Brexit – it’s a public opinion stalemate

Parliament cannot reach a consensus on Brexit, nor it would seem can the public. We are at stalemate. Here is summation of polling analysis from Professor John Curtice, Senior Fellow of UK in a Changing Europe, with a few thoughts from me.

I have just caught up with John Curtice’s analysis of polling data about public attitudes towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It makes interesting reading. (see: https://ukandeu.ac.uk/research-papers/public-attitudes-towards-a-no-deal-brexit/)

Leaving without a deal appears to be relatively popular among those who voted Leave, an acceptable course of action for between two-thirds and three-quarters of them. Those that voted Remain take a very different view, with only one in eight supporting such an outcome.

Overall those who oppose a ‘no deal’ Brexit seem slightly the more numerous. One reason why, according to John Curtice, is that on balance those who didn’t vote in 2016 are more likely to oppose than support a ‘no deal’ Brexit; though many do not express an opinion either way.

But is it an outcome that people would accept in certain circumstances? Apparently not, but what might make a difference is where responsibility is thought to lie if we do leave without a deal. Voters are more likely to react favourably to ‘no deal’ if the fault lies with the EU rather than if they think the UK government has at least some responsibility for what has happened. Where responsibility is shared then half would be opposed and only 38% would support ‘no deal’, but if fault clearly lies with the EU then support for ‘no deal’ would rise to 46% with only 39% opposing.

Parliament has spent considerable time, debating and voting on alternative deals and way forwards but has not reached a consensus, save that ‘no deal’ is not popular amongst MPs. But when ‘no deal’ is pitted against delaying Brexit yet further or simply cancelling it altogether, these considerations do seem to make a difference to public opinion but only in certain circumstances. In the event that the House of Commons cannot agree a deal rather more people would back leaving without a deal that opt for another referendum (47% to 41%) while other polls show much lower support for remaining in the EU (28%) or delaying Brexit (13%) than a ‘no deal’ exit (45%).

However, rather lower levels of support for ‘no deal’ are obtained if voters are simply asked to choose from a number of possible outcomes (‘no deal’, Mrs May’s deal, a softer Brexit involving staying in the single market and the customs union and remaining in the EU) without any reference made to their timing or how the choice might arise. In each case leaving the EU without a deal was by far the most popular of the Brexit options for leaving the EU. But only securing the support of a little less than three in ten of all voters (28%), including fewer than three in five of those who backed Leave (57%). In contrast support for a ‘no deal’ outcome from those with voted Remain in 2016 remains rooted to the floor regardless of the alternative conclusions to the Brexit process.

Maybe support for ‘no deal’ might grow should the UK government continue to argue the case for doing so? Yes, voters have become a little more inclined to the view that leaving without a deal would be a good outcome, but its marginal and was seen more in the weeks leading up to the original 31 March Brexit day, than since. There hasn’t been a Boris effect.

Leave voters appear less concerned about the consequences of a ‘no deal’ than those who voted Remain. Part based on their optimism about the future, part on their acceptance of the economic turbulence that might result. Remain voters take polar opposite view. Its only when it comes to looking at the UK’s longer term future, does their pessimism gets balanced out by their optimism.

As to my own conclusions I do not think politicians, whatever view they may hold towards Brexit, can really claim that the public are shifting in their direction. We are at a public opinion stalemate which a second referendum seems unlikely to shift. While the Prime Ministers’ apparent strategy of ‘going for a deal’ and blaming the EU if we don’t get one, might make a difference this will only be marginal and certainly not enough to start bringing the country together, as he has promised to do. And cancelling Brexit? Well I am sure that will make things worse, even though it might feel otherwise at this time for those among us who just want an end to it all.

I only hope someone is preparing for life after Brexit, because certainly the establishment didn’t prepare for it, and the one thing which is certain is that whatever the outcome there will be much to do to bring our country together and to strengthen our economy for whatever the future that lies ahead of us.

Mark Upton is a freelance consultant on public policy and public affairs.

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