17. Current opinions of Brexit
- EU is no longer a top issue – less than 10% see it as the most important issue (July 2023)
- Top five issues in July 2023 were: inflation (39%), NHS/hospitals (33%), economy (30%), immigration (21%), and lack of faith in politics/politicians (16%)
- NHS and immigration have both moved up in importance since December 2022
- Polls indicate that public opinion has reversed significantly compared to 2016 referendum result
- August 2023 polls show:
- Majority (~60%) now thinks, in hindsight, that it was wrong to vote for Brexit vs ~40% who don’t
- In July 2023, 61% said they would vote to rejoin
- In October 2022, a majority (58%) was in favour of UK rejoining EU
Importance of EU as an issue
Ipsos has polled British adults on their top concerns since 1974.
The EU was a top issue for less than 10% of Britons 2005 – 2013, and only slightly higher in 2014 and 2015 (see Figure 17.1).
- In 2010, the EU was a top issue for only 1% of adults after Cameron became Prime Minister.
- In 2016, the percentage seeing it as a top issue rose sharply following the launch of David Cameron’s EU referendum.
- June 2016, at the time of the referendum, about 40% of adults saw it as a top issue.
- The percentage rose in 2017 and 2018.
- During 2019
- Importance peaked at 72% in March.
- By December 2019, half (52%) saw it as the single biggest concern, at the time of the General Election.
- By April 2020, only a quarter (26%) saw EU/Europe/Brexit as one of the top issues.
- In December 2020, 60% saw it as a top concern as UK-EU trade negotiations concluded on 24 December 2020.
- December 2022 recorded a slight uptick from 6% in October 2022 – the lowest concern recorded since December 2015
- In July 2023, less than 10% saw EU/Europe/Brexit as the most important issue facing Britain today.
Figure 17.1: Adults who see EU/Europe/Brexit as one of the most important issues facing Britain today (%) – July 2023
The top five issues mentioned by the public in July 2023 were inflation (39%), NHS/hospitals (33%), economy (30%), immigration (21%), and lack of faith in politics/politicians (16%). The NHS and immigration have both moved up in importance since December 2022.
Figure 17.2: Top five concerns in July 2023
Source: Ipsos Issues Index, July 2023
Hindsight – was the Brexit vote right or wrong?
YouGov (and occasionally other pollsters) have been asking people regularly whether, in hindsight, they think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU. The polls repeat the question, so indicate the trend well. Figures 17.3 shows the trend over 300 polls from 1 August 2016 to 11 August 2023.
Public opinion has reversed compared to the 2016 referendum result. The poll on 11 August 2023 said that 59% think the Brexit vote was wrong and 41% think it right (on a comparable basis to the referendum which was 48.1% to 51.9%). At 11 August 2023, the margin of wrong over right over the last five polls averaged 20% (compared to the referendum margin of 3.8% in the opposite direction).
Figure 17.3: In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?
Source: NatCen Social Research
The long-run pattern in Figure 17.3 has been:
- From mid-August 2017 the majority thought Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU – opinions changed after the General Election on 8 June 2017.
- After June 2018, the majority slowly increased, but narrowed before 29 March 2019 (the first expected leave date).
- Gap then widened before narrowing again ahead of 31 October 2019 – the second expected leave date – to an average of 7%
- When the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, a majority (average 6%) thought leaving the EU was wrong.
- Majority continued during 2020 (except for one outlier poll in March from Number Cruncher Politics)
- Gap widened to an average of 13% in November as Brexit negotiations progressed slowly.
- Gap narrowed again in December 2020 (to 10%) as end of transition period approached
- In January 2021 the gap of wrong over right averaged 7%
- In April and May 21 the gap narrowed – one poll with no gap and one with a 1% gap in the opposite direction
- Probably due to UK’s vaccine success, which government portrayed ingenuously as a Brexit benefit, despite UK still being in EU in the transition period
- Gap then widened for rest of 2021:
- By July 2021, gap averaged 5%
- December 2021: 11%
- In 2022 gap continued to widen:
- July 2022: 17%
- December 2022: 14%
- In 2023, the average gap fluctuated around 20%
How is Brexit going?
A January 2023 poll by Ipsos of its ‘Brexit Tracker’ found 45% think that Brexit is going worse than they expected, up from 28% in June 2021 (see Figure 17.4). This includes:
- Two in three (66%) 2016 Remain voters say it has gone worse (+19 since June 2021), and one in four (26%) 2016 Leave voters thinking the same (+16).
- Only one in ten (9%) say it is working out better than expected (-6), while two in five (39%) think it is meeting their expectations (-7).
Figures are similar when asked about the impact Brexit on their daily life:
- 45% think leaving the EU has made it worse (unchanged since June 2022)
- 37% say it has made no difference (+3)
- One in ten (11%) say it has bettered their lives (-6).
