Most people think Brexit was a mistake. Since Brexit day over 100 polls have asked “do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?” Only one, a long time ago, has recorded a majority for “right”. And, as growing numbers of leave voters begin to regret the decision, the gap is widening. In the ten polls since November, the figures average 55% for “wrong” and 42% for “right”.
However, the polling on rejoining the EU does not match. Long after Brexit day, polls continued to find similar numbers in favour of staying out and rejoining. Any difference was usually within the margin of error. Last summer, the rejoiners began to draw ahead. Although many people say they “don’t know”, rejoin has now been slowly increasing its lead for 8 months, and the last ten polls averaged 45% to rejoin and 33% to stay out. But many of those who regret the decision do not support rejoining.
The two trends are unsurprising. Some of the problems the remain campaign warned of have become visible, albeit masked by the Covid and Ukraine. Warnings about abstract issues like GDP and trade rules have been replaced by very visible damage to ordinary people’s lives. And some of the change in support for Brexit may simply reflect disillusionment at the government’s broken promises and incompetent management, rather than a specific view on our relationship with the EU.
So why don’t we want to rejoin?
So, if a majority now wish we were still in the EU, why is there no majority for rejoin? There are many possible reasons. Some are probably horrified by the idea of reopening the deep social divisions which arose around the referendum. Some think that the middle of an economic and social crisis is not the time to embark on another divisive referendum, or yet another reorganisation of laws and institutions. And, in any case, 43% of people think it unlikely that the UK will apply, compared to 30% who think we will.
Some doubt the practicality. It is clear that the terms for admission would be less generous than we had before. It would need unanimity among EU members, some of whom have long-standing issues with the UK. So negotiations would not be quick or simple. The EU would also want very clear evidence of strong popular and political support. They certainly don’t want to risk admitting us, and then seeing us change our minds again.
What do we think?
So what do we make of this confused picture? More in Common worked with pollster Public First to investigate attitudes in more depth. They offered respondents four options. Brexit was:
- a mistake, and we should consider rejoining the EU
- a mistake, but it is done now and debates about rejoining would take up too much time and energy
- not a mistake, but we need to do more to benefit from it properly
- not a mistake and we have already benefited from leaving the EU
Clearly, half the electorate think Brexit was a mistake, but many of those do not think it realistic for us to rejoin. However, it is also true that half the electorate would support staying out but with a closer working relationship, even if they disagree about whether Brexit itself was a mistake.
If “closer” would command more support than rejoin, what would it mean?
What sort of “closer”?
In December there was speculation that the government was seeking a “Swiss style” deal with the EU. The rumours were hastily denied, but the speculation prompted a number of pollsters to explore what kind of relationship might command wide support. In December, UK in a Changing Europe with Redfield & Wilton asked respondents about four specific changes.
On each of these changes, supporters easily outweigh opponents. Detailed analysis shows that more than half of those who want a closer relationship with the EU are positive about all of them. But even among those who want a more distant relationship one in three were in favour of all four.
A further poll by Public First for More in Common asked how important people thought specific policies would be in achieving a closer relationship.
Again, the supporters far outweigh the opponents. So, the two polls both suggest that there is a basis for a consensus.
A caution about questions
Poll findings should always be treated with caution and question wording is critical. When GB News, with People Polling explained some of the negative aspects of a “Swiss style” deal (like payment to the EU budget), they found 32% in favour and 28% against. By contrast, when the Observer with Opinium and YouGov both offered more positive definitions, (stressing issues like removal of trade barriers) they both found a much larger number in favour (55%) with only 20% against.
A way forward?
Britain will not try to rejoin the EU while 40% of people want to stay out. But a clear majority of them believe that the best, or perhaps most realistic, option is to build a closer relationship with the EU while remaining out of its institutions. There remains a second group of hardened “leavers” who say that they want the relationship to be as distant as possible. But this group is clearly a minority, perhaps as few as 10%, and when asked about specific issues even some of them would support changes to bring us closer together.
The clear majority regretting the Brexit decision is not, at least not yet, translating into majority support for rejoining. But support for a much closer relationship is strong and growing. We will not get our former voice in European affairs. However, the strong support across the electorate for the four policies tested by Public First suggests that negotiating more of the benefits of membership, without applying to rejoin, would be popular. It may be that Keir Starmer’s call to “make Brexit work”, which he elaborated on at the World Economic Forum this week, is tapping a real nerve in the electorate.