Does the UK have Bregrets? Polling shows how Brexit will factor into the next election

Have voters changed their minds about leaving the EU, and has Brexit fundamentally reshaped our political identities

Just over six years on from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the referendum result has had a defining impact not just on the country’s relationship with Europe, but also on its internal politics.

To some extent both major parties have been entirely reshaped as they’ve grappled with their respective identities in the wake of the vote, and responded to an electorate which has been split along a new dividing line, differing from the traditional notions of left and right.

Brexit divided the electorate almost completely down the middle, and in the years since there has not been a decisive moment where the country has united around either the decision to leave or a feeling that exiting Europe was the wrong decision.

But as the Brexit vote recedes further into the past, and more recent defining political moments like the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis loom larger in the minds of the electorate, does the 2016 referendum still shape our politics like it did when Boris Johnson’s promises of an oven-ready deal propelled him to an 80-seat majority in 2019?

Beyond this, how do voters feel about the decision, with the benefit of seven years’ hindsight? Prominent Remain-campaigners are quick to throw around the word ‘Bregret,’ while their counterparts in the Leave movement vehemently deny that the 52% made a mistake.

Does Britain regret Brexit?

Most opinion polling suggests that there has been some movement, with YouGov’s latest poll in May showing that 46% would vote to join the European Union if there were a referendum now, and just 33% opting to stay out. While most of the movement comes from those who voted to Leave in 2019, there is also a demographic factor, with younger voters who’ve become eligible since 2016 more likely to be pro-EU.

But as polling expert Seb Wride from Public First explains, this doesn’t necessarily tell the full story. Public First and UK in a Changing Europe have carried out some of the most comprehensive polling done on Brexit since the 2016 referendum, which aimed to get past the surface level claims of either ‘Bregret’ or a hardening of opinions.

“There are around 15-20% of people, depending on how you ask the question, who in one form or another have Brexit-regret,” he said.

“But a good chunk of those people don’t now feel that Brexit was always bound to go wrong. They’re not really saying ‘we were wrong in the first place and we were lied to,’ it’s more like ‘the politicians in the years since Brexit have messed this up’, and there’s a lot of anger.”

This is borne out in other polls. YouGov’s tracker on how people think the government is handling Brexit shows a steady growth in the proportion of people who don’t think it is being handled well. Currently around 67% disapprove while only 22% think the government is doing a good job. In January 2020, these figures were much closer together, both at around 40%.

Public First found that, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, most people tend to think that Brexit hasn’t turned out particularly well so far.

Among Leave voters, only 18% said it has turned out ‘very well’ or ‘well’, compared with 22% either ‘badly’ or ‘very badly’ - leaving 30% who said neither well nor badly and 26% who said it was too soon to say.

Perhaps more predictably, 78% of Remain voters believe it has turned out badly or very badly, compared with just 5% very well or well. But in the long run, a significant proportion of Leave voters still have faith - with 61% saying it will turn out very well or well.

How will Brexit factor into the next general election?

So how does this factor into the next election? Will voters be thinking about Brexit when they step into polling booths? Generally, voters do not see Brexit as the primary policy priorities going into the next election, although the figure is relatively high among both Leave and Remain voters. And, perhaps surprisingly, Remain voters (66%) rank it higher than Leavers (59%). Overall, Healthcare (90%), the economy (88%) and crime and policing (84%) all rank significantly higher.

But while it may not be the primary thing influencing their decision, Wride believes it has a part to play. Particularly among a relatively small but influential group of voters who feel politicians haven’t really tried to make a success of Brexit.

“Looking ahead to the next election, this feeling is contributing to a sense of broader apathy with most of the political party’s offers. There’s this chunk of people saying Brexit is going badly. There’s a chunk further saying that politicians could have made Brexit work, but they didn’t even try. These voters were majority Conservative in 2019, but now they’re looking elsewhere, they’re looking at Reform, and a chunk of them are looking at Labour.

“So in bad news for Rishi Sunak, the reality is that this does matter to a small but important group that he needs to vote for him in the next election. For Starmer - whose approach has been basically to not talk about Brexit - it’s about being careful. There is scope based on the polling for him to push for something like ‘forming closer relations with the EU. But if he  starts getting perceived as a Remainer - as someone who’s going to bring us all back to the EU and as someone who could reopen those wounds effectively - it’s going to be a problem.

Going beyond the next election, Brexit seems to have had a lasting impact on how people view themselves politically.

“Broader political ideas now seem to split by Remain vs. Leave - and you could imagine it positioned on a traditional political spectrum of liberal/authoritarian or left/right, but it does seem to have opened a specific divide that the parties weren’t opening before,” said Wride.

“We’ve polled people on whether they feel like Leavers and Remainers more than they do Tory and Labour voters and you know, a lot of people don’t really express any political identities as such, but there’s a good chunk who still feel that they’re more of a Leaver than they are Conservative and more of a Remainer than they are a Labour voter.”

“Interestingly, this was quite prevalent among 18-24s, a good chunk of them feel that they’re a Leaver or Remainer before they’re Conservative or Labour - despite none of them getting to vote in the 2016 referendum.”

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