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British public unhappy about Brexit negotiations, with Leavers and Remainers equally critical

26 March 2019 | Tags: British Social Attitudes, Brexit, NatCen Panel

New data from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) reveals significant shifts in attitudes to the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiation process. Only 7% of Brits think that the UK government has been handling the negotiations well. 80% of Leave voters and 85% of Remain voters believe the government is handling Britain’s exit badly.

Since Autumn 2016 the NatCen panel - Britain’s first award-winning probability-based online and telephone panel - has been interviewing voters on a regular basis, to understand what they want from the Brexit negotiations and how well they think the talks are going.

Now 81% think the government is handling the Brexit negotiations badly. When questioned in 2017, 29% of people said the government was handling Brexit well and 41 % said it was being handled badly. 27% of Leave voters were critical of how the government conducted negotiations, compared with 55% percent of Remainers.

The research also shows a decrease in confidence in Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal. Almost two-thirds (63%) say that Britain has got a bad deal, up from 37% in 2017. Leavers and Remainers are almost equally as likely to think the deal is bad (66% and 64%, respectively), up from 20% and 56% in 2017. Around a half (51%) of the British public say that the proposed deal would mean that Britain’s future relationship with the EU would be too distant and 20% of people think it would result in too close a relationship with the EU.

The number of Brits who think Brexit will negatively impact the economy has increased (58% in 2019 vs 46% in 2017). Leave voters have become more pessimistic; 25% now say the economy will be worse off after Britain leaves the EU compared to 15% of Leavers who held this view in 2017. 41% of Leave voters now say the economy will be better off after Brexit compared to 54% in 2017. Just 4% of Remainers agree that the economy will be better off with the majority (83%) saying it will suffer after Brexit.

The research also highlights that there has been little change in the public’s perceptions of Brexit’s impact on levels of immigration to Britain. 9% of respondents think immigration will be higher after Brexit (7% in 2017) and 39% think it will be lower (43% in 2017). However, 50% don’t believe Brexit will affect immigration levels at all (48% in 2017). The majority of Remain voters (57%) don’t think Brexit will impact immigration, while 8% think it will be higher and 35% think it will be lower. 48% of Leavers predict immigration will fall after exiting the EU, 7% believe it will be higher and 44% don’t expect much difference.

The proportion of people who would like EU migrants to apply to come to Britain has dropped from 68% in 2017 to 59% now. 80% of Leave voters and 46% of Remain voters think EU citizens should apply in the same way as people from outside the EU if they want to come and live in the UK.

When looking at support for leaving the EU by demographics, early data published from the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey indicates that differences between younger and older voters have become more distinct. It becomes clear that almost half (47%) of those aged 65+ identify as either a very strong Leaver or very strong Remainer, compared to only 21% in this age group who do not strongly identify with either side. In contrast, 30% of those aged between 18-24 consider themselves either a very strong Leaver or very strong Remainer, while over a third of young people (37%) have no strong attachment to either side of the Brexit debate.

When looking at differences in attitudes by educational background, 18% of graduates support leaving the EU against 43% of those who do not have any qualifications. While this marks a gap of twenty-five points, divisions in educational background have somewhat reduced since 2017 when 19% of graduates and 54% without qualifications supported Brexit - a difference of thirty-five points.

John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research and Chief Commentator at What UK Thinks: EU says: “Given the polarisation of attitudes, there was always a risk that the Brexit negotiations would result in an outcome that would fail to satisfy most voters. But what, perhaps, is particularly remarkable is that Leave voters have become just as critical as Remain supporters of both the process and the outcome. That is not an outcome that would necessarily have been anticipated, and certainly does not help the Prime Minister in her efforts to secure parliamentary approval of the deal”.

Download NatCen Panel report 'Have politicians delivered? Voters' judgement on the Brexit process'

Download British Social Attitudes 36 chapter 'The EU Debate: Has Brexit Polarised Britain?'