Brexit in a year? Probably not

Published on April 03, 2018

In less than a year, Britain goes over the cliff edge of departing from the EU – with a 'transition' to unknown arrangements. If regrets set in afterwards, it will be too late as we will have to re-apply under Article 49 - just as any other applicant. When those `unknown arrangements’ become somewhat clearer during negotiations this summer, “the people” may well look at the implications and decide for themselves whether they want to proceed over the cliff.

The evidence is building that the people have little confidence in the Government or Prime Minister’s handling of the negotiations, fear the UK will get a bad deal, and consequently they personally will be worse off. “The people” are increasingly likely to want to vote on the deal.

After a historic and prolonged national debate about the importance of our links with our closest neighbours, a substantial vote to Remain would surely put Great Britain back into a positon of enormous influence within one of the world’s major powers – political, cultural and economic. EU27 is now nearly eight times the size of the UK economy whilst EU28 (including the UK) matches the size of the US economy and is about half as big again as China. Influencing such a power offers genuine sovereignty in shaping the world around us.

The Remainers have yet to set out a compellingly positive vision of why “the people” should turn out in larger numbers and emulate the 1975 Referendum 2:1 vote to Remain. There is still time to put the positive case.

Table of Contents

  1. State of play of public opinion on Europe. 2
  2. What do “the people” want?. 3
  3. Are most of “the people” going to be disappointed by the result of the negotiations?. 3
  4. Are “the people” satisfied with the Government’s handling of the negotiations?. 4
  5. Are “the people” optimistic about the likely outcome of their vote?. 4
  6. Are “the people” focussed on Brexit at this stage?. 5
  7. Are “the people” looking for a vote on the deal?. 6
  8. Can we change our mind?. 6
  9. What do the “political tribes” think?. 7
  10. How should Europe read a 52:48 decision to remain?. 7
  11. What would a “1975 repeat” 67:33 decision mean?. 8


This note draws together some strands of public opinion from various recent polls. In particular, Britain Thinks has just published a substantial analysis and they use a very helpful four-segment approach to voter opinion – sadly underlining the breadth and depth of the split in attitudes of “the people”.

Versus a year ago, “Die-hards” are down from 37% to 31% and “Devastated Pessimists” are up from 31% to 37%. The centre ground categories together have declined slighty from 30% to 27%, with Cautious Optimists still leading Accepting Pragmatists by 15:12%

1.     State of play of public opinion on Europe

The strong hostility to the EU evident at the height of the euro crisis seems to have subsided, but it is difficult to argue that opinion has shifted decisively since the Referendum in June 2016. However, a slight, but fragile, lead seems to have built up for Remain since the negotiations on withdrawal started, and are perceived to be going badly.

Source: What UK thinks


2.     What do “the people” want?

The UK Government has been criticised for its failure to articulate a clear position on what it wants. That is hardly surprising as the Referendum was an inchoate shout against something, rather than a vote in favour of a clearly stated, new situation.

The chart below (from What UK thinks) shows that opinion seems to be split – relatively evenly – between five possible outcomes. But these are the options for the 52% Leavers – the 48% Remainers (some of them Accepting Pragmatists) were not given the choice of “Remain as we are”. Undoubtedly some Remainers will now simply look for the `least bad’ outcome – probably the dark blue bar.

3.     Are most of “the people” going to be disappointed by the result of the negotiations?

Even many Leavers are likely to be disappointed with most of these possible outcomes as only 14% of total voters want the hardest of Brexits - effectively `no deal’ - to be nodded through by Parliament. The vast majority of Remainers will be deeply disappointed by any deal as they voted to Remain IN – exactly as we are today. But we cannot gauge the degree of disappointment until a future trade `deal’ is on the table – and in sufficient detail to be able to grasp the implications. This should happen over the summer. So 48% plus a good portion of the `yellow’ 26% will likely be upset by the hard Brexit option – a comfortable majority.

