linked to the probability that they would vote the same way again than are their evaluations of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Much the same is true of those who did not vote in the 2016 referendum (some of whom, of course, were too young to vote in 2016). Around seven in ten of those abstainers who think the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit say they would now vote Remain, while seven in ten who think the economy will be better off state that they would vote Leave. In contrast, while around two-thirds of those abstainers who think Britain will secure a bad deal say they would vote Remain, well under half of those who think the country will obtain a good deal indicate that they would vote Remain.

The relative importance of the perceived economic consequences of leaving the EU in shaping voters’ attitudes towards the merits or otherwise of Brexit is potentially a disadvantage for the Leave side in the battle for public opinion. While four in five Remain voters think that the economy would be worse off as a result of Brexit, only around half of Leave voters reckon it will be better off – a proportion that has also fallen somewhat over the last two years. Equally, over a half of those who abstained in 2016 believe that the economy will be worse off while only around one in five feel it will be better off. Between them these two patterns help explain why, according to our survey, Leave voters appear somewhat less likely than Remain voters to say that they would vote the same way again, and why those who did not vote in 2016 are now more likely to say that they would vote Remain rather than Leave.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the debate about the economic consequences of Brexit has apparently been playing a central role in shaping the turnover of support for Remain and Leave since the June 2016 referendum, such as it is. After all, how people voted in that referendum reflected their view of the economic consequences of leaving the EU more than it did any other single consideration – and not least of the reasons why Remain lost that referendum is that, at the time of the referendum, only around two-fifths of voters thought Britain’s economy would lose out as a result of leaving the EU. Meanwhile, while the credit or blame for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations can be laid at the door of the UK government and/or the EU, responsibility for what Brexit might mean for the economy is, perhaps, less easily attributed to how well one or other side has conducted itself in the negotiations. Instead the perceived economic consequences of Brexit reflect rather more directly on the merits of staying in or leaving the EU in the first place. Consequently, in the midst of the doubtless sometimes fierce arguments in the coming weeks about what should and should not form part of the Brexit agreement and how well or badly the government (and the EU) are handling the negotiations, we should bear in mind that it is what voters make of the economics of whatever deal is reached that is most likely to determine whether, at the conclusion of the negotiations, a majority of them still want to leave the EU or whether the balance of opinion has swung in the opposite direction.

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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.

18 thoughts on “What Might Lead Voters To Change Their Minds About Brexit?

  1. I suspect that the last vote was for Brexit was because the gloves came off in the political debate – and it broke taboos – like criticising immigration, debating (in some spheres) whether we wanted to continue to be as “liberal” all round, when such freedoms were at the expense of tax payers and selectively distributed, and a critique Britain’s place in the world, There was a certain shock factor from the rawness of the debate. For instance, any accusation of “racism” meant little any more: it was just a slur, a tactic..

    While the Remainers accused Leavers of lies and spin, at times with good cause, then the same accusations were being made and carried weight e.g. the amount of uncontrolled immigration, the cost of immigration, the impact on NHS waiting lists etc and the appalling debts in Southern Europe and the prospect of our bailing them out; all “hidden” or not discussed at least by the BBC.

    Without the debate, the pro Remain BBC will continue to play out stories that gently influence us back to being pro-Remain.But if the gloves came off again – and people were reacquainted with the link between the EU, immigration, the NHS, crime, green belt loss, wage pressures etc, I think it would lead to another Leave victory.

    This time though I think it would be uglier and a more right wing Tory party. I personally wanted us to Leave (in the end) but collectively create the country to relfect a new less-elitist/pro liberal consensus in the EU’s place.Report

  2. I think the continued inflexibility and lack of pragmatism within the EU governing bodies over the last 24months and before, is a constant reminder of why the majority of the UK people voted to leave in the first place. Whatever your view is on migration or the way the EU has handled the EU economy or the impact this will have on the NHS, the fact remains that it serves the interests of the few and is incapable of adjusting and adapting its dogma. At least if we are out, we are the ones making the decisions. I find it astounding Remainers choose to ignore this. We have seen the EUs inability to engage in any constructive dialogue throughout this process. No wonder their track record in cutting new trade deals is so pitifully poor. They seem more intent in teaching the UK a punitive lesson. What do the Remainers and the EU have to offer – more of the same – those of us that voted to leave want change, and the self-determination to lead it.Report

  3. Sometime, it helps to get things into perspective, just by doing the numbers. According to Fullfact, total annual trade across the Irish border, adding both directions, is about five billion Pounds, or about six billion euros.

