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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    The parallels to our own 2016 election are obvious. In both cases the voters were told fantastic lies backed up by Russian disinformation campaigns. In both cases the suckers refuse to admit they were played and instead double down on their own victimization. Both votes represent an inexcusable betrayal of future generations. Both votes tapped into racist impulses.

    Combine an ignorant voter base with an utterly amoral willingness by Brexiteers and Trumpies alike to lie and lie and lie again, even to the point of conspiring with the nation’s enemies, and you see the failure of self-government.

    I would just point out that while British and American voters failed to resist Russian disinformation and were played like rubes in a three card monte hustle, French voters were wiser. In this War of Lies, the French had the sophistication and education required to rise above, while we and the Brits did not.

  2. joe Martinez says:

    The referendum itself was a bad idea, we weren’t voting on concrete plans or anything that had been researched, or thought out. Attempts to point out the stupidity of the idea were dismissed as “project fear” or unpatriotic running down of Britain, so some laughably optimistic scenarios were painted, everything from “shooting yourself isn’t always fatal” to “if we all believe it will happen” were mooted as solutions. It was Wizard of Oz politics, which later returned to Kansas, and got the US Trump.
    It is easy to blame the people for voting badly, but the campaign was based on lies by people in authority who should be trustworthy, plus because the vote had no clear plan, a lot of people voted “leave” as a rejection of the government, or on a whim. As a bonus for leave it also told a whopping lie that we’d be flooded by immigrants a 1000 miles away.
    Leave is now a less attractive option, even for its supporters, the US of Obama is not the US of Trump. The US is now unstable and untrustworthy and run by a serial bankrupt engaged in sending the US economy to perdition. Trump has effectively put the US economy on a whisky diet, currently it has had a glass or two and feels good, but it’s prospects of remaining healthy are based on muddled thinking and downing some more scotch as an alternative to serious planning.
    At least Britain has the chance to reverse the stupidity before it becomes the norm, unlike the US who are stuck with 4 years of madness.

  3. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Add to all that the eagerness of far-right and alt-right figures to make hay while the sun doesn’t shine.

  4. PJ says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I would just point out that while British and American voters failed to resist Russian disinformation and were played like rubes in a three card monte hustle, French voters were wiser. In this War of Lies, the French had the sophistication and education required to rise above, while we and the Brits did not.

    Except for the fact that LePen’s party is polling ahead of Macron’s in the upcoming EU election…
    The French are just a bit late, and so are the Germans.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    The chance is high that the Brits are going to go over the cliff no matter what. The more gullible ultra-Brexiters have convinced themselves that everything will be sunshine and unicorns if they crash out, the Tory politicians don’t want to replace Theresa May until Brexit actually happens, after which they’ll throw her out and blame everything that goes wrong on her….half of the Remainers are trying to get a second referendum started, even though there’s no time. The EU doesn’t want to give the impression that it’s meddling, so it’s staying quiet.

    At the moment, Brexit has absolutely nothing to do with reality or common sense. It’s turned into a religion. People who bring up the problems are accused of “Project Fear” or “not believing enough in Britain.” (usually some comments about WWII and Dunkirk are also added.)

    Certain groups (the DUP, disaster capitalists) have the bit between their teeth and are grabbing for as much power and money as possible, regardless of what will happen down the road. (It’s ironic, but the most likely result of Brexit in 10 years is going to be the reunification of Ireland.) Companies are being vewwy vewwy quiet about their plans because they don’t want to be accused of being “traitors who don’t believe in Britain!” but a lot of them are making preparations behind the scenes assuming a total crash-out.

    Basically, everyone with any sense knows that this is a total chaotic mess leading to total disaster, but too many people think they can benefit from the situation to want to reverse the referendum.

    ….very much like the beginnings of WWI. The Brits are going to have to learn the hard way that the U.K. isn’t as important as they think it is, and that bluffing isn’t that great a strategy. They are also going to learn that it’s not tariffs that are going to do the kibosh on their import/export but the non-tariff regulations. Get used to living off turnips and cabbages, guys–that’s what the bulk of your future diet will be based on. If you can find people to pick them….

  6. Lounsbury says:

    Well, of course when one has declarations like as from Raab (Brexit Secretary) that he had not quite understood the importance of Cross Channel trade to the economy.


    “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing,” he said.

    A wee oversight in thinking one might say.

    But waive the flag à l’americaine and appeal to nostalgia.

  7. The Lounsbury says:

    @PJ: Eh bollocks. It’s EU elections, the forum for throw-away posturing.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Companies are being vewwy vewwy quiet about their plans because they don’t want to be accused of being “traitors who don’t believe in Britain!” but a lot of them are making preparations behind the scenes assuming a total crash-out.

