Many Remain voters now largely agree that Brexit should mean the UK taking full control over its borders, leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and paying only a small “divorce bill” to the EU, according to major new academic research.
A groundbreaking project by the London School of Economics and Oxford University surveying more than 3,000 people – which BuzzFeed News has seen exclusively ahead of its official publication – reveals that when the British public are asked in detail what they want from the negotiations, there is more support for harder Brexit options because Leavers and a significant number of Remainers back them.
Remainers are also more likely to concede that outcomes that they would prefer personally would mean that the referendum result was not being respected, the study found.
The results imply relatively low levels of support for the policies that would amount to a “soft” Brexit – single market membership, ongoing EU payments, free movement, and the ECJ: 67% of respondents would prefer “no deal” to soft Brexit, while 68% would opt for hard over soft Brexit.
Finding the public’s view on what Brexit should look like has proven a tricky task for pollsters and politicians, as many of the technical issues and tradeoffs are not well understood. As an example, one poll showed 88% of the public supporting free trade with the EU post-Brexit, while 69% wanted customs checks at the border – a directly contradictory position, meaning at least 57% of respondents had said they supported both open and closed borders.
The academics tackled this by forcing respondents to choose between different plausible Brexit scenarios, then analysing the huge dataset this produced to find Leave and Remain voters’ priorities for Brexit.
Professor Sara Hobolt of the LSE – one of the research’s authors – told BuzzFeed News that while neither Remain or Leave voters were showing signs of regretting how they voted, it appeared Remain voters were not unified behind a soft Brexit.
“Our results imply that Leavers are united in strongly favouring a ‘hard Brexit’ because they are generally more likely to oppose any deal that involves continued freedom of movement of people, jurisdiction of the ECJ, and a very large ‘divorce settlement’,” she said.
“In contrast, Remainers are more divided, with the majority favouring a ‘soft Brexit’ but others favouring aspects of a ‘hard Brexit’. Overall, this means that there is on aggregate higher levels of support for outcomes that resemble the ‘hard Brexit’ position put forward by the government.”
Another development likely to cause trouble for campaigners trying to preserve single market access and free movement was that many Remain voters said they felt these policies might not respect the result of the 2016 referendum.
“Remain voters are willing to acknowledge that there are key negotiation outcomes – e.g. limits to freedom of movement – that they may not like, but that these outcomes still respect the referendum vote and are therefore legitimate,” Hobolt said.
“In other words, Remain voters concede that the features that lead them to prefer a particular negotiation outcome do not, in fact, respect the referendum.”
The findings will disappoint politicians and campaign groups hoping to mitigate or even stall Brexit. They reveal that while Leave voters remain united behind a hard – or even no-deal – exit, Remainers are much more divided, with many backing tariffs and immigration controls and opposing EU demands for ongoing budget payments.
Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Lib Dem voters all prefer soft Brexit to no deal – though generally only by about 60/40 – while Conservative and UKIP voters overwhelmingly prefer a no-deal Brexit to a soft one.
Here’s how British public opinion breaks down on each key issue in the Brexit deal. The following charts show Leave and Remain voters’ views on each scenario offered for particular issues: If the dot is on the left of the red line, that means the group opposes that scenario (the further left, the more opposition); if it’s on the right, that scenario has support.
EU citizens in the UK
This issue is the single most divisive between Remain and Leave voters, with large gaps in opinion at the extremes between the two groups. Remain voters strongly support all EU citizens currently living in the UK being allowed to stay indefinitely, which is strongly opposed by Leave voters.
The opposite policy – requiring all EU citizens to leave the UK – is opposed by both Leave and Remain voters, but far more strongly by the latter. The gap is much smaller, however, on any middle options, with allowing EU citizens to stay if they’re in work being the most popular with both groups.
Future UK immigration
While there are differences of opinion between Leave and Remain voters on immigration, neither group support continuing free movement, though Remain voters feel much less strongly about the issue than their Leave counterparts.
