Brexit: Post-Referendum Hopes and Expectations

John Curtice discusses the  post-referendum period and how to handle the immediate consequences of the Brexit decision. This post originally appeared on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

The high drama of the post-referendum period has given way to the relative quiet of high summer, albeit that Labour finds itself using the supposed ‘silly season’ to debate for a second year in a row who should be its leader. But that, of course, does not mean that the questions raised by the vote to leave the EU have disappeared. There will be plenty for ministers to deal with on their return from the hills and the beaches. How should the immediate consequences of the Brexit decision be handled? And what relationship with the rest of the EU should the UK be seeking when it eventually invokes Article 50 and formally advises the EU that it proposes to leave?

Meanwhile, now that a couple of months have elapsed since the ballot, the UK public has had some time to reflect on the decision that it made in June, and an opportunity to begin to contemplate what the UK’s future relationship with the EU should be. So, as they contemplate the transition back to their desks, what guidance does the polling done in recent weeks give ministers as to how they should address the questions raised by the decision to Leave?

Perhaps the first crucial point is that, for the most part, the country does not regret the decision that it made in June. In our last post we suggested there was some evidence at the margin, though no more than that, that those who voted to Leave were more likely than those who voted to Remain to regret the way in which they voted. The evidence in support of that proposition remains relatively thin. In their most recent poll on the subject published today, YouGov report that 91% of those who voted to Leave believe that ‘in hindsight’ Britain was right to vote to leave the EU, slightly more than the 89% of Remain supporters who believe the decision was wrong. Equally, when YouGov first posed this question just over a fortnight ago, 94% of Leave voters said that the decision was right, again rather more than the 89% of Remain voters who thought it was wrong.

Equally, in the most recent of YouGov’s Eurotrack surveys, 90% of Leave voters say that they would still vote Leave if a referendum were held now, little different from the 93% of Remain voters who state that they would still hold to their choice. At the same time, we should note that a poll conducted for the TUC by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) immediately after the referendum (though only published earlier this month) found that while 94% of Remain voters felt they had voted the right way, so also did 92% of Leave supporters.

Of what there is, however, still some continuing evidence is that on balance those who did not vote would have preferred Remain to win. In its most recent poll for The Times YouGov find that 40% of those who did not cast a ballot feel that the decision to Leave was wrong, rather more than the 28% who believe it was right. In the most recent Eurotrack poll, 27% of those who abstained say that would vote to Remain in the EU, compared with the 23% who reckon they would vote to Leave. The gap on this measure was even bigger in the previous Eurotrack poll conducted in early July when 38% of those who abstained in the referendum said that now they would vote to Remain, while only 20% reckoned they would vote to Leave. Nevertheless, even these figures suggest that the relative popularity of remaining in the EU amongst those who did not vote in the referendum is more muted than was implied by some of the polls conducted immediately after the ballot.

So there is little reason to believe that Britain’s voters have undergone a significant change of heart about their decision to Leave the EU. Consequently, around half the country is still clear that Britain should Leave the EU, while the other half would still prefer to Remain. In the most recent Eurotrack poll YouGov found that, amongst all voters, 44% would now vote to Leave, while 43% would vote to Remain. Similarly, the same company’s most recent domestic poll reports that overall, 46% feel the Brexit decision was right and 43% that it was wrong.

Still, even if voters have not changed their minds about the wisdom of leaving the EU, perhaps their expectations of what it might entail have altered. For the most part, though, this also seems not to be the case. Before the referendum YouGov regularly asked their respondents what they thought would happen across a range of areas if we left the EU. Now, using almost exactly the same wording, the company has started to ask their respondents what they think will happen across the same set of areas when Britain does actually leave. The similarity of the wording of the two sets of questions gives us a relatively firm base with which to evaluate whether expectations have changed since the referendum was held.

Despite the post-referendum decline in the value of pound and the Bank of England’s decision to lower interest rates, perceptions of the economic consequences of Brexit certainly do not appear to have changed. In their final poll before the referendum, YouGov found that 40% thought that Britain would be economically worse off if we left the EU, while 23% believed it would be better off. Now those figures stand at 39% and 25% respectively. Equally, just before the referendum 36% anticipated that leaving the EU would have a bad effect on jobs, while 22% felt it would have a good effect. The equivalent figures are now 35% and 22%. Only around a half of Leave voters are optimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit, but only half of them were optimistic before the referendum. It thus might take a quite a lot of bad economic news (if that indeed is what transpires in the coming months) to persuade very many Leave voters that they might have made the wrong choice.

There is little sign either that expectations of the impact of leaving the EU on Britain’s influence in the world have changed. Immediately before the referendum 38% believed that leaving would reduce Britain’s influence, while just 16% reckoned it would be increased. The latest figures are 37% and 16% respectively.

