2018 has been a tumultuous year for the politics of Brexit but a remarkably stable one for public attitudes towards it. Indeed, despite a series of key political developments over the past 12 months, there remains little evidence that the balance of opinion on whether Britain should remain in or leave the EU has shifted significantly.
Polls taken throughout the year have shown a small but consistent majority for Remain, with the latest WhatUKThinks EURef2 Poll of Polls – a moving average of the six most recent polls on EU voting intention – currently measuring the balance of opinion at 53% for Remain and 47% for Leave. This indicates a slight shift from the beginning of 2017, when the polls hinted at a comparably small majority in favour of Leave. However, rather than this being the result of a significant number of Leave supporters changing their minds about the merits of their initial decision, much of this apparent shift is accounted for by those who did not vote in 2016 saying they would now vote Remain over Leave, a group among whom turnout in any hypothetical second referendum is far from certain.
What could explain this stability in attitudes over the year? One contributing factor may be that citizens’ voting preferences have been shown to closely reflect their underlying values and identities, with voters now more likely to identify as ‘Remainers’ or ‘Leavers’ than they are to identify as supporters of a political party. This identification is based on a strong emotional attachment to the cause of remaining in or leaving the EU, and views that are based so heavily on a voter’s identity are particularly unlikely to change. Further, while there has been discontent among both Remain and Leave supporters with how the Brexit process has unfolded, Leave supporters in particular have attributed procedural difficulties to the shortcomings of political actors on both sides of the negotiating table, rather than on the decision to leave the EU itself.
Despite the relative stability of public attitudes towards the merits or otherwise of leaving the EU, this year saw calls for a second referendum gain in prominence with the launch of the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign in April. The public, however, have been more ambivalent towards the idea of a second referendum than those campaigning may have wished. While polling has been extensive in this area, the wide variety of differently-worded questions makes any overall change in attitudes challenging to track. However it appears that respondents (and Leave voters especially) are more likely to approve of somehow giving the ‘public’ a say than they are to back a ‘second referendum’, while levels of support vary according to the answer options available on any hypothetical second ballot. Overall, while most of the questions that have appeared throughout the year have found more people in favour of some form of a second ballot than against, the balance of opinion has varied widely. As such, despite the idea of a second vote gaining prominence in some quarters, there is little evidence that this has been reflected in any great sea-change in public opinion.
Finally, this year also saw the government attempt to outline what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will look like, in the form of the Chequers agreement reached by the Cabinet in July and the draft withdrawal agreement published in November. Evidence from the polls suggested that the public response to Chequers was lukewarm, with the agreement causing disillusionment among Leave voters in particular. According to Survation, for example, around half of Leave supporters did not consider Chequers to be ‘faithful’ to the referendum result, while Deltapoll found that as many as 37% of Leave voters thought the agreement represented a ‘betrayal’ of the result. Chequers also appeared to further undermine Leave voters’ confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit. Opinium found that support for the PM’s performance among Leave supporters fell from +1 before the agreement to -31 in its aftermath.
With Chequers as its blueprint, it is perhaps unsurprising that the government’s draft withdrawal agreement met with a similar public response. A Survation poll in November, for example, found a majority (57%) of people, if given the opportunity, would vote against the deal, while more recent polls show that the deal remains relatively unpopular - in the last 5 polls taken by YouGov, for example, on average 24% support the deal with 44% opposed. Although typically Remain voters prefer the agreement to leaving the EU without a deal and Leave voters prefer it to not leaving at all, the fact that Theresa May’s deal has consistently been the second preference for many voters is unlikely to provide a persuasive argument for MPs to back it in Parliament. As has been the case with other aspects of Brexit this year, heightened political activity has been accompanied by a relative stability in public attitudes.