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Least said, soonest mended? Public support in Brexit Britain for re-joining the EU

Tim Bale / Jan 2023

Image: Shutterstock

Brits seem less and less enamoured with Brexit, encouraging some to begin to wonder whether – whisper it softly – there might soon be majority support for rejoining the European Union. A look at the polling suggests, however, that anyone who hopes so might be jumping the gun.  Moreover, talking up the prospect may be counterproductive.  The decline in support for Brexit does seem – in part anyway – down to some 2016 Leavers changing their minds.  But ‘some’ is nowhere near enough, and their numbers are unlikely to grow if Remainers try to browbeat those who still have no regrets into reconsidering their decision.

Thanks to John Curtice, as well as to the various polls he collects in order to produce his invaluable rolling averages, many people may be aware that the number of Brits exhibiting what has come to be called ‘Bregret’ has risen over time, such that when people are asked how they’d vote now some 57% would support (re)joining the EU vs 43% who want to stay out.

This is both a composite and a headline figure – composite because, like every ‘poll of polls’ it melds together responses to different surveys asking slightly different questions; headline because it excludes the Don’t Knows/Won’t Says.  And at the moment it produces a marginally bigger gap between (re)join and stay out than most individual polls.  For instance, a survey conducted just before Christmas by Omnisis suggested join was on 45% vs 32% for stay out, with the remainder (23%) not able or willing to say one way or the other.

A more recent survey by PeoplePolling, with fieldwork completed just after the New Year, suggests the gap is similarly smaller than the headline figure, albeit with even more respondents (just over a quarter, in fact) declaring themselves unwilling or unable to voice an opinion.

But it also does something more interesting, asking one half of the sample the basic join or stay out question but asking the question to the other half only after reminding them that joining would mean going back into the single market, applying EU law, accepting freedom of movement, and paying into the EU Budget.  The impact isn’t huge but it is instructive: Don’t Know/Won’t Say hardly changes but join drops from 42 to 38% while stay out rises from 33 to 35%.

Delving into the poll’s crossbreaks, we find what we’d expect when we compare, on the one hand, those who voted Leave in 2016 and (separately) those who voted Conservative in 2019 with those who voted Remain and (separately) voted Labour. The former favour staying out over joining by roughly 70:10, the latter favour joining to staying out by the same margin.  We’re also reminded of quite how much age makes a difference.  Up until age 49, getting on for half of respondents are joiners with only around a fifth saying they’d stay out.  Those aged 50-64, however, favour staying out by 40 to 31%, and those aged 65-plus favour doing so by 59 to 26% - a huge margin made all the greater by the fact that far more retirees seem willing and able to state a preference one way or the other.

Now, if you’re pro-EU, there is some (albeit slightly morbid!) encouragement to be had here.  Recent research suggests that, if there has been a decline in support for Brexit (and there does seem to have been) around a third of that decline is due to ‘voter replacement’ – a polite way of talking about the fact that a fair few old, Brexity voters have shuffled off this mortal coil to be replaced by younger people who are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit.  If these people hold on to that view as they get older, then a ‘cohort effect’ may eventually produce a majority for rejoining.

The other reason support for Brexit seems to have declined has to do with a growing feeling among Leavers that it’s been bad for the economy, not least in the wake of Liz Truss’s and Kwasi Kwarteng’s whacky few weeks in charge.  This, of course, may not offer so much encouragement to rejoiners: after all, an economic recovery could theoretically see some of those disenchanted Leavers swing back to thinking the country was right to quit the EU in 2016 and that they would vote to stay out today.

The take-home message from the polling right now, then, is that, while Brexiteers aren’t exactly winning the battle for hearts and minds, there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of a sure-fire majority for rejoin emerging anytime soon.

As to why that’s the case, we can only guess.  Most likely it’s that many Brits just don’t think they could face the chaos, even the trauma, that would inevitably accompany an attempt to reopen the question of the UK’s membership, and anyway it’s only been two years since we left so perhaps we should give it more time?  Also, the SNP aside, opposition parties – principally Labour and the Lib Dems – haven’t provided voters with much encouragement to think rejoining is a serious option.

That’s mainly because they’re convinced (rightly) that they need to win back Leave voters in order to have any chance of victory at the next election.  But it’s also because they’ve finally twigged that telling people they’ve made a stupid mistake isn’t, psychologically, the best way of convincing them to undo it.  Better instead to let them come to that conclusion themselves – perhaps through the evidence of their own eyes and experience, perhaps as the analysis provided by those much-maligned experts begins to filter down, or perhaps as (unlikely as it may seem) ‘EUstalgia’ becomes a thing.

Rejoiners, then, would be well advised to let (human) nature to take its course and to heed the old proverb – ‘least said, soonest mended.’ Whether, however, the EU would really want the UK back in the fold if they succeed in putting together a majority to apply for entry who knows?  Right now, I rather doubt it.

 

Tim Bale

Tim Bale

January 2023

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