When asked about the negative outcomes of Brexit:
- Increased barriers to trade between the UK and EU comes out on top, mentioned by two in five (40%), up 13 percentage points since last asked in March 2021.
- Three in ten say the end of freedom of movement (30%, +5), and one in four cite less international cooperation between the UK and EU (26%, +7).
On the other hand, when asked about the positive outcomes
- One in five either mention Britain gaining control over its laws and regulations (23%, unchanged)
- Being able to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic better (22%, +1)
- Britain being able to make its own decisions generally (21%, unchanged).
- However, one in four (24%) say there are no positive outcomes (+4).
Few believe Brexit is done. Fewer than one in five (18%) say the relationship is now mostly decided and will hardly change over the next few years (18%, +4 since June 2021).
Figure 17.4: How is Brexit going?
Current attitudes to rejoining the EU
There is a big difference between believing in hindsight that the Brexit vote was a mistake and wanting to rejoin the EU. However, help is at hand. In December 2021, UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) in partnership with Redfield and Wilton Strategies launched a poll to track attitudes of the British electorate to Brexit. The poll tracks how people feel about:
- Re-joining the EU
- Life outside the EU
- Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world
- Core areas of post-Brexit policy such as trade and immigration
This poll indicates that opinions are changing and supports the view that the debate around the UK’s relationship with the EU is far from settled. In November 2022, UKICE analysed the change in opinion between October 2022 and February 2022 (see Figure 17.5). There were important findings.
The key finding was a 12-point shift towards rejoining EU:
- 58% of all public would vote to rejoin up from 46% in February 2022
- Those who voted Remain or did not vote at all in 2016 were most likely to have moved into the ‘rejoin’ column in the last 12 months.
- Growing number of those who voted Leave in 2016 now say they would vote to rejoin (from 14% of 2016 Leavers to 21%).
Note – as of August 2023, polls indicate 61% would vote to rejoin (don’t knows removed) vs 39% stay out of EU. However 10% don’t know and 8% say they would not vote (YouGov data for 13-14 July).
Growing gap between younger and older voters:
- In each age band under 45, support for rejoin had risen by around 20 percentage points.
- No statistically significant shift among older voters.
- Those over 55 were still more likely to state support for staying out over rejoining.
There is an educational divide:
- Those educated to GCSE level retained low support for rejoin, barely rising from 37% to 38%.
- Support for rejoin among those with an undergraduate degree had increased from 57% to 68% between February and October.
- Support for rejoin among those with a postgraduate degree had grown from 56% to 72%.
Geographic patterns confound conventional narratives:
- Voters in the North East appear to be among those who had turned most negatively against Brexit.
- Support for rejoin had risen from around 40% to around 60% in the North East and the South West.
Figure 17.5: Support for rejoin vs stay out
Source: UK in a Changing Europe, Rejoin vs stay out: who has changed their mind about Brexit?, 23 November 2022
Voter opinions just before referendum
Ashcroft Polls looked in detail at voter opinions just before the referendum in June 2016. Ashcroft polled over 12,000 respondents on topics like NHS, immigration system etc. and asked whether they thought, for example, the NHS would be better if the UK remained in the EU or left.
Figure 17.6 shows voters’ views on six key topics. Two important conclusions are:
- Leave and remain voters were often diametrically opposed in their assessment of the implications of Brexit.
- For example, 97% of leave voters thought the NHS would be better with Brexit, whereas 88% of remain voters thought the NHS would be better staying in the EU.
- Voters were differently informed, misinformed or uninformed on key issues before the referendum.
Figure 17.6: Referendum voter opinions
Source: Ashcroft Polls, 24 June 2016
Voters’ expectations for Brexit in July 2016 after the referendum
The best available indication of what people thought about the implications of Brexit immediately after the referendum comes from a ComRes poll conducted for the BBC in July 2016 of 1,004 adults (Figure 17.7).
Figure 17.7: Brexit expectations in 2016 – BBC summary of ComRes poll
The poll’s key findings were:
- Two thirds (66%) thought maintaining access to the single market should be the government priority when negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
- Half (52%) said the UK would stay in the single market with some limits on freedom of movement.
- One third (31%) said the priority should be restricting freedom of movement:
- Half of British adults (52%) expected immigration to fall after the UK leaves the EU.
- One third (36%) expected levels of immigration to remain about the same.
- Almost half (45%) said they would be dissatisfied if the government continued to allow immigration from the EU in exchange for access to the single market.
- One quarter (26%) expected to leave the single market and stop freedom of movement.
- One fifth (18%) expected to stay in the single market with unrestrained freedom of movement
- Half (47%) thought the UK economy would be worse two years from 2016; a third thought it would be better (32%). In five years’ time, the public believed the economy would improve:
- Half (52%) thought that the economy would be in a better place.
- One third (30%) thought it would be worse.
- Three quarters (72%) did not trust politicians to do a good job of carrying out the will of the people during withdrawal from the EU, while half (50%) did not trust civil servants.