    By comparison, that’s about half a percent of total UK trade, and if you want economic probles, this year alone, Italy added over six billion euros in new debt, while since 2008, the Italian economy has contracted by about four *hundred* billion euros. These are issues of quite diferent scales.

    That says to me that the Irish border has become a pretext for the EU. It is not important in itself, but it can be used as a symbolic issue to block progress. And blocking progress past the end of October implies a no-deal Brexit. In fact it is hard to see how the EU-27 can climb down from their comments yesterday. It would be too implausible for them to “discover” that the Irish border isn’t a serious issue after all. Can the EU really say “Just kidding” between now and October?

    So the important thing here, as far as the actual negotiations are concened, is not that Boris and Farage would prefer a no-deal Brexit, but that the EU-27 seem about to force a no-deal Brexit.

    Looking past that, the only plausible motive I can think of is that they believe that they can cause trade chaos around a no-deal Brexit, and that although it will cause their trade more actual harm than it will ours, they think that the *proportional* harm it will do to the UK will force us to back down and rejoin the EU.

    FWIW, I think they are taking a huge risk, since in a crisis the UK population tends to come together, and if the EU is perceived to have deliberately done significant and gratuitous harm to the UK, for no gain to itself, the UK will not back down, but it will poison UK-EU relations for a generation.Report

  4. If, as many people suggest, there should be a second referendum vote on the the outcome of negotiations with the EU, surely the two questions asked should be: do we accept the Chequers Agreement, or do we just fall out the EU with no deal. It would be interesting to see the result of that vote.Report

  5. Size is not everything as the IMF and many others would have you believe.

    A focus on training our own children to fill our need for doctors, nurses and other skilled workers would greatly improve opportunity and quality of life for them, particularly if operated in conjunction with a controlled but enlightened approach to immigration.

    An irony of the young lambasting the old for their bias to vote Leave is that these are the former young who bought into the promise of globalisation and the EU three decades ago.

    GDP is a rather random measure of an economy’s size. What really matters is how much of the pie each of us gets, not simply growing the pie.

    The young need to understand that: The old learned it the hard way,Report

  6. Am I the only one who has noticed the coordinated wave of scare stories this week? There are some interesting things to notice. They are not about Brexit itself, but specifically about a no-deal Brexit. Folks with public recognition, such as Carney, are making very hyperbolic noises about no-deal Brexit – as bad as 2008, indeed? – while other people – the Guardian, for example – are claiming that in the event of no-deal, the EU would allow asteroids to fall on the UK without bothering to warn us. As if we are incapable of spotting falling asteroids ourselves, and as if the EU could stop a falling asteroid anyway.

    So, if I read this right, Brexit itself is in the bag, and it’s Chequers versus no-deal that is the big panic fight of the day. Now you could argue, and some credible people are, that no-deal would be better for the UK economy than Chequers – barring some short term chaos with no sandwiches and asteroids falling all over the place, and so on – so why the panic push for Chequers?

    I think that the answer is that even if no-deal could be better for the economy, or just as good, it would be a huge electoral risk. Labour tends to think of economics in zero-sum terms, so even if a no-deal Brexit would be good for business in the long term, that means it must be worse for workers. The risk for May in a no-deal Brexit is not so much economic as that it would open her up to all sorts of accusations about a “Bosses’ Brexit”, and losing all those valuable “rights” the EU gave us, plus the NHS continuing its forty year “collapse”. Just the sort of thing that could lose May the next election.

    So the next step will presumably be a hysterical push for Chequers, even if it takes Labour votes to compensate for the loss of Conservative rebel votes, independent of whether Chequers is actually a better deal. Oh, and if we get Chequers with Labour votes, we could then see a conservative split *and* a Labour split.Report

    1. I remember when the doom-and-gloom merchants predicted that it could take 10 years for the world economy to recover from the 2008 crash – well it ain’t happened yet!

  7. Mark Rutter, PM of the Netherlands, said that Benelux, Sweden & Germany were worried that they would both have to take most of non EU immigrants & pay the greater share of EU debt.

