Sam Bright reviews exclusive polling for Byline Times, revealing the public’s newfound pessimism towards Brexit

Brexit has been the defining feature of Westminster politics since 2014, thwarting progressive parties and helping to sustain a long period of reactionary Conservative rule.

The intricacies of Brexit have been rehearsed and rehashed for more than half a decade, and the common narratives are difficult to dislodge.

However, evidence increasingly suggests that attitudes to Brexit are changing; that it’s no longer the binding force that propelled Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party to an 80-seat majority in December 2019.

This is confirmed by new Byline Times polling, conducted by Omnisis, showing that previously pro-Brexit cohorts of voters are now increasingly apathetic towards the policy – all while anti-Brexit voters are still firmly opposed to our separation from the EU.

While the 2019 General Election was cast as the Brexit election – with Johnson famously pledging to ‘Get Brexit Done’ – the issue is less consequential in the minds of some voters than three years ago.

Nearly half – 46% – of voters surveyed said that Brexit won’t be a significant factor in how they vote at the next election. Notably, however, Brexit is a significant factor in the political decisions of the most anti-Brexit groups.

Take age, for example, which is a reliable proxy for support for Leave and Remain (older groups being more heavily in favour of leaving the EU). Brexit will be a significant factor at the next election for 64% of 18-24 year-olds and 66% of 25-34 year-olds, compared to just 45% of 55-64 year-olds and 43% of those aged over 65.

Brexit is also more significant to those who didn’t vote Conservative at the last election. Some 74% of those surveyed who voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2019 say that Brexit will be a significant factor in how they vote next time around, matched by 62% of 2019 Labour voters but just 47% of 2019 Conservatives.

This trend is also seen among those who voted Remain – 64% of whom say that Brexit is still a significant factor in their electoral choices – while 47% of Leave voters share this opinion.

In short: Brexit is no longer the binding force that it was in 2019 among Leave voters, whereas it is still a unifying issue among those who voted Remain.

The polling also shows that Mr Brexit, Boris Johnson, no longer draws political strength from his association with the project.

Only 21% of those surveyed by Omnisis – a politically and demographically representative sample of 1,000 people – said that they are more likely to vote Conservative based on Johnson’s Brexit stance. In contrast, 48% of people said that they are less likely to vote Conservative due to Johnson’s views on Brexit, and 31% are neither more nor less likely.

A greater proportion of people in every age bracket say that they are less likely to vote for the Conservatives due to Johnson’s Brexit policies, than those who are more likely, while apathy towards Johnson’s Brexit position grows as age increases.

Are you more likely to vote Conservative at the next election based on Boris Johnson’s views on Brexit?

18-24
16% more likely; 61% less likely; 23% neither more nor less

45-54
19% more likely; 50% less likely; 32% neither more nor less

65+
24% more likely; 31% less likely; 45% neither more nor less

Once again, voters who opted for Brexit-averse parties in 2019 are unified on this question, whereas the pro-Brexit vote is increasingly split.

40% of 2019 Conservatives are more likely to vote for the party next time around, due to Johnson’s views on Brexit, whereas 68% of 2019 Labour voters are less likely, as are 63% of Lib Dems.

This perhaps explains why the Liberal Democrats have notched up recent by-election victories in North Shropshire, and Tiverton and Honiton, both of which firmly opted in favour of Brexit in 2016 – matched by Labour’s success in the ‘Red Wall’ seat of Wakefield. The anti-Brexit populous in these seats is still firmly opposed to the Conservatives, while Brexiters who previously backed the Tories are increasingly apathetic and disloyal.

But what are the reasons for the gradual erosion of pro-Brexit sentiment, while those opposed to the project are unmoved?

One explanation could be the situation in Northern Ireland, with the country’s Assembly experiencing another period of paralysis while trade with the rest of Great Britain is increasingly inhibited.

Indeed, some 63% of people say that the UK Government is to blame for the current trade problems in Northern Ireland – a sentiment shared by 90% of the 18-24s, 78% of the 25-34s, 70% of the 35-44 age bracket, and 68% of the 45-54s.

Even the oldest age group, the over-65s, are divided in their attitudes: 39% believing it’s the Government’s fault and 61% blaming the EU.

This trend – of anti-Brexit unity and pro-Brexit uncertainty – again crystallises around the three main Westminster parties, with 64% of 2019 Tories saying the problems in Northern Ireland are the EU’s fault, while 83% of Labour voters and 87% of Lib Dems believing the blame lies with Johnson’s administration.

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Another factor in the disintegration of the Brexit coalition could simply be personal experience. An overwhelming 81% of those surveyed said that they are not personally seeing any benefits of Brexit, including 88% of those over the age of 65 – the highest proportion of any age bracket – 73% of those who voted Conservative in 2019, and 72% of Leave voters.

