We have heard it repeated time and again: “Brexit means Brexit”. But what do the public actually want from Brexit?
Is there really much support for the no-deal Brexit that the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems so keen on either enthusiastically promoting or carefully not ruling out (depending on your perspective)?
The sequence is often the same. You may know it well.
It starts with a commentator saying that the people knew what they were voting for when they voted for Brexit. How could they not? The endless media coverage, the constant details flowing from each campaign, every household in Britain receiving a leaflet.
Said commentator will then explain what it is that the public wants. In a remarkable (and yet simultaneously unsurprising) number of cases, this explanation of what the public supposedly wants will then match closely what the commentator wants. And repeat. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200.
At this point it is probably important to say that such a sequence is not only confined to the Leave side of the Brexit debate. Both sides, along with many more in politics generally, claim to know what the people want – and while this is often wrong, it is not necessarily the case that this is always done mendaciously. False-consensus bias is a real thing and can be an issue in such circumstances.
So what do we actually know about what the public really wants from Brexit? It will come as no shock to hear that the picture is both deeply divided and often complicated.
For starters, various campaign groups and organisations on both sides of the debate have, from time to time, commissioned simple Agree/Disagree-style questions to support their arguments. The wording of such questions is crucial, the findings vary hugely and they rarely provide much in the way of a definitive insight.
It is more useful, therefore, to look at what the public chooses when provided with a range of possible Brexit options. The latest data from Deltapoll shows just how divided the British people are.
The two most popular options, by some distance, are those at either end of the scale: “Brexit should be abandoned altogether” and “Refuse to make any more concessions with the EU and leave without a Brexit deal if necessary”.
But while these two options do attract the highest numbers, they are both consistently chosen by only around three out of ten people. All of the other options (“Negotiators should try to get the existing deal agreed because it is the only remaining chance of getting Brexit though”, “The Prime Minister should go back to the drawing board and come up with a more acceptable plan by the Brexit date this year” and “Delay Article 50 to postpone Brexit and give the Prime Minister as much time as needed to come up with a more acceptable plan”) fall some way behind in the public’s affections.
Based on this evidence, it is true to say that a hard Brexit is, time and again, the most popular option, but abandoning Brexit altogether is equally popular. And when neither option attracts support from even a third of the electorate, let alone a majority, is “popular” even the right word?
Among those who voted Leave in 2016, a majority do support hard Brexit, but even among this group, fewer than six out of ten Leave voters are convinced. It would be a big stretch to describe such support as overwhelming.
Another way to look at things, rather than summaries of approaches, is to look at what Leave voters actually want from Brexit in terms of specifics.
Back in March, research from Professor Stephen Fisher at Oxford University examined what Leave voters think is needed to honour the referendum result, from a list of 12 possible outcomes.
Top of the list, with support from over eight out of ten Leave voters, was “Full control of immigration and borders”. Around three quarters supported “No more payments to the EU”, “No longer subject to EU law”, “Ability to negotiate and implement new trade deals” and “No longer part of the European Court of Justice”. By the time you reach such key tenets of hard Brexit as “Leaving the EU single market” and “Leaving the EU customs union”, support falls to around two thirds.
The difficulty facing anyone tasked with delivering Brexit is then revealed in the options attracting support of only half of Leave voters at most. How easy is it to appease just under the half of Leave voters who believe that there should be “Continued rights to remain for EU citizens living in the UK” while at the same time not disappointing the nearly three out of ten who believe that “EU citizens living in the UK to leave the country” is the way forward?
Right now, most Leave voters do agree on some aspects of Brexit, but certainly not all. There is heterogeneity in the Leave vote that should not be ignored. It may be true that people knew what they voted for, but what they voted for often varies from person to person. Yes, you could argue that hard Brexit is the most popular option, but you could also argue Sneezy is the tallest of Snow White’s housemates.
As with all polling, it is worth remembering that it is only a snapshot of public opinion at the present time. While it is true that the results have not changed significantly for a long period, history tells us that there is the potential for enormous change very rapidly, depending on when and how the effects of Brexit are felt, be they positive or negative.
Will the current level of support for hard Brexit be enough of a foundation on which to build? We may find out in a few months.
Joe Twyman is co-founder of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll and co-presenter of the Polling Politics podcast. He is on twitter @joetwyman