SOUTHPORT, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 09:  In this photo illustration the flag of the European Union and the Union flag sit on top of a sand castle on a beach on May 09, 2016 in Southport, United Kingdom. The United Kingdom  will hold a referendum on June 23, 2016 to decide whether or not to remain a member of the European Union (EU), an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries which allows members to trade together in a single market and free movement across it's borders for cirtizens.  (Photo by illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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Since Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23, politicians and pundits have furiously debated what kind of Brexit the British people want implemented. After Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative party conference, this question is being asked with more urgency than ever.

The prime minister appears to be pursuing a hard Brexit, one that puts a priority on tight controls over EU migration and appears to sideline business. But many MPs at Westminster believe this is not what the country wants. They argue that while the UK must definitely leave the EU, a majority of Britons still want to retain the closest possible trading ties with Europe’s single market and are less concerned by immigration.

What does the polling evidence tell us?

One indication that the country leans towards a hard Brexit came in a YouGov survey conducted at the start of September. The polling company asked people to rate three detailed scenarios that could be described as very soft, hard and very hard.

The hard one (a Canada-style deal that provides no preferential access to the EU for financial services but secures full control over EU migration) was the most popular with 53 per cent support. The soft scenario (which allows no immigration controls at all and might therefore be seen by some as unrealistic) had just 32 per cent support. The very hard version (basically falling off a cliff and on to World Trade Organisation rules) had 30 per cent backing.

This would suggest that immigration control is a vital issue for the public. But a second survey worth looking at is Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll at the June 23 referendum which asked 12,369 voters to say why they had voted as they had.

Here, 49 per cent of Leave voters said the biggest single reason why they had voted to quit the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Some 33 per cent of Leave voters said their main reason was it “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its borders”. Just 6 per cent said their biggest concern was that “when it comes to trade and the economy, the UK would benefit more from being outside the EU than from being part if it”.

This poll suggests that democratic accountability and repatriating power was the most important issue for Leavers (as Daniel Hannan argued in the FT). The poll also indicates that migration is a much less important factor than many think. It implies that just 5m out of the 28m Britons who voted on June 23 saw curbs on migrants as their top priority. 

We need to treat all this with caution. Two weeks ago, the veteran pollster Professor John Curtice examined a series of post-referendum polls that have asked what the British public values more: keeping free trade or ending freedom of movement. He published this table showing the wide set of answers to this question:

In Professor Curtice’s view, “many voters do not have very firm views about which is the more important objective — not least because many of them want both free trade and an end to freedom of movement, and do not feel they should be confronted with the need to choose”.

For now, the British (as Boris Johnson might put it) want to have their cake and eat it too. But Lord Ashcroft’s June 23 exit poll is intriguing. It suggests that migration controls are an important demand — but only up to a point.

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Background reading

The government’s climb down over a Commons debate on its negotiating terms is the main development of the morning. Labour is asking the government 170 questions in an attempt to understand its stance. The questions are listed here:

A lack of EU agricultural subsidies after Britain leaves the bloc will have a detrimental effect on the less developed regions of the UK, potentially more so than the end to EU regional development funds, write Riccardo Crescenzi and Mara Giua. 

The Guardian’s Sam Knight profiles Daniel Hannan, who he says may have contributed more to the ideas, arguments and tactics of Euroscepticism than any other individual. 

Hard numbers

The FT’s John Authers writes:

Sterling’s decline this month has been gradual and inexorable — barring the spectacular technical glitch in early trading on Friday — and reflects a steady loss of confidence. Perhaps the best way to measure this is by comparing the price of UK government bonds with other developed countries, using a common currency. This eliminates the distorting effects of the fall in sterling that have led some to claim the strong performance of UK stocks in sterling terms is a sign that Brexit is popular with the markets.

Judged this way, the Bloomberg Effas indices show that long-dated gilts have now returned almost nothing for the year, against an 11 per cent gain for US Treasuries. As the chart shows, the gap is now even wider than it was in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.

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