Bregrets, They’ve Had A Few
British voters appear to be regretting their decision to leave the European Union, but it may be too late to stop the process.
A new poll says that British voters would reverse their decision to leave the European Union if a second Brexit vote were held:
U.K. voters would vote to remain in the EU by a majority of 54 percent if a referendum were held today, according to a poll of 20,000 people across every constituency in the country.
The unusually large poll, carried out by Survation for Channel 4, indicates a swing of 6 percentage points from Leave to Remain since the 2016 referendum and an 8-point margin in a second vote. The data also suggests that 105 local authorities that voted Leave in the original referendum would switch to Remain if a national vote on EU membership were held today.
Moreover, the poll found that if the U.K. and EU agree an exit deal, 55 percent of the voters said they would support at least one version of a second referendum, while 15 percent opposed all of the potential referendum options put to them.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly rejected the idea of holding a second Brexit vote, but the results — combined with a Hanbury Strategy poll conducted for POLITICO and published at the weekend which showed 53 percent support for Remain — are likely to spark further calls from Brexit campaigners for a referendum on the terms of Britain’s eventual EU deal.
The large size of the new poll means that it can provide useful estimates about changes of opinion within the 380 individual local authorities sampled. According to the data, in every one of those but two, there is a swing toward Remain — the exceptions being the City of London and Richmondshire in Yorkshire, which in 2016 had Leave vote shares of 24.7 percent and 56.8 percent respectively. In both cases, the swing to Leave estimated by the poll is lower than 2 percentage points.
By contrast, two local authorities have estimated swings to Remain of more than a whopping 14 percentage points, according to the polling data. Newham in East London voted to Remain in 2016 (with a Leave vote share of 47.2 percent) while Leave won 62.4 percent of the votes in Barking and Dagenham in 2016. The new poll suggests the latter borough would vote to Remain if a referendum were conducted today.
Thirty-three other local authorities have experienced a swing of more than 10 points to Remain since the referendum, according to the data. And support for leaving the EU fell most dramatically in the local authorities with the highest leave vote shares in 2016.
The Survation poll also showed that 67 percent of voters said that the U.K. should continue to have a close relationship with the EU after Brexit. This is almost three times as many (23 percent) voters who believe the U.K. and EU should not have a close relationship.
All of this comes amid a Brexit process that is not going nearly as smoothly as Prime Minister Theresa May and her government would like and that this would lead to political instability in London. The best example of that came in July when several members of May’s government, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, abruptly resigned their positions over the status of Brexit negotiations. In September, it was reported that May was continuing to push a hard line on Brexit negotiations despite the fact that it was posing complications for issues related to free movement of people across borders, and specifically the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an issue which many fear could reignite tensions between Catholics and Protestants that were largely resolved in the 1990s. Additional unresolved issues include the rights of British ex-pats living and working in other parts of Europe and European ex-pats living and working in the United Kingdom. With the clock ticking down toward a deadline at the end of March 2019, there isn’t much time for the matters to be resolved.
This also isn’t the first time that the issue of a second Brexit vote has been raised. Back in February, polling was showing that a majority of Britons supported the idea of such a referendum and that a majority of them would vote in favor of remaining in the European Union, a reversal that a narrow majority of Brits took in the 2016 referendum when by they voted by a relatively slim majority, to leave the European Union, Given that relatively slim majority, and the fact that “Remain” was actually leading in the polls for a considerable period of time prior to the actual referendum and that public approval of the Brexit negotiation process has been one of the most divisive issues in British politics since the process began shortly after the vote.
Not surprisingly, much of the consternation that Britons are expressing regarding Brexit now involve things that could have and should have been easily foreseeable at the time of the referendum. For example, those who supported remaining in the E.U. presented a rather convincing case that leaving the E.U. would have an adverse impact on the British economy. Since the vote, some examples of that have already made themselves apparent as several businesses in the U.K. have talked openly about relocating operations to the continent after Brexit due to the fact that would no longer be able to take advantage of the open trade policies that have been a hallmark of the European Union since even before the E.U. itself came into existence. There has also been speculation that Brexit could lead to London losing its status as a major world financial center due to the fact that investment firms would see Brexit as an opportunity to move at least some operations to the elsewhere in Europe, most likely Berlin. Additionally, many Britons, especially younger ones who have grown up knowing nothing other than a United Kingdom that was part of a greater European community, are beginning to realize that the end of the E.U. likely means an end to the easy travel to and from the continent that they have enjoyed for some two decades now, and that it would also lead to many Europeans who have come to live and work in Great Britain returning home. As noted much of this was foreseeable prior to the Brexit vote and was an argument that Remainers made frequently during the run-up to the 2016 referendum.
