Joe Greenwood


Public views of Brexit have shifted slightly towards seeing it as wrong in the two years since the referendum, whilst government handling of the negotiations are viewed increasingly negatively and the public feel concerned about the process.

Two-years on from Britain’s surprise decision to exit the European Union, and less than one year until the country enters the Brexit transition period, what is the state of public opinion on Brexit? Here at YouGov, we have been gathering data on the topic since June 24th 2016 (and, of course, before then), which allows us to look not only at current views, but also how they have developed over time. To get a sense of what Brexit now means to the public we consider whether they think it was the right or wrong decision, their views of government performance in the negotiations, and their emotional response to the process.

Starting with the public’s retrospective appraisal of the decision to leave the European Union, for which we have tracking data covering the last two years, the first thing to observe is that there was a slight but lasting shift towards viewing the decision as wrong around September last year (2017). As we will see below, this is likely to be related to the negative appraisal of the government’s performance in the Brexit negotiations. However, despite the consistency of the shift, it is worth noting how small it is. In our latest poll, on the 18thof June, 43% of respondents thought that leaving the EU was the right decision, whilst 44% thought it was the wrong decision. In both cases, those figures are within the margin of error of the first time we asked the question, on the 2nd of August 2016, when 46% thought it was right and 42% thought it was wrong. Based on this evidence, it seems that Brexit means roughly the same thing to most of the public, at least in terms of its appeal, as it did two years go. This is not surprising given the evidence that support for Remain or Leave was driven to a substantial extent by underlying ideological views

Given the deep-seated attitudes underpinning Brexit, it is worth examining what caused even a small shift in retrospective appraisals. It certainly doesn’t seem that people have notably shifted their largely negative views of the prospective outcomes of leaving the EU over the last two years. The key area in which there has been a marked shift in public opinion concerns the government’s handling of Brexit negotiations. It appears that the public consider the outcome of last year’s general election to have weakened the government’s hand in negotiations with the EU. This change is particularly stark because the run up to the general election saw a growth in positive appraisals of government performance in the area. Of course, that may have been underpinned by supporters of the government being motivated to bring their views into line with their voting preference. As things stand now, this is an area in which supporters and opponents of Brexit tend to agree: 51% of those who supported Leave think the government are handling negotiations badly whilst 78% of those who supported Remain think the same. Thus, there is a common view amongst the public that the negotiations are becoming what the late, great Anthony King might have described as a government blunder.

The negative appraisal of the government’s work on the Brexit negotiations is also reflected in respondents’ emotional responses to the topic. This is indicated by the words they selected when asked their feelings about the negotiations, with the three most popular options being ‘concerned’ (46%), ‘angry’ (25%), and ‘bored’ (20%). In the first two cases, notably more Remainers selected those words, with the figures standing at 63% for ‘concerned’ and 40% for ‘angry’. Nevertheless, 37% of Leavers were ‘concerned’, which may again indicate dissatisfaction with government performance on this issue. The first positive word on the list is ‘hopeful’, which was selected by 18% of respondents. On this front, the divide between those who voted Remain and those who voted Leave is stark: only 6% of the former group selected ‘hopeful’ whilst 33% of the latter group did so. Thus, Brexit prompts a largely negative emotional response from the public, though supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU remain more positive than their counterparts who opposed the decision.

Thus, with two years since the referendum and less than a year until the UK leaves the EU, Brexit has a mixed meaning for the public. Slightly more people now view of the decision to leave as wrong but the change is small, possibly reflecting the deep ideological drivers of positions on the topic. What little movement there has been seems likely to have been driven by the dramatic negative shift in views of the government’s performance in negotiations, which may also inform the negative emotional response that people have to the topic. Brexit now is seen by slightly more of the public as ‘wrong’ but views remain largely the same as two years ago, and the process is increasingly viewed as a developing government blunder whilst eliciting concern amongst many. Crucially, this negative sentiment towards the negotiations does not equate to a desire to halt or reverse the process, so the public seem to view Brexit as painful but nonetheless necessary to implement. 


Joe Greenwood is a Political Data Analyst at YouGov and recently a PhD in Government at the University of Essex. He is also Secretary of the PSA’s Early Career Network, and tweets @niceonecombo.

Image by ilovetheeu