    Actually, that’s not how this is working out. The reality is much worse. Most international companies that have a presence in the UK will continue to have a presence. But where it might have once been a major player, it is increasingly being regulated to the minor leagues. I am willing to bet a fair amount that for the past few years every internal competition for expansion or consolidation has taken the UK completely off the table. And every pound requested for upgrade and maintenance has been delayed. And when Brexit goes through, they will continue to be delayed. So the vast majority of companies don’t actually have to announce a decision to leave, they just have to do nothing and in five or ten years it will have happened on its own. And that process has already started.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: A lot of them have already made preparations for moving to one of the other EU countries. That’s why I’m saying they’re being “vewwy vewwy quiet”…just folding the tents and slipping silently away. I think that a lot of them are still hopeful that Theresa May will pull a rabbit out of a hat and there’s no need for striking attitudes and fulminating about “leaving the U.K.” and stirring up potential boycotts. But at some point all those who depend on JIT and were using the U.K. as the “doorway into Europe” are going to vanish.

    Actually, logistics of shipping in/out of the U.K. is also on the verge of chaos. Most people don’t realise exactly how fragile the entire system is. Well, at least when the whole thing crashes we can blame it on Brexit….although it looks like ubiquitous incompetence by everybody is more the case.

    (The best that Britain could do IMHO is to go back to the horse-and-buggy, remake itself as a Edwardian theme park, and sell Downton Abbey cosplay to non-English tourists.)

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    The UK has been able to punch well above its weight since the end of WW2, in part because of the special relationship with the US and later because of its membership in the EU, where it acted as a sort of economic and cultural connective tissue between the US and Europe.

    Now the UK’s special relationship has been frayed possibly beyond repair by the criminal incompetence of the Trump administration, and at the same time the UK is busy severing its link to the EU. It now becomes a sort of Taiwan – connected and yet not quite, to the EU, and dependent on an unreliable US to defend its geopolitical interests. It has no vote in a Europe that will be its much larger neighbor, and it has no reliable friends left in the US.

    Britain standing alone in the world stands much lower than it did as part of two great economic, political and cultural alliances. Inevitably this will reduce Britain’s military and diplomatic clout as well. I suppose this will be welcome by the Brits living in various Hobbitons, but it’s a nasty trick to play on British youth.

  11. Stormy Dragon says:

    The worst part of Brexit is how likely it is that this ends up killing the Good Friday Agreement and restarts The Troubles.

  12. Kathy says:

    All countries have their national myths. In Britain they take “Splendid Isolation” way too seriously.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: One of the reasons the whole thing is so bolloxed up is because Theresa May is just barely clinging to power with the help of those 10 votes from the DUP. And the DUP are, frankly, nuts. They also wouldn’t blink an eye if the GFA went kaput–in fact, would love for it to happen.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    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.

    This, and the other issues you mention above would have played a role in the decision-making process for the Conservatives if they had given a rat’s ass about the decision. Unfortunately, they didn’t. They saw an opportunity to galvanize their supporters into an immovable bloc and took it.


  15. rachel says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Remember, the French saw Russian interference twice as it happened to the UK and US, so they knew what was going on when the Russians geared up to interfere in their elections as well. This tactic works best when your victim hasn’t realized that you did before, how you did it before and that you’re doing it again.

    I think that if the French had been the first victims, LePen’s crew of nasties would have gotten much farther than they did.

  16. Tyrell says:

    Here are some EU regulations and laws: jelly content, prune benefit information, bottled water labels. Banana curvature, diabetics prohibited from driving, dozen eggs illegal, vacuum cleaner bans, turnip rules.*
    Now there are rules about internet privacy. If you post photos of someone without their permission, you can get in trouble, so there go all those beach and stadium pictures with people in the backgrounds. I have complained as much as anyone about internet privacy issues, but laws can be too restrictive. People have the choice of staying off the social sites.
    How much voice do the regular people have concerning the EU? Do they get to elect the leaders?
    *Daily Express, Business Insider

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: Um, you realize that the Daily Express has about the same level of regard for truth as Breitbart or Infowars does?

    (Half of what you’ve quoted there looks to have been ripped from one or more of Boris Johnson’s lie-filled screeds he spat out pre-Brexit vote. Ah yes, the “bendy bananas”…)

    In other words, you’ve been conned.

  18. Tyrell says:

    @grumpy realist: Some came from Business Insider. And I checked them on one of the fact checker sites. They they were “technically” fact, but most were not enforced. Which led me to wonder if the regulations are binding on the member countries.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: I can make the US look equivalently silly by scrounging around for some of the weirder laws on its books.
    (The whole “bendy bananas” was Boris Johnson’s deliberate mis-interpretation of EU regulations. What he was kicking up such a fuss about was simply the curvature of the banana being one of the pieces of data allowing classification into different categories. But Boris reinterpreted it as “the EU forbidding bendy bananas!”)