THE BREGRET IS REAL

The more UK residents live with Brexit, the less they like it

Many who voted for the UK's exit from the EU now want back in, according to polls

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Trucks wait in traffic on the way to Dover in 2022.
Trucks wait in traffic on the way to Dover in 2022.
Photo: HENRY NICHOLLS (Reuters)

Few people, it’s safe to say, enjoyed the tortuous process of negotiating Brexit.

Extricating the UK from its European neighbors was a mammoth task, requiring revised agreements on everything from fishing quotas to land borders. After the deal was finally signed, however, there was a collective sigh of relief and Brexit basked in a moment of increased popularity.

It was short-lived. Now that the UK has lived with Brexit for a few years, its limited popularity has waned, according to What UK Thinks, a nonprofit that charts British attitudes to Brexit.

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Since September 2021 (the last time the country was equally divided on the issue) there’s been a sharp jump in the number of UK residents who say they’d rather be a member of the EU. About 58% of those polled now say the UK should remain in the bloc.

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The above chart combines the averages of the six most recent surveys in any given month by pollsters BMG, Deltapoll, JL Partners, Kantar, Opinium, Redfield & Wilton, Savanta, Omnisis, People Polling, Techne UK, and YouGov, to create a rolling average. The polls all asked similar questions, phrased in slightly different ways.

The 2016 Brexit referendum delivered a 51.9% vote in favor of leaving. Since then, public opinion has crisscrossed the central 50/50 line. When Brexit negotiations concluded with the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement at the end of 2020, public opinion was slightly against it. Staying in the EU was more popular by about 4 percentage points. (The chart excludes people who didn’t express a preference.) But then the public warmed up to the idea, peaking in June 2021 when almost 54% said they were happier outside the EU. A few months later and that sentiment shifted dramatically.

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Why the sudden change in attitude?

Boris Johnson—the scandal-dogged UK prime minister who had made “get Brexit done” his personal mantra—was forced to resign in July 2022 after many of his closest followers turned against him.

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The Conservative Party then entered a months-long, chaotic process of choosing a new leader, which ended with the appointment of Liz Truss in the fall of 2022. Truss promptly crashed the economy with an ill-conceived budget plan and was ousted after just 40 days. Around the same time, labor, medical personnel, food, and petrol shortages hit the UK.

UK residents blamed many of these shortages on the loss of trade relationships and workers from the EU, though the pandemic and the war in Ukraine were also to blame. 

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Who changed their mind?

What UK Thinks believes there are three possible reasons for the shift in opinion. First, those who didn’t vote originally, or were too young to vote at the time, might now be making their voices heard. Second, those who originally wanted to remain, but were persuaded otherwise during the long post-referendum period of debate, might now have shifted back. Finally, those who supported Brexit originally might have actually changed their minds.

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John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, believes it is primarily that last group that is accounting for the shift.

“During the last year the proportion of Leave voters who back staying outside the EU has fallen by nine percentage points, from 83% to 74%,” he wrote on the What UK Thinks blog. “It is the decline in support for Brexit among those who originally voted for it that primarily explains why there has been a swing against the idea during the last twelve months.”