There are though indications that on some of the areas where Leave voters were relatively optimistic about the consequences of Brexit some of them may now have lowered their expectations somewhat. Immediately before the referendum, 53% of all voters believed that there would be less immigration if we left the EU, and the figure was never less than 50% at any point during the referendum campaign. Now, however, the figure has dropped to 45%. The fall is particularly noticeable amongst Leave voters, only 71% of whom now expect there to be less immigration, well down on the 84% who did so before the referendum.

One of the more controversial claims made by the Leave campaign during the referendum was that the money the UK no longer contributed to the EU budget could be used instead to increase spending on the NHS. Indeed, just before the referendum 35% said that leaving the EU would be good for the NHS, while 24% said it would be bad. Now, however, those figures stand at 26% and 26% respectively. Amongst Leave voters the proportion who think leaving will be good for the NHS has dropped from 69% to 49%.

This apparent lowering of expectations on health and immigration is, perhaps, an indication that some Leave voters have come to the view that they might have been sold a false prospectus. While that might be to the chagrin of Remain campaigners, ministers may feel that any reduction in expectations reduces the risk that what they eventually achieve in their negotiations with the EU will be regarded as a failure.

But, of course, ministers may find themselves faced with a tough choice in those negotiations. If the UK wants to retain access to the single market in which British firms can trade goods and services freely within the EU, it may find that the EU is insistent that its citizens should continue to have the right to find a job in the UK. It is a choice on which voters not only appear to be as divided as they are on the question of Britain’s membership as a whole, but also is one with which they would prefer not to be faced quite so starkly in the first place.

A number of post-referendum polls have tried to ascertain whether securing access to the single market or being able to limit freedom of movement matters more to voters. First of all, in their immediate post-referendum poll, GQR found that while 44% felt that it was more important that ‘Britain keeps its access to the common market in Europe’, at the same time 40% believed that it was more important that ‘Britain gets complete control over its immigration policies’. As might be anticipated, while 72% of Remain supporters prioritised the former, 69% of Leave voters backed the latter.

True, in its attempt to get at the same issue, ComRes in a poll for the BBC found that no less than 66% reckoned the UK government’s priority in the negotiations should be ‘maintaining access to the single market so Britain can have free trade with the EU’, while only 31% believed it should be ‘restricting the freedom of movement so immigration from the EU is reduced’. Yet at the same time, this poll also found that 45% would be dissatisfied if the UK government continued ‘to allow immigration from the EU in exchange for access to the single market’, almost as many as the 51% who said they would be satisfied. Again reflecting the referendum divide, no less than 74% of Leave voters would be dissatisfied while 80% of Remain supporters would be satisfied.

Much the same picture of an even split in attitudes on the subject is painted by another  YouGov poll published earlier today (though conducted over a fortnight ago) that focuses specifically on the question of what kind of deal with the EU the British public would like. While as many as 79% think that it is important that Britain has a free trade deal with the EU, only 33% think it would be acceptable to ‘allow EU citizens the right to live and work in Britain’ in return, while just as many, 33%, think it would be unacceptable, ‘and Britain would be better off not having a trade deal than accepting this’. Fifty-eight per cent of Remain voters fall into the former camp, 56% of Leave supporters into the latter. Interestingly, this poll suggests that Britain having to make a financial contribution to the EU would in fact be an even bigger sticking point for the public than still allowing EU citizens to come here to live and work.

However, the truth is that many voters in Britain would prefer (and are seemingly hoping to avoid) so stark a choice, while some at least may be willing to reach a compromise in order to avoid one. In another recent poll, YouGov found that while 31% believe that the EU should only agree to a free trade deal if the UK continues to allow freedom of movement, 42% feel that the EU should ‘agree to a free trade deal with Britain without requiring them [sic] to give EU citizens the right to live and work in Britain’. At the same time, though, YouGov’s latest Brexit poll suggests that in addition to the 33% who think it would be acceptable to allow EU citizens to come here to live and work in return for free trade, there is another 19% who think it would be ‘a price worth paying’.

Meanwhile, ComRes’ poll for the BBC found that over half of voters (52%) believe that what actually will happen is that the UK will stay in the single market but will be able to impose some limits on freedom of movement. Only 18% reckon the UK will stay in the single market while retaining the current provisions on freedom of movement. Equally, just 26% expect the UK both to leave the UK to leave the single market and end free movement. The key challenge facing the UK government will be whether it can secure from the EU a compromise on the question of free trade versus freedom of movement that will actually succeed in satisfying most voters.

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Guest post by John Curtice
University of Strathclyde
23rd August 2016
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