Polling suggests that a majority of Brits now think that the U.K. was wrong to leave the European Union.
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LONDON — Almost seven years and four prime ministers since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, polling suggests public sentiment has turned against Brexit.
In the latest YouGov poll published last week, 53% said the U.K. was wrong to leave versus 32% who still believed it was the right call. Ipsos polling in January indicated that 45% of the population thought Brexit had made their daily life worse, versus just 11% who said it had improved their lives.
A poll conducted by Focaldata and UnHerd at the end of last year found that of around 10,000 respondents nationwide, 54% either “strongly agree” or “mildly agree” with the statement that “Britain was wrong to leave the EU.”
Those who either mildly or strongly disagreed amounted to 28%, and of the 632 in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), only one had more people disagreeing with the statement than agreeing – the East Midlands coastal constituency of Boston and Skegness, which also had the highest percentage Brexit vote in 2016.
The U.K. economy is expected to be the worst performer in the G-20 over the next two years, while a cost-of-living crisis and political turmoil have compounded the Conservative government’s headaches.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ruling party now trails the main opposition Labour Party by more than 20 points across public polls ahead of a general election in 2024.
Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe initiative and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, told CNBC that there were two key shifts in the public’s attitudes towards Brexit.
“The first is the growing number of people, including Leave voters, who now say they think the government has handled Brexit badly — that is to say, they see this as a failure of government,” he said.
“The second thing is the increasing number of leave and other voters who are coming to see Brexit as having had negative economic impacts.”
This is borne out in the latest YouGov polling, which found that 68% of those surveyed thought the government had handled Brexit badly, versus just 21% who said the Conservatives were handling it well.
Sunak on Monday announced a new deal with the European Union that seeks to address the Northern Ireland Protocol, a controversial piece of the existing withdrawal arrangement that enforced checks on goods traveling across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It remains to be seen whether this will swing the dial in the Conservatives’ favor at all, but YouGov noted that those who now regret their vote to leave account for 7% of the voting public (excluding those who would not vote).
“Ahead of the 2019 general election, this figure was around 4%. These changes may not seem massive, but given how stagnant views on EU membership have been since the referendum this change in preference could be impactful,” the pollster said.
“Those who voted Leave but are now unsure if it was the right decision now account for another 4% of voters, making the overall pool of Leavers who no longer think it was the right decision around one in nine voters (11%).”
Menon noted that ironically, Brexit began negatively affecting the economy in early 2020 shortly after the U.K. left the EU, but the impact was clouded by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Industries from farming and fishing to car manufacturing and pharmaceuticals have highlighted difficulties faced as a direct result of Brexit over the past few years.
Now, Menon argued that the opposite is coming to pass, in that many of the U.K.’s current economic problems are not primarily down to Brexit but are shining the spotlight back on its detrimental effects.
“There is absolutely no doubt that Brexit is part of the reason for the rather bad economic figures we see coming out of the U.K., particularly bad in comparative context with other G-7 economies,” he said.
But longer-term factors played a role, and he suggested that a lengthy stagnation in living standards, partly caused by the austerity policies introduced by David Cameron’s government, contributed to the anger unleashed across working-class communities in the Brexit vote.
Brexit being ‘redefined’
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019 with a promise to “get Brexit done,” touting an “oven-ready” withdrawal agreement he had negotiated with the European Union. That campaign saw hardline pro-Brexit Conservative candidates flip a wave of former “Red Wall” Labour voting constituencies.
Menon highlighted that more than three years on, Brexit is being “redefined” from a cultural, values-based issue that united voters who might otherwise disagree vehemently on the economy, to a primarily economic issue.
“That’s problematic for the government because that Brexit coalition that Boris Johnson put together is united on cultural issues, but very divided on economics, so can’t respond in an effective and coordinated manner, and we see this in the parliamentary Conservative Party,” he explained.
“There are fights over things that most political parties of the past would be fundamentally united on, i.e. the basics of economic strategy.”
What’s more, Brexit is no longer front of mind for most voters. The latest Ipsos Issues Index showed the National Health Service was the issue of greatest concern to the public, with 42% of respondents mentioning it. The economy and inflation, which had dominated the series over the past year, were mentioned by 37% and 36%, respectively.
In January 2019, the year of the last general election, Brexit/Europe was a key issue for 72% of voters, the highest concern recorded since September 1974. By October 2022, this had fallen to 6%.
Issues such as Britain’s recent vegetable shortage and rising food prices have been linked to Brexit by British political commentators and lawmakers of certain persuasions. Menon suggested Brexit supporters may try to draw the same causal link if the economy has recovered in three years’ time, even if only in terms of how people feel day-to-day.
“There’s no causal relationship between the two necessarily, in the same way that there’s no necessary close causal relationship between the cost-of-living crisis and Brexit, but people will play it up politically and it’ll be interesting, then, to see what happens to public opinion. It’s very early days yet,” he said.