This confirms the findings of a similar survey that we conducted in May, finding that 67% of voters think that leaving the EU has driven up prices, while only 5% think that Brexit has reduced the cost of living.

In our latest poll, 66% of people say that they do not expect to see any Brexit benefits in the next five years. This figure decreases as age increases, though a majority of over-65s (60%) don’t expect to see any Brexit benefits in the next five years.

2019 Conservative voters are more optimistic than others, with 54% expecting to see Brexit dividends realised in the next five years – matched by 59% of Leave voters – while 77% of Labour voters and 85% of Lib Dems are not so optimistic.


Starmer’s Dilemma

Keir Starmer is today conducting a speech on Brexit, without cameras and without journalists in the audience – epitomising his nervousness towards the subject, that contributed to his party’s worst election performance since the 1930s three years ago.

Evidently, however, voters aren’t as hostile to Starmer’s views on Brexit as they are to Johnson’s. While only 21% of voters say that they are more likely to back the Conservatives due to Johnson’s views on Brexit, this figure rises to 31% in the case of Starmer and Labour.

Every age bracket up to the 55-64s are more likely than less likely to vote Labour due to Starmer’s views on Brexit. The level of neutrality towards Starmer’s Brexit views is also consistent across age brackets, with more than 30% of people across the board saying that they are neither more nor less likely to vote Labour due to Starmer’s views on Brexit – increasing to 42% among the 65+ age bracket.

A significant minority (47%) of 2019 Conservative voters either say that Starmer’s position on Brexit would make them more likely to vote Labour (13%) or would neither make them more nor less likely (34%) to vote Labour. Only 22% of Remain voters are less likely to vote Labour due to Starmer’s stance on Brexit.

Although Brexit isn’t necessarily a winning issue for Starmer’s Labour Party, he does seem to have created a delicate coalition – offering an alternative to unhappy Conservative Brexiters while not alienating anti-Brexit ideologues.

If Starmer has an appetite to shift his position, however, our polling shows that voters may be more receptive to a stronger stance on Brexit – which is perhaps why Starmer has indicated that he’s ‘ready to fight’ Johnson over the issue.

53% of surveyed voters want to see a closer relationship between the UK and EU in the future, only 28% want to see a more distant relationship, while 19% don’t mind.

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This feeling is consistent across all age groups, with 47% of the over-65s wanting to see a closer relationship with the EU, compared to 31% who want a greater degree of separation.

Again, 2019 Conservatives are split (40% wanting more distance from the EU in the future and 35% seeking a closer relationship), while Labour and Lib Dem voters are more certain – 70% and 67% respectively wanting a closer relationship.

Overall, the direction of public opinion is clear, with 56% of Leave voters seeking either a closer relationship with the EU or saying they don’t care, while 76% of Remain voters want a closer relationship.

The question for Labour is also whether adopting a new stance towards the UK’s relationship with the EU – not simply attacking the Conservatives more aggressively on the outcomes of Brexit – will win more votes for the party, in the right areas of the country.

Our polling suggests that 42% of people would be more likely to vote for Labour if the party came out in favour of single market membership – while 31% would be less likely and 26% would be neither more nor less likely. Yet this skews in favour of younger voters who are already much more likely to vote Labour. For example, 62% of 25-34s say they would be more likely to vote for the party if it backed single market membership, falling to 30% among 55-64s – while 48% of this older bracket would be less likely to vote Labour if it adopted a pro-single market policy.

Of those who voted Conservative in 2019, 58% say that they would be less likely to vote Labour if it backed rejoining the single market, while 19% said they would be more likely to plump for Starmer’s party.

We also didn’t point out to those surveyed that rejoining the single market would invariably involve accepting freedom of movement. If we had, it’s likely that the results would have shown even less support for this policy among older, more socially conservative demographics.

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Labour’s decision to criticise the outcomes of Johnson’s Brexit, while supporting the thawing of tensions with the EU, therefore seems to be a politically sound one – for now.

In the medium term, however, if and when the benefits of Brexit firmly fail to materialise, Labour may be able to offer a stronger policy.

64% of the respondents to our poll said that they would support a new referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in the next 10 years. This idea is backed by more than 70% of people under the age of 45 and has a majority of support among all age brackets aside from the over-65s.

Most significantly, 40% of 2019 Conservatives and 40% of Leave voters back a second referendum in the next 10 years. This is matched by 83% of 2019 Labour voters and 87% of 2019 Lib Dems.

Labour’s line today is that “We cannot move forward, deliver change or win back the trust of those who have lost faith in politics by focusing on the arguments of the past.”

Yet Brexit is an ongoing issue for voters, and it’s clear that a substantial proportion do not see the issue as settled.

The full tables and methodology can be found here

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