Brexit Divisions: Are We Really All ‘Re-Leavers’ Now?

Kirsty Hughes | 30 May 2017

March for Europe, Alex White, CC-BY-NC-2.0

Brexit has been noticeably on the sidelines of the general election debate so far, perhaps not least because both the Conservatives and Labour now support it going ahead. Yet in polls the public still tend to split about 52% to 48% on the question of whether, in hindsight, the Brexit decision was right or wrong. Brexit divisions still appear to run deep, even if not reflected in election debates and the stance of the two largest parties.

All Re-Leavers now?

But a recent article by two YouGov researchers argues that in fact a big group of ‘Remain’ voters, who they label ‘Re-Leavers’, now accept that the government must go ahead with Brexit given the referendum result. Their results show that (for Great Britain) only 22% of the public are ‘hard Remainers’ holding onto their resistance to Brexit while the ‘Re-Leavers’ and ‘hard Leavers’ together represent 68%. They argue that the 22% of ‘hard Remainers’ are a small pool for pro-EU/anti-Brexit parties to fish in during the election.

But has the British public really accepted Brexit to this degree? And is the demand for a second EU referendum, made by the Lib Dems and Greens, really discounted by most of the public? It all depends on the question, as other YouGov results show.

What if it’s a poor deal?

Faced with the possibility of talks breaking down irretrievably or of Theresa May negotiating a poor deal (tariffs, customs controls, the UK out of the customs union and single market), voters are much less keen on Brexit simply going ahead. If there is no chance of getting a better deal, a substantial 41% would still like Brexit to go ahead. But 32%, faced with this poor deal, would want a second EU referendum while over a quarter, 27%, wouldn’t be sure what to do.

For the Scotland sub-sample in this survey, only 33% would suggest going ahead with Brexit at this point, 38% would support a second EU referendum, and 29% don’t know.

So in the ‘poor deal’ scenario, the 68% of ‘hard Leavers’ and ‘Re-Leavers’ have disappeared – leaving a more divided and uncertain public and much wider terrain for politicians to argue across, with 59% either unsure or wanting a second referendum to 41% ready still to go ahead with Brexit.

Given that a trade deal with significant non-tariff barriers (regulatory, rules of origin, etc) is quite likely, and that the UK will come out of the customs union and single market on current plans, these results are highly relevant. We are not, given different scenarios, all ‘Re-Leavers’ now.

And what if Westminster rejects the Brexit deal?

If Westminster were to vote against the UK-EU27 Brexit deal (presumably in autumn 2018), then again there is a wide range of views according to YouGov: 31% would want the government to go back and negotiate a better deal, 32% would go ahead with Brexit anyway, 19% would abandon Brexit and stay in the EU while 17% are unsure.

If there is no prospect of re-negotiating a better deal, then 48% would go ahead with Brexit anyway, 31% would want the government to abandon Brexit and stay in the EU and 21% are unsure. For the Scotland sub-sample, 41% would go ahead with Brexit anyway, 42% stay in the EU and 18% are unsure.

There is certainly a strong group of ‘Leavers’ who want to continue with Brexit despite Westminster – but it is, at 48%, much smaller than the 68% total of ‘hard Leavers’ and ‘Re-Leavers’, with 52% either unsure or wanting to abandon Brexit. On these questions, Britain remains indeed deeply divided by Brexit – and the lack of Brexit debate in the general election looks increasingly troubling.

No deal better than a bad deal?

Asked whether the UK government should be ready to walk away from a bad deal because such a threat could make the EU offer a better deal, 55% agree, while 24% think the government must stick to getting a deal and 21% don’t know.

This does not appear entirely consistent with what respondents think should happen in the case of a poor deal or in the case of a Westminster rejection of a deal, but it may be that this is the sort of tough bargaining stance that a majority see as worth a go rather than a readiness to accept no deal, if that is what happened.

A vote once the deal is done?

Another YouGov question asks whether, once a UK-EU27 deal is done, there should be a Westminster vote, a second EU referendum, or the government should simply go ahead and implement the deal without a vote. While 45% want the government simply to go ahead, 27% want a second EU referendum and 15% a vote in parliament – with 13% not sure. So 42% want a vote of some sort, while 45% do not – again more divisions than a ‘Re-Leaver’ story would imply.

These divisions are much greater according to whether respondents supported Leave or Remain. Amongst Remain voters in 2016, 48% would want a second EU referendum and 23% want a vote in Westminster, while only 19% think the government should just go ahead without a vote (and 10% are unsure). Amongst Leave voters, a huge 76% want the government simply to go ahead without a parliamentary vote or second referendum (just 8% want a second referendum, 9% want a vote in parliament).

So again there are deep divisions between Leave and Remain voters. Once a deal is done, 76% of Leave voters think it should be implemented with no further vote of any kind, while 71% of Remain voters either want a second EU referendum or a vote in parliament.

And, as set out above, if parliament did reject a final Brexit deal, then there are strong divisions then too as to what should happen next.

We are not all ‘Re-Leavers’ now

The range of views shown in the YouGov results above suggest that the British public are not all ‘Re-Leavers’ now. While 68% accept in principle that the UK government should go ahead and attempt to implement Brexit, as soon as questions are asked about having a parliamentary vote, or a second EU referendum, on any UK-EU27 deal that is struck, then the majority for Brexit crumbles, particularly along Leave/Remain lines.

There is a substantial group who consider Brexit should go ahead whatever happens – whether Westminster rejects the deal (48%) and whether the deal is a poor one (41%). But these tough stances tend to be taken by Leave voters. Faced with a poor deal, 32% want a second EU referendum, 27% are unsure (i.e. 59% in total). And once a deal is done, while 76% of Leave voters want it implemented without any further vote (Westminster or second referendum), in contrast 71% of Remain voters want either a Westminster vote or a second referendum.

These deep divisions in public opinion as to how Brexit should be handled, the steps that should be taken once a deal is done, how a poor deal should be handled and how Westminster rejecting a deal should be handled, cast into strong relief the relative absence of serious Brexit debate during the general election so far. Whether the last week of the election campaign will shine a stronger light on Brexit remains to be seen.

Some tough questions need to be put to all political parties on obvious Brexit scenarios (no deal, a poor deal, a Westminster rejection of a deal). By the time the next general election comes around, it will be too late to ask.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.