As I said, however, all of that was easily foreseeable in June 2016 before the original Brexit referendum, and Brits nonetheless chose to go forward. As I noted above, that referendum resulted in a relatively slim majority choosing to leave the E.U. in a vote that brought roughly 72% of the U.K.’s registered voters to the polls. In the end, the margin in favor of leaving was just under 1.3 million votes, which was just about 2.7% of the total amount of people who voted and 1.9% of the total population of the United Kingdom. As I noted in the wake of the vote last year, that leads to the question of why the vote authorizing the referendum didn’t require some form of a supermajority in favor of leaving given the consequences that the decision would quite obviously have for the U.K. in the future. It’s been pointed out to me that such a supermajority requirement would not have been consistent with the Parliamentary system that governs the United Kingdom, but the same thing can be said about a referendum itself. Additionally, since the terms of any referendum would have to be set by Parliament to begin with there’s no per se bar to the idea that the law authorizing the referendum requiring that a “yes” vote in favor of leaving would require support from more than just a slim majority of the total amount of people who voted. Finally, it’s notable that the 1973 referendum in which British voters approved entry into the Common Market, an early precursor to the European Union, was approved by 67% of the voters. While that referendum only required a bare majority like the Brexit referendum, the fact that entry was met with widespread approval while Brexit was approved by a very slim majority should have been an indication to British leaders that the public support for “Leave” was neither wide nor deep. Those issues are in the past, of course, but these poll numbers do seem to indicate that at least some portion of the British public is beginning to think that the decision to leave the E.U. deserved more consideration than it actually received.
The process going forward with regard to Brexit is a complicated one. Before we can even get close to discussing the question of a second Brexit vote, for example, the May government need to complete the negotiations with the European Union over the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit. That process isn’t expected to be over until some time later this year at the earliest, and possibly not until early in 2019. At that point, the deal would go before Parliament for final approval, and it’s likely that Remainers and possibly others will push at that time for a second referendum. How that process will play out, though, is up in the air and its outcome is quite uncertain for several reasons.
First of all, of course, there’s the fact that any such referendum would have to be authorized by Parliament just as the original vote was. Right now, there is no such authorization and its expected that the normal process, which would have the final deal negotiated by May’s government voted on by Parliament rather than being subjected to a referendum. In order for a second vote to proceed, there would have to be authorization granted by Parliament, and it’s unclear if there would be sufficient support for a second vote. Hardline Brexiteers in the ruling Conservative Party seem to be ruling out such an option, and the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn remains as committed to the Brexit option as it has been since the conclusion of the June 2016 referendum and is on the record as opposing a second referendum notwithstanding the fact that many of the younger voters in the Labour coalition seem to be among the strongest voices rising up to question of the wisdom of leaving the E.U. Given that, it’s unclear whether a measure authorizing a second referendum would even pass Parliament as it is currently configured.
That leads us to the second potential crisis point, the possibility that the entire question of approving the final E.U. exit deal, whether it be in Parliament or via a referendum, could lead to a political crisis in Great Britain. If Parliament fails to approve the deal, for example, then it’s likely that this would lead to a third General Election since 2015, and it would likely be one that could bode ill for May’s grip on power. As it stands, May’s position in Parliament is significantly weaker than it was when she took office in no small part due to the fact that the Conservatives lost a significant part of their majority in last June’s hastily called snap election, which May had called in no small party because initial polling had indicated that the Tories stood to sizable increase their position in the House of Commons. Instead, the election ended in a Hung Parliament that forced May to cut a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to keep her party in power. A third election could end up benefiting the Tories, or it could end up putting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in power. As I noted, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is on record opposing the idea of a second referendum, but other forces inside his party take the opposite position and it’s not clear what position the party would take in a future election, especially if the idea of a second referendum becomes more popular among the public at large.
Finally, it’s entirely unclear how the European Union might view all of this. As it stands, the provisions of Article 50 make it next to impossible for a nation that has invoked its provisions to leave the union and gone ahead and negotiated an exit agreement as that provision requires to rethink that decision and remain in the union after all. Some E.U. officials have apparently already stated that once a Brexit deal is negotiated then there is no going back for the United Kingdom and that any bid to remain in the Union would have to involve yet another round of negotiations. Whether the E.U. would retain that position, or simply chose to act as if the previous two or three years had never happened if Great Britain were to suddenly decided to remain in the union after all is a complete unknown at this point. This means, of course, that any second referendum or a General Election that leads to the election of a pro-Remain government in London could end up having no legal impact at all. Perhaps those Britons who voted to leave the E.U. should have thought about all of this before casting their ballots.