Britain on Brexit: Hard on the outside but soft in the middle

  • New research shows what public expects from government’s Brexit deal
  • Brexit politics: Conservative voters could prove hard to please

Voters, including many who voted for Remain, want to see freedom of movement ended when the UK leaves the EU. But in many other respects voters would like to keep the status quo. This is the key finding of a new report from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) on what voters want out of Brexit.

A clean break on freedom of movement

In a survey of 2,322 people carried out between early February and early March 2017, NatCen found that there is widespread support for a clean break on freedom of movement.

  • 82% of Leave voters want potential EU migrants to Britain to be treated in the same way as non-EU migrants. Well over half (58%) of Remain voters agree
  • Equally, 86% of Leave voters think prospective British migrants to the EU should have to go through the same hoops as non-EU migrants. More than half of Remain voters (54%) agree.
  • 77% of Leave voters don’t want EU migrants to be able to claim any welfare benefits in Britain; 51% of Remain voters agree.

While keeping some of the things they like about EU membership

However, in other respects it appears that voters want a relatively soft Brexit. For example, most Leave as well as most Remain voters think Britain should still follow EU regulations on clean beaches, mobile phone charges and airline delays.

  • Two thirds of Leave voters (67%) and 83% of Remain voters want the UK to keep EU regulations which set minimum standards for water quality at beaches
  • 67% of Leave voters and 80% of Remain voters think British mobile phone companies should have to adhere to EU regulations that limit the cost of call made while abroad.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Leave voters (64%) support requiring British-owned airlines to follow EU rules on compensating passengers who have experienced delays, as do 77% of Remain voters.

Above all, no less than 88% of Leave voters and 91% of Remain supporters wish to maintain free trade with the EU.

There is also widespread acceptance that the UK will still have to make some financial contribution to the EU Budget in return for continuing to participate in some EU-wide programmes, such as those that provide funding for university research.

  • As many as 55% of Leave voters think the UK should make a financial contribution to those EU programmes in which it is participating. Only 42% say that the UK should not make any financial contribution at all. Two thirds of Remain voters (67%) reckon the UK should help pay for the programmes in which it participates.
  • Just over half (54%) of Leave voters think that the UK should continue to participate in EU-wide university research programmes, while no less than 80% of Remain voters are of that view. The figures for Remain voters are 77% and 80%.

Report author, Prof John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen said “For the most part, Remain and Leave voters are not at loggerheads on the kind of Brexit they would like to see. Many Remain voters would like to see an end to the less popular parts of Britain’s current membership of the EU, while many Leave voters would like to retain the seemingly more desirable parts, such as free trade, cheap mobile phone calls, and clean beaches. This is perhaps typical of the pick and mix attitude to the EU that has characterised much of Britain’s relationship with the institution during its 44 years of membership so far.”

The politics of Brexit

Overall, most voters still wish to maintain free trade with the European Union (88% in favour) but end freedom of movement (68%). Such a combination is, of course, contrary to the current outlook of the EU, and could be rejected in the negotiations.

Support for this combination is most prevalent amongst Conservative supporters. They are even slightly keener than Labour voters on maintaining free trade while they are much more united in supporting ending freedom of movement.

  • As many as 93% of Conservative voters support free trade with the EU, while 81% back ending freedom of movement. Amongst Labour supporters the equivalent figures are, at 84% and 57% respectively, both rather lower.

Conservative supporters are also more divided than Labour supporters on whether the UK should concede freedom of movement in return for maintaining free trade. While 44% of Conservative voters would be willing to do such a deal, 55% would not. In contrast amongst Labour voters there is a clear majority (63%) in favour of making such a concession.

Report author, Prof John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen said: “The stance taken by the UK government of wanting to end freedom of movement but maintain free trade fits well with the views of most Conservative voters. But it also means that they are also the group that are most likely to be disappointed if they were to come to the conclusion that the government has failed to achieve that objective. Theresa May could be faced with political difficulties at home if she struggles to achieve her key objectives in Brussels.”


The findings will be published at an event in Parliament today, more detail here.

For more information, a copy of the report or to arrange an interview with Prof Curtice contact:

Leigh Marshall:, 0207 549 8506 or 07828 031850 or

Sophie Brown: 0207 549 9550 or 07734 960 069


  1. NatCen Social Research interviewed 2,322 people between 2 February and 5 March 2017, either via the internet or over the phone. All respondents were originally interviewed as part of the random probability face-to-face 2015 or 2016 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. The data have been weighted to take account of differences between the composition of the sample and that of the original BSA sample, as well as to ensure that it matches the known demographic characteristics of the population. After weighting 50% of the sample said that they had voted Leave, 50% Remain, very close to the actual result of 52% Leave, 48% Remain.
  2. NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.
  3. The ‘What UK Thinks: EU’ website can be accessed at It provides a comprehensive collection of polling and survey data on attitudes in the UK towards Europe, data on what the rest of Europe thinks about the EU, and impartial commentary and analysis on the evidence of the polls. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its initiative on ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.
  4. The UK in a Changing Europe initiative – – promotes independent, rigorous, high-quality academic research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union. It provides an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information, insights and analysis on UK-EU relations.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965 and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

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