Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer should be wary of ignoring Brexit for too long - the polls are only going one way

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The latest polls show 50% of people would vote to rejoin the EU if a referendum was held now, up from 46% last month.

Four years ago, it seemed inconceivable that Brexit wouldn’t be the main dividing line going into an election

Political allegiances were sharply divided into leave and remain, with 73% of voters saying it was the most important issue to the country. Since then there’s been a war in Ukraine, inflation has run rampant and mortgage rates have gone through the roof.

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Now only 17% of people think it’s the number one issue facing the UK, and voters and politicians - including Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer - seem to want to forget about it.

Certainly for the time being, it makes sense for neither party leader to bring it into sharp focus. For Sunak, a Brexiteer, two-thirds of the country thinks the UK’s exit from the EU is being handled badly by the government.

And according to YouGov, faith in the Conservatives on Brexit has dropped from 43% in March 2020 to just 21% now. While confidence in Labour to tackle Brexit has increased from just 7% to 17% - so it's understandable why Starmer does not want to make a bold statement about re-joining the bloc or the single market.

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer would be mindful not to ignore the elephant in the room, which is Brexit. Credit: Getty/Adobe/Mark HallRishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer would be mindful not to ignore the elephant in the room, which is Brexit. Credit: Getty/Adobe/Mark Hall
Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer would be mindful not to ignore the elephant in the room, which is Brexit. Credit: Getty/Adobe/Mark Hall | Getty/Adobe/Mark Hall

However, neither politician can put their hand over their ears and ignore the music for too long as public opinion is shifting. Yesterday, YouGov announced that 46% of voters want a referendum in the next 10 years, 10 percentage points higher than those that don’t.

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Support for remain appears to be steadily rising as well. The latest polls show 50% of people would vote to rejoin the EU if a referendum was held now, up from 46% last month. Support for leave has also reduced over the same period, from 33% to 30%.

The direction of travel appears to be only going one way, as people realise the issues with leaving the EU. Small businesses have told me of extra costs and red tape, while farmers are fighting to stay afloat as government subsidies reduce. Even simple things, like not being able to use e-gates and phone data while on holiday.

When the positives are hard to find, people tend to focus on the negatives - no matter how small and insignificant they might seem. And as the negative impact on the economy becomes more apparent, Treasury Minister John Glen was quizzed last week about the Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimation that leaving the EU had the same effect on GDP as the pandemic, Brexit will become a more salient issue in the eyes of voters.

Indeed, pollsters still think it will have an impact on the next general election. Last month, Seb Wride from Public First told my colleague Ethan Shone that in particular Sunak should be concerned.

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He said: “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.”

Zack Polanski, Green Party deputy leader and London Assembly Member. Credit: Ming Yeung/Getty Images.Zack Polanski, Green Party deputy leader and London Assembly Member. Credit: Ming Yeung/Getty Images.
Zack Polanski, Green Party deputy leader and London Assembly Member. Credit: Ming Yeung/Getty Images. | Getty Images

And while the Tories and Labour are still trying to ignore Brexit, the Green Party is only happy to take the increasing numbers of pro-remain voters looking for a home.

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Deputy leader Zack Polanski told NationalWorld: "Brexit has been a disaster, both for our economy but also our collective story about who we are as a country.

"We'll always make the case that although the EU has never been perfect - collective international solidarity with our European neighbours has always been vastly preferable to an isolationism which is failing even on its own terms."

Wride also explained that voters still see themselves as leave versus remain before thinking in party politics. 

“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.”

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“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.”

If a referendum is held in the next 10 years, which, now, a plurality of voters want, a lot more young Remainers, who couldn’t vote in 2016, would be able to have their say. And if the trends continue the way they are, there will only be one winner. Sunak and Starmer need to stop ignoring Brexit, as reality will catch up with them sooner or later.

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