Brexit poll: One year on, voters believe leaving EU has harmed UK’s interests

As PM promises to ‘maximise benefits of Brexit’, majority of voters say Boris Johnson lied about EU withdrawal

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 02 January 2022 09:20 GMT
Brexit continued to be a dominant theme in politics in 2021
Brexit continued to be a dominant theme in politics in 2021 (PA Archive)

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Louise Thomas

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One year to the day since the UK left the European Union’s economic structures, the people of Britain believe Brexit has done the country more harm than good, according to a new poll.

The exclusive Savanta survey for The Independent reveals that, on issues ranging from the economy to red tape to Britain’s ability to control its borders, more voters believe Brexit has worsened the UK’s position than improved it.

Almost six out of 10 (57 per cent) believe Boris Johnson lied to them about what Brexit would be like during the bitter referendum campaign of 2016.

And by a clear margin, they said that the Remain campaign’s forecasts of damage to the economy and increased red tape from Brexit have proved more accurate than the Leave campaign’s promises, such as the claim on Mr Johnson’s bus that EU withdrawal would deliver £350m a week for the NHS.

By a slim majority of 51 to 49 per cent respondents said that if they could vote again, they would opt to rejoin the EU – with younger voters hugely more enthusiastic than the old for renewed membership.

More than half of those questioned (51 per cent) want a referendum on rejoining at some point, with 39 per cent saying it should come in the next five years, compared to just 32 per cent who say the issue should never be reopened.

The figures represent a significant blow to Mr Johnson’s claim – central to his platform at the last election – that EU withdrawal would deliver a boost to Britain and encourage a new spirit of confidence, optimism and unity.

In a message released today to mark the anniversary, the prime minister said that his Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU had allowed UK companies to “seize new trading opportunities” around the world and freed the government to establish a regulatory regime suited to British interests.

However, the bulk of the 70 trade deals which he hailed as a benefit of Brexit were no more than “rollover” agreements maintaining arrangements which the UK already enjoyed as an EU member, while government figures suggest that others with Australia and New Zealand will boost GDP by only a tiny fraction of 1 per cent, compared to the 4 per cent loss expected from leaving the EU.

Other benefits claimed by Mr Johnson included a faster Covid vaccine rollout, the introduction of a points-based immigration system, simplification of alcohol duties, the abolition of the Tampon Tax and the restoration of the crown stamp on the side of pint glasses.

Promising to “maximise the benefits of Brexit so that we can thrive as a modern, dynamic and independent country”, he added: “The job isn’t finished and we must keep up the momentum.

“In the year ahead my government will go further and faster to deliver on the promise of Brexit and take advantage of the enormous potential that our new freedoms bring.” 

But today’s poll suggested that few voters have yet experienced benefits from EU withdrawal.

When asked what effect Brexit had so far had on the UK’s interests generally, some 38 per cent said it had been damaging, against just 27 per cent who said it had improved matters.

Even among Leave voters, only 39 per cent said that Brexit had been good for the UK’s interests, with 34 per saying it had made no difference and 18 per cent saying it had been harmful.

Former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, a leading figure in the Remain campaign, told The Independent that the survey reflected a growing realisation among voters that they had been misled about the supposed benefits of Brexit for the UK.

“The British people were deceived,” said Lord Heseltine. “The Brexit campaign was based on a range of emotional prejudices that set a mood of national frustration.

“This poll reflects a growing disenchantment as people recognise the scale of the deception. A year from now it will be worse.”

The UK formally left the EU on 31 January 2020, but a transition period meant that it remained in the single market and customs union and continued to observe Brussels laws until 11pm on 31 December.

The 12 months since Brexit have been overshadowed by the Covid pandemic.

But today’s poll suggests that voters have so far felt more downsides than benefits from EU withdrawal.

Judging whether Brexit had worsened or improved a range of aspects of British life, in every case respondents answered in the negative.