The most popular scenarios with both voters give the UK full control over its borders, with Remainers supporting immigration at either similar or lower levels than at present, and Leave voters liking all three scenarios, but most favouring little to no immigration.
The European Court of Justice
Neither Leave nor Remain voters want the UK to remain subject to all ECJ decisions following Brexit – though only Leave voters want the court to have no jurisdiction in the UK and no EU laws within the UK.
The only scenario both Leave and Remain supporters both like (if only slightly) is the UK continuing to adopt some EU laws, but not being subject to the ECJ – an option the EU is unlikely to warm to at the negotiating table.
The Irish border
The future of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of the key early issues in the Brexit negotiation, and one that many fear could be one of the most fraught – with some warning it could even lead to a reescalation of the Troubles.
However, these fears have not broken through to most of the British public, who have very few strong views on the issue. Overall, Remain voters slightly prefer an open border, while Leave voters want both passport and customs checks.
The divorce bill
Unsurprisingly, neither Remain nor Leave voters relished the idea of paying a substantial “divorce bill” to the EU when the UK leaves the union, though – perhaps surprisingly – Remain voters are less willing to pay up than their Leave counterparts.
Both groups strongly objected to a bill of £50 billion or £70 billion. Leave voters were just about happy with a bill of £20 billion or less, while Remainers would accept £10 billion.
Ongoing payments to Brussels
Despite the huge row over the “£350 million a week” Brexit bus during the referendum, the idea of continuing to pay some money to the EU budget post-Brexit is not totally unacceptable to the British public.
While both Leave and Remainers objected to the idea of paying £12 billion a year, they were largely indifferent to a £6 billion contribution, and supported £1 billion a year for some degree of access to EU markets.
Future trade with the EU
Trade might be the most important issue of the Brexit negotiations for the UK’s future, its economic growth, and for people’s jobs – but it’s also hugely complicated, and the researchers’ results on this topic suggests many voters haven’t given it a great deal of thought and don’t have very strong opinions on it.
The chart above does suggest both Leave and Remain voters are more concerned about tariffs on goods than on barriers preventing the import and export of services like banking and consultancy.
A deal with low tariffs on goods but lots of barriers to services would hugely benefit the EU, which sells far more goods to the UK than the UK sells to the EU – while the UK economy is heavily dependent on its service industries, which are also the country’s primary exports.
The timeline to Brexit
The good news for those who believe it will be a struggle to complete Brexit by the March 2019 Article 50 deadline is that the public don’t mind too much if the process takes a few years longer.
Overall, Leave voters would most prefer Brexit to be completed by 2019, but have no objection at all to a delay to 2021, and only by a slight margin oppose a delay as far as 2025 – a trend almost identical to that of Remainers.
Such views, in contrast to those of prominent Brexiters like Nigel Farage who say any delay would spell betrayal, could strengthen the hand of those in government pushing for fairly lengthy transition deals as the UK negotiates its future relationship with Europe.
Overall, when forced to plan Brexit, Leave and Remain voters think very similarly.
In total, the researchers extracted 42 scenarios from the decisions they put in front of their 3,293 participants – and on all but 11 of these, Remain voters and Leave voters opinions’ were within 5 percentage points of one another.
These results indicate that despite the impression given across the press and from politicians of a deeply divided nation, when voters think of the actual details of what they want from Brexit, neither group is that distinct – and generally they lean towards a harder Brexit.
The key lines of division remain over immigration, the ECJ, and the fate of EU citizens in the UK – but for politicians hoping to secure a soft Brexit, or even to stall the process, the research suggests they will have to win over hearts and minds quickly.
The full findings of the research discussed in this article will be published later this year, following peer review. The researchers were Professor Sara Hobolt and Dr Thomas Leeper of the LSE, and Professor James Tilley of the University of Oxford. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Update: This story originally stated the researchers surveyed 20,000 respondents. The researchers actually collected six data points each from 3,293 individuals, resulting in their dataset of 19,758 choices.
James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact James Ball at James.Ball@buzzfeed.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.