    When I heard this I thought the only way Britain would get a good deal with EU is to offer to pay more into EU + take more non EU immigrants.

    I think this is a good idea, though it might be that Brexiteers voted so that Britain would pay less to EU & take less non EU immigrants.

    I do not think we will get a good deal with EU.Report

    1. “When I heard this I thought the only way Britain would get a good deal with EU is to offer to pay more into EU + take more non EU immigrants.”

      That’s a bit confused. Free movement applies to EU immigrants, not non-EU immigrants. Non-EU immigrants – for example immigrants from the Commonwealth – apply directly to the UK for admission, and the EU isn’t involved.Report

  8. If there is a solid, switch to public support for staying in the EU, the government must respect that. How stupid would we look as a nation implementing economically damaging measures, on the sole grounds that it was the will of the people, when it obviously isn’t the will of the people any longer.Report

    1. And if opinion then swings back towards Exit, does the Government have to respect that? Do we phone Barnier every morning to tell him whether we are or are not interested in negotiating that day?

      Why don’t we do this the simple way? Complete the negotiations and let Parliament vote on the result.Report

      1. Because on this subject, and it is rather an important one, Parliament does not represent the people.
        I accept a vote going against me, when I am the minority, but wouldn’t accept a representative making a decision for me that appeared to go against what the majority mandate that told him or her what to do? Report

        1. Parliament *never* represented the people on the subject of Brexit, because both main parties were officially pro-EU. That was the entire point of holding a referendum. It was to give the people a choice on an important issue on which they had previously been consistently disenfranchised.

          Cameron’s solution was to offer a one-off referendum, an offer that was endorsed by Parliament by a six to one margin.

          But the referendum had no legal force. It was advisory only. Yet both major parties now have an official policy of respecting *that* referendum vote, and the Bills to withdraw from the EU have received majority support, while amendments to hold a second referendum have been defeated in Parliament by large majorities.

          Parliament made us an offer and it has delivered on the offer it made. Parliament offered a one-time vote, and that’s what we got. It did not offer to track every twitch in public opinion on a month by month basis. It did not even offer to tell us how the negotiations were going on a continuous basis.

          So what happens next is simple. This Autumn, the Government make the best deal they can with the EU – which might end up being none – and then Parliament votes on the outcome.

          This is how all legislation works. You vote for a Parliament – or in this case for Brexit – but you do not get to second-guess Parliament, because until the next General Election what happens depends on who can commend a majority in Parliament, not on who holds opinion polls.Report

  9. Maybe they can have another referendum on using Art 49 to re-enter in 2057. 41 years seems to be the frequency with which we are consulted.Report

        1. No, obviously, you don’t have to assume that. Since England is 85% of the population, if England itself was to apply for EU re-entry in 2057, then the rest of what is currently the UK would have to enter on the same day on the same terms, just as the Republic of Ireland had to make a “me too” carbon copy entry back in 1973.Report

  10. Yes, when the negotiations are completed, the voters will decide if they like the agreement that has been hammered out. Then they will watch a debate on the BBC and some will change their minds. Then they will hear some new thing they never heard before, some prices changing, for example, or something to do with FIFA, or an eminent scientist talking outside his area of expertise, or a comment about medicines for a sick relative, and some will change their minds yet again. After a few weeks, some will have changed their minds, some will not, and some will be unable to remember whether they have changed their minds or not.

    This is pretty much why you should consult the public only at intervals, always after a long discussion period, always after emphasizing that it’s an important, one-off, vote. As for General Elections, so for Referendums.

    In between these rare public consultations, the Cabinet with input from the Civil Service makes the detailed day-to-day decisions, and if it wants to be respected it does not flap in the breeze with every opinion poll. If it then loses an important vote in Parliament, we go back to the polls.

    Importantly, if it wants to negotiate with foreign powers, it certainly should not dodge around trying to track public opinion, because no-one can negotiate with a moving target.

    What some percentage of people think or have thought is good or bad for the economy is interesting, but the really important issue is getting an agreement, or just possibly a no-deal, so that companies know where they are and can plan. Compared to that, tracking every twitch and blip in public opinion is diverting, but pretty pointless.Report

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