On June 23 2016, the UK voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU. That was the easy bit. For while it was within the Government’s gift to give people the chance to vote on our EU membership, it was not within its power to determine when or on what terms we would leave.
That depended on the rules of the EU club and, above all, on the Government’s negotiating skill.
In the event the process has proven a difficult one. Indeed, with just four weeks to go to the official exit date, the country finds itself in limbo, still unsure both when it will leave and on what terms. It is therefore hardly surprising that, during the last two and a half years, reputations have been shredded and the public become increasingly doubtful about what has been achieved.
At the outset, voters were perhaps predictably split down the middle as to whether Mrs May would get a good deal. ORB, for example, found at the end of 2016 that 36 per cent thought that Mrs May would secure “the right deal for Britain” and 36 per cent that she would not. The balance of opinion tilted in Mrs May’s favour after her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, which appeared to instil a degree of voter confidence in her Brexit strategy, but since then it has been downhill all the way.
The first blow was Mrs May’s decision to call – and then fail to win – a general election in June 2017. Immediately the number of people who were sceptical about what she would bring back from Brussels began to outnumber those who were optimistic.
The second blow was the publication of the Chequers agreement in July of last year. After that, sceptics outnumbered pessimists by more than two to one – a pattern that was simply reinforced when her deal was eventually revealed in November.
Persuading those who voted Remain that Britain was emerging with a good deal was, arguably, always going to be difficult. However, Mrs May has also lost the confidence of the very Leave voters whose instructions she is supposedly trying to fulfil.
As recently as last April many Leave supporters were willing to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. At that point, according to YouGov, 43 per cent of Leavers thought the government was handling Brexit badly but they were actually slightly outweighed by the 44 per cent who thought it was doing well.
What a difference 10 months makes. Now just 17 per cent of Leave voters think Brexit is being handled well, while no less than 75 per cent reckon it is being dealt with badly.
Around half of Leave voters now say they would prefer leaving with no deal to taking Mrs May’s deal, meaning Tory Brexiteers have not been under much pressure from Leave voters to fall in behind the Prime Minister’s efforts.
But it is not just Mrs May’s reputation that has suffered. Jeremy Corbyn has never been voters’ first choice to handle Brexit. Even in the immediate wake of the Prime Minister’s disastrous performance in the 2017 general election, Survation were finding that around half of voters trusted her more “to negotiate the best Brexit deal”, while only just over one in three preferred Mr Corbyn.
Yet despite Mrs May’s problems, voters have actually become increasingly critical of Mr Corbyn’s performance. Last summer, Opinium were reporting that just under a half of all voters said that they disapproved of Mr Corbyn’s response to Brexit. Now the figure stands at nearly two-thirds. Criticism has grown among both Labour voters who backed Remain and those who supported Leave. Mr Corbyn’s attempts to appeal to both camps have seemingly ended up satisfying neither.
This week, the Labour leader tilted his hat at his party’s Remain supporters by giving some backing to a second EU referendum. This idea has long been relatively popular among Remain supporters, around two-thirds of whom consistently express support for the idea, and Labour voters, among whom support stands at around three-fifths.
However, so far, Leave voters largely been unpersuaded by the argument that another ballot is the only way out of the impasse in which the country finds itself. Even when described as a “People’s Vote” rather than a “second referendum” – the former sounds rather more appealing – at most only around a quarter of Leave voters express support for the idea. Moreover, there is no sign that support has increased in the wake of Mrs May’s continued inability to get her deal through the Commons.
Indeed, despite their criticism of Mrs May’s deal, 83 per cent of those who voted Leave say they would vote exactly the same way again. It is then, perhaps, little wonder that few Leave voters think that the country should go to the polls again.
That said, there is one area where public opinion seems to have shifted. In the first twelve months after the referendum, YouGov typically found that the number of people saying the decision to leave was right very slightly outnumbered the number of people who said it was wrong.
Since the 2017 election the reverse has been the case – and increasingly so. Moreover, polls of how people would vote in a second referendum have long been putting Remain narrowly ahead, currently doing so by 53 per cent to 47 per cent.
But if, as we’ve seen, most Leave voters have not changed their mind, why do the polls put Remain ahead? The answer lies with those who did not vote in June 2016 – they now back Remain over Leave by more than two to one. Would they actually turn out and vote if there were another ballot? Who knows? Perhaps ascertaining the “will of the people” is not so easy either.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe project
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