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Brexit continues to divide Britain

03 November 2020 | Tags: Scottish Independence, Scotland, Scottish Social Attitudes, Brexit, What Scotland Thinks

A new report, published today by the National Centre for Social Research and whatukthinks.org, finds that while Brexit may be ‘done’ and no longer in the headlines, Britain remains deeply divided on the issue. In particular, even though Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now largely keeping silent on the issue, relatively few Remain voters have so far come to accept the UK’s exit from the EU.

The report by Sir John Curtice also finds that Brexit had an even bigger impact on how people voted in last December’s general election – and thus is more likely to matter for the parties’ future prospects – than previous analyses have suggested.

Based on analysis of how attitudes towards Brexit have evolved since the EU referendum, using NatCen’s online probability panel, the report finds 54% of the population would vote Remain if voters were faced again with the question they were asked in 2016, while 46% would vote Leave.

Much of the apparent swing to Remain since the 2016 referendum, when 48% voted Remain, has arisen because almost half (48%) of people who did not vote in 2016 say they would now vote Remain – one fifth (20%) of non-voters from 2016 say they would now vote Leave. 

However, if voters were presented with the choice between rejoining and staying out of the EU, there might be a narrow majority – of 51% to 49% – for staying out.

People who voted Remain in 2016 are a little less likely to say they would vote to rejoin (80%) than to say they would again vote Remain (87%). Meanwhile, 84% of people who voted Leave in 2016 would now back staying out.

The study is the first to systematically compare the views of people presented with a choice between Remain and Leave, in one question, and between rejoining the EU or staying out, in another.

Both measures suggest that Britain is more or less evenly divided on the issue – and that relatively few voters on either side of the argument have changed their mind during the last four years.

Professor Sir John Curtice, Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research and Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, said: “While some Remain voters would now vote to stay out of the EU, there is still relatively little evidence that they are coming to accept the decision to leave. Rather, Britain still looks like a country that is divided down the middle on the merits of that decision. Unless this picture changes, the debate about Brexit is likely to continue well after the transition period concludes at the end of next month.”

The report also reveals that Brexit had even more influence on how people voted in the 2019 general election than previous analysis has suggested.

According to NatCen’s panel survey, 75% of those who backed Leave in 2016 voted Conservative in 2019, compared with just 20% of those who voted Remain – figures in line with those obtained by other surveys.

However, looking at people’s current views about Brexit, 79% of those who would now vote Leave supported the Conservatives in 2019 – while just 15% of current Remain supporters voted for Boris Johnson’s party.

Labour in 2019 won the votes of 45% of people who voted Remain in 2016 and 15% of those who voted Leave. However, at the general election Labour won the support of 49% of those who were currently supporting Remain and just 12% of those who were now backing Leave.

The difference arises because a significant proportion (28%) of those who voted Remain in 2016 and for the Conservatives in 2019 have switched to Leave. Similarly, some Leave voters (24%) who remained loyal to Labour have in the meantime switched to Remain.

The finding underlines the need for the Conservatives to deliver a successful Brexit – and raises questions about whether Labour can afford not to voice the concerns of its predominantly pro-Remain electorate.

Meanwhile, as the UK and the EU try to reach an agreement on their future relationship, the report reveals that 57% of voters believe the UK economy will be worse off if the two sides do not reach a deal.

Professor Sir John Curtice said: “Although the potential electoral attractions for Labour of ‘reconnecting’ with Leave voters are clear, they need to be mindful, along with the Liberal Democrats, of how reliant they have now become on the backing of those who supported – and still support – Remain. That may be as important for their future prospects as the successful delivery of Brexit will be for the Conservatives.”

Has Brexit gone off the boil? Download the briefing paper from the What UK Thinks website.