POLITICIANS ON BOTH sides of the Brexit divide talk sanctimoniously of the “will of the people”. Leavers cite the 17.4m who voted to leave in June 2016, insisting too that most of them want a hard Brexit. Remainers claim opinion is changing, pointing to a march for a “people’s vote” in London on March 23rd that drew a purported 1m people, and a petition to revoke Article 50 which has attracted 6m signatories.
In truth, the will of the people is decidedly muddy, declares Sir John Curtice in his latest report for NatCen Social Research, based on survey data collected in early February. Since the autumn of 2016 NatCen has polled the same panel of voters, who like the country as a whole were divided in the referendum by 52% to 48% in favour of Leave.
The most striking finding is how gloomy both sides have become. Among both Leavers and Remainers, only 6% now think that Britain will get a good Brexit deal. Especially among Leavers, they put some of the blame on the EU. But far more goes to Theresa May’s government, which is deemed by four-fifths of voters from both sides to have done a bad job (see chart). Six out of ten now expect to be economically worse off after Brexit.
Might voters warm to a different deal from the one negotiated by Mrs May? NatCen finds almost 60% of voters ready to accept free movement of people from the EU in exchange for free access to its single market. That seems to point to support for a Norway-style soft Brexit, one of the choices for MPs in the indicative votes they have begun holding.
Yet Sir John is cautious about the chimera of a unifying soft Brexit. Three-fifths of Leavers are hostile to free movement; they are simply outnumbered by the three-quarters of Remainers who are keen on the single market. In a separate study for the British Social Attitudes survey, Sir John finds that the two sides identify more strongly with their Brexit preferences than their political parties. There is little sign of compromise.
What if there were another referendum? NatCen suggests that a re-run would produce a 55-45% Remain majority. Given the chaos in Parliament, that margin may even have risen since February. But Sir John warns against being too certain of the result. After all, most polls in 2016 suggested Remain would win.