For Remainers, there is a key sequencing problem: The EU27 is planning to finalise the Withdrawal Agreement by October so leaving about six months to ratify the Agreement and bring it into force by 29 March 2019 when the Treaties cease to apply to the UK. That is an ambitious timetable as crucial items such as the Irish border arrangement (and Gibraltar) are a long way from resolved.  Indeed, President Tusk stated that EU27 “Leaders will assess in June [28/29] if the Irish question has been resolved”. 

At the March Summit, EU27 agreed a seven-page negotiating mandate for the future relations. This has not been widely discussed in the UK but lays down an outline that is likely to come as a shock to many British electors – unless the EU27’s resolve suddenly (and unexpectedly) crumbles.  The plan is to agree this by the October 19th Summit.

Over the summer, the people may become fully aware that: existing fishing rules will be maintained; there will be border frictions; there will be no `cherry-picking; any access for services will be under host state rules; financial stability will be safe-guarded by using EU rules; there will be no under-cutting of EU standards; EU legal autonomy will be maintained (so UK will have no influence on EU rule-making) etc.; etc. When electors read this mandate, it may prove to be a sobering reality check for prospective relations with a neighbouring economy nearly eight times our size.

4.    Are “the people” satisfied with the Government’s handling of the negotiations?

ICM has run a series of polls asking “Overall, how do you think the Brexit process of the UK leaving the EU is going?” The results are not comforting for the Government:  “Quite/very well” is now down to 20% while “Quite/very badly” stands at 49%. So not even Die-hard Leavers think negotiations are going well.

For the Prime Minister herself, UK thinks has combined 18 polls to answer “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Theresa May has handled the process of the UK exiting the EU?” Overall approval rating has fallen from 47% in May 2017 to 34% now – approximating to the size of the Die-hards. Disapproval has risen from 34% to 45% today. IPSOS Mori shows the PM better: 43% think she is doing a good job though 50% are saying `bad job’. But her ratings have improved since last autumn as the talks were fudged to enable them to continue.  However, her satisfaction ratings are likely to be severely tested as the crunch negotiations on the future relationship develop over the summer – culminating in October.

5.     Are “the people” optimistic about the likely outcome of their vote?

BMG Research (on 16th March so after the Prime Minister admitted in her Mansion House speech that there would be “consequences”), put the question “Do you think the UK will be more or less prosperous in the short term as it leaves the EU?” Only 24% thought we would be more prosperous versus 49% feeling we would be less prosperous. Asking about longer–term expectations, produced the opposite result: 42% were more optimistic and the pessimists were only 37%. But the foundations of these beliefs seems questionable as BMG also asked “Is your understanding of the UK’s future outside the EU clear or unclear as the UK leaves the EU?” Just 28% were clear, while 72% were unclear. Once the people clarify their understanding of the deal during the negotiation over the summer, there is surely scope for sharp changes in expectations.

The Britain Thinks analysis (slides 23 and 24) drives home the gulf in expectations about the shape of the future deal. Not even a majority of the diehard Leavers expect a good deal, and the swing voters in the middle are fearful by a ratio of 2:1. If their fears crystallise, sharp swings in opinion are very possible.


6.     Are “the people” focussed on Brexit at this stage?

The short answer from Britain Thinks is “NO” and anecdotal evidence supports the feeling of general boredom with the topic outside the Westminster bubble. However, that could change extremely quickly if Harold MacMillan’s famous “events, dear boy, events” should intervene. The negotiations on the future trade deal may constitute such an event.

Source: Britain thinks slide 30

However, one obvious and possible event is a sterling crisis as investors become nervous about holding the currency of a state  that is about to decide to add perhaps £20 billon to its current account deficit of around £100 billion (5% of GDP). Proportionately, this deficit is the largest amongst major industrialised countries and twice that of any Eurozone state except Cyprus.

7.     Are “the people” looking for a vote on the deal?


The Britain Thinks analysis (slides 34 and 35) is very powerful as both Leavers and Remainers are quite clear on their wishes – even at this stage of the negotiations and before the shape of the future deal unfolds over the summer. Even Conservative supporters (according to the recent Survation poll) would wish - by 46% to 31% - to put the final deal to a vote of the people.


