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FEATURE27 March 2018

Brexit one year on: everyone’s a loser

Brexit Features Public Sector UK

A year after Theresa May triggered Article 50, BritainThinks’ latest wave of qualitative research on Leavers’ and Remainers’ views of Brexit reveals universal dissatisfaction. Jane Bainbridge reports

With the referendum result in June 2016 meaning Britain was leaving the EU, insight and strategy consultancy BritainThinks set up a project to track the way voters felt the exit process was going. 

This involved inviting 100 voters – roughly split between those who’d voted to leave and those who’d voted to remain – across 10 locations, to keep diaries. It also surveyed 2,000 nationally representative adults for wider statistics.

One year on from Article 50 being triggered – the clause that outlines the formal process for a country to voluntarily leave the EU – BritainThinks has gone back to 30 diarists in its latest wave of qualitative research.

It has previously identified four key groups: Die-hards, passionate Leavers; Cautious Optimists, those who are generally positive about leaving the EU; Accepting Pragmatists, moderate Remainers; and Devastated Pessimists, Remainers who see no positives and are still disappointed in the outcome.

Deborah Mattinson, partner at BritainThinks said: “While voters are not much engaged with the process, they are awaiting the outcomes with interest – and anxiety. Most, however, have not seen much to change their views year on year.”

Five themes have emerged:

  1. No one feels like they’re winning from Brexit.

People are generally not engaged in Brexit and find its complexity and technicalities boring – they feel like Brexit has been going on for ages. Most people are still waiting to see what Brexit really means for them.

On both sides, people’s opinions are becoming slightly more moderate. People find it easier to identify the ‘losers’ from Brexit than the ‘winners’.

Big business and the ‘elite’ are most likely to be viewed as the winners.

  1. There’s a widespread sense that negotiations are going badly. 

Sixty-three per cent of the public believe that negotiations are going badly – among Devastated Pessimists it’s 86% and Die-hards 43%. Leavers see progress in negotiations as primarily an issue of motive – they think the EU is making things difficult for the UK with the ‘liberal elite’ undermining the progress. Remainers blame government incompetence for poor progress.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are viewed as performing badly in this area from both sides. 

  1. Few expect a good deal in the end.

 Just over a quarter ( 26%) believe Britain will get a good deal with the EU. Most believe that problems in the negotiations make it more likely Britain will get a bad deal. 

  1. Be wary of any suggestions that support for Brexit is decreasing.

While some polls have suggested the public is moving towards thinking the UK was wrong to vote to Leave, voter disengagement with the specifics of Brexit means that few are re-evaluating their position.

YouGov tracking shows people’s opinions have hardly changed. Even if people regret Brexit, it doesn’t mean they want to stop it. 

  1. There appears to be very specific support for a vote on the final deal.

Both Leavers and Remainers think that it is important to ‘give people a say’ on any deal between the UK and the EU. But this doesn’t necessarily extend to a second referendum.

Tom Clarkson, associate director at BritainThinks, who led the research, said: “The fact that both Leavers and Remainers currently see few winners from Brexit underlines that the public mood towards the government’s course in negotiations is very negative. With most voters bored of media coverage on the topic by now, it’s unclear how the current government can emerge from negotiations with its reputation in credit.”

A panel then commentated on the research findings.

Christopher Hope, chief political correspondent at The Telegraph, said: “The fact that Theresa May can’t answer the question ‘would you vote for Brexit today’ is unbelievable. Even if you don’t believe it, say you do, because you’re the leader. Corbyn is sitting it out – a bad Brexit is good for him and he knows it.”

Rachel Sylvester, political columnist at The Times, said: “Corbyn is a Brexiter instinctively but leading a party that’s mostly Remain. So, both May and Corbyn are doing something they don’t believe in. The majority in the Cabinet are now pursuing a policy they don’t believe in and May thinks it will make the country poorer and less safe.

“No wonder people are fed up and not getting the positives of Brexit – there’s ambiguity across the political class.  The whole process is exactly what people hate about politics. Whether we can extend the transition period is now quite a live debate among MPs and Peers. “

Spencer Livermore, partner at BritainThinks, Peer and former Labour Party strategist said: “The underlying change in optimism among Leave voters is extraordinary – a year ago the quotes were about it being a whole new start and full of excitement. Now they’re saying there won’t be any winners. They voted to kick the elites and now they’re staying the elites are the only winners.

“Extremism worries me – those promises and optimism; now there’s a gap in expectations and reality and where does that anger go? The research also shows the extend to which Britain is divided; it’s about Leave/Remain alignment not Left/Right. Now the divisions are on different value propositions.

“If people don’t trust experts, who do they trust to know if the deal is good or bad? The focus groups show no one is seen as impartial, everyone is seen as arguing for a particular perspective.”