8.     Can we change our mind?

There are two components to this question: First, do we even want to change our mind and secondly, is it worth the effort? Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people think we have already left the EU so are unlikely to favour a vote on the deal as it would seem pointless!

Can we rescind our Article 50 “notification of our intention to leave”? Common-sense and most legal opinion says it is obvious that we can cease our `intention’.

Source: Britain Thinks slide 28

But we do not need a lengthy legal debate at the moment. European Council President Tusk re-iterated to the European Parliament in January ever-more forcefully his attitude on behalf of the EU27 Heads of State or Government “If the U.K. government sticks to its decision to leave, Brexit will become a reality, with all its negative consequences, in March next year unless there is a change of heart among our British friends” He quoted David Davis as saying that “if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy” and then went on to say “We here on the continent haven’t had a change of heart. Our hearts are still open to you,” Moreover, European Commission President Juncker then added: “I hope that will be heard clearly in London.”

9.     What do the “political tribes” think?

The views of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are well known as Remainers so the crucial question is how Conservative voters are assessing the situation. Recently, Survation interviewed 1,507 voters who supported the Conservatives at either the 2015 or 2017 general election and found 47% said they would also support their MP if they proposed remaining part of a customs union with the EU after March 2019. (Link to survey). Such evidence may weigh heavily upon the key swing Conservative MPs when they decide how to vote in Parliament on a range of bewildering technical amendments to legislative proposals – but votes that will enhance the chances of Parliament finally deciding that the deal should be submitted to the people for their approval.

As Huffington Post put it, “six out of ten said they believed it was right for politicians to “put country before party” on Brexit - suggesting a high level of support for Tory rebels Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry, who will table an amendment to the trade bill which would keep the UK in a form of customs union - against the government’s position. 

Those taking party in the study, carried out on behalf of pro-Europe group Citizens For Britain, were defined by the pollsters as either “joiners” - voting Conservative in 2017 only; “loyalists”, supporting Theresa May’s party in both elections; or “defectors” - voting Conservative in 2015 but not 2017.

More than 60% of respondents in London - and 46% nationwide - said they wanted to see the final Brexit deal put to a second public vote, putting them more in line with the views of more traditionally “left” parties.

Citizens For Britain chair Simon Allison said: “This poll shows that backbench Conservative MPs are right to stand up against the hard Brexiteers.  “Conservative voters do not support the UK crashing out of the EU, they want a final say on the Brexit deal and they want our MPs to put country before party when they vote.”

10. How should Europe read a 52:48 decision to remain?

A knife-edge reversal of the 2016 decision based on fear of the possible - but unknowable – economic damage could easily leave the EU 27 wondering if they really wanted a truculent UK in the club. It would surely re-enforce the drive to integrate the Eurozone more closely. Correspondingly, the willingness to accede to British demands for exceptional treatment in so many areas – for example regulation of financial services – would probably be much reduced. After say a decade of Eurozone expansion, would the UK simply be marginalised to a substantial extent anyway?

11. What would a “1975 repeat” 67:33 decision mean?

Standing here in Easter 2018 with a year to go until we jump off the cliff, it still seems difficult to contemplate a 2:1 decision by “the people” to Remain. Looking back to 1975, it seemed implausible then – but it happened. Many events – political and economic - are yet to happen and the centre ground of the electorate is far from certain about the consequences of the decision to Leave.

After the Second World War, Churchill was completely clear about the need for Europe to come together for the basic political reasons of peace and security. His great speeches on the subject did not mention economics – it was a purely political approach. Since then, we have become obsessed with short-term economic, transactional arguments

It looks increasingly likely that “the people” will insist that they vote on the deal once it is sufficiently clear, and it is correspondingly probable that they will vote to Remain once an attractive vision of the benefits to Britain’s’ genuine sovereignty is laid out. After such a historic and prolonged national debate about the importance of our links with our closest neighbours, a substantial vote to Remain would surely put Great Britain back into a positon of enormous influence within one of the world’s major powers – political, cultural and economic. EU27 is nearly eight times the size of the UK economy. EU28 matches the size of the US economy and is about half as big again as China’s economy.


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