A clear majority (59 per cent) said EU withdrawal had damaged relations with the UK’s European neighbours, compared to 14 per cent who said they had improved.

More than half (51 per cent) said Brexit had made it more difficult to access a range of goods and services, compared to 18 per cent who said availability had improved.

Some 45 per cent said the burden of bureaucracy on UK businesses and citizens had increased as a result of leaving the EU, while just 21 per cent believed it had reduced.

On the economy generally, 44 per cent said Brexit had been harmful and 24 per cent beneficial.

Even on Britain’s ability to control its own borders – one of the central promises of the Leave campaign – just 23 per cent said Brexit had helped, against 43 per cent who said it had made matters worse.

Some 41 per cent said the UK had become less united and 24 per cent more united as a result. And 39 per cent said Britain had less global influence, compared to 23 per cent who said it had more.

Some 28 per cent said that their own ability to travel, work and study had been negatively impacted by Brexit, compared to 16 per cent who said it had been improved. And 23 per cent – almost a quarter – said it had hit their personal finances, against 19 per cent who believed Brexit had improved them.

On every count, people said that the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum gave a more accurate picture than Leave of what Brexit would be like.

And 57 per cent said that they believed Mr Johnson lied more than he told the truth in the Brexit debate, against 26 per cent who thought the opposite.

The accuracy of the vision of Brexit painted by the two sides in the referendum campaign was calculated by subtracting the number who now think their forecasts were wrong from those who think they were right.

On Brexit’s impact on the UK overall, Leave scored +1 and Remain -22. On its outcome for Britain’s standing in the world it was -5 for Leave and +11 for Remain.

And the Remain position was judged more accurate than Leave on: the economy (Remain +7, Leave -5); the unity of the UK (Remain +14, Leave -7); disruption to everyday life (Remain +9, Leave -10); and the impact on Northern Ireland (Remain +10, Leave -19).

Despite these findings, the Savanta poll found the UK still split down the middle on Brexit, with 46 per cent saying the 2016 decision to leave the EU was right and 46 per cent wrong. Some 10 per cent of former Leave voters who said they now think it was the wrong decision were balanced by 13 per cent of Remain voters who now think it was right to leave.

The director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, Prof Anand Menon of King’s College London, said that the finding appeared to demonstrate public attachment to the principle of “the sovereign right to make decisions for ourselves, even if the consequences may turn out to be economically negative”.

Dissatisfaction with the outcomes of Brexit may reflect a broader disgruntlement with the government and the Covid pandemic, he said.

“The people who think the government is doing badly with Brexit tend to be the same ones who think it is doing badly with Covid,” he said. “Once the pandemic is behind us, it will be easier to attribute outcomes as the result of Brexit rather than something else.”

And Savanta associate director Chris Hopkins told The Independent: “Despite the public thinking that overall there have so far been more downsides than benefits from EU withdrawal, the fact remains that the public are almost equally divided between thinking whether Brexit was right or wrong and on whether they think the UK should rejoin or stay out of the EU.

“Ultimately, whatever the legacy of Brexit in terms of its economic impact and how it affects Britain, the lasting legacy will be this somewhat irreversible divide that referendums tend to cause – and a second referendum, that many seem to still want, is unlikely to heal the divisions the 2016 referendum caused.”

Support for rejoining was far higher in the poll among the younger generations, with 77 per cent of 18-24-year-olds, 73 per cent of 25-34-year-olds, 59 per cent of 35-44-year-olds and 54 per cent of 45-54-year-olds saying they would back renewed EU membership, excluding don’t knows and wouldn’t votes.

Only in older age groups would majorities vote to stay out of the EU – by 60-40 per cent among 55-64-year-olds and 65-35 per cent among over-65s.

Some 20 per cent of those questioned said they would like a referendum on rejoining the EU immediately and 19 per cent more said there should be a rerun ballot within five years.

But 9 per cent said any new referendum should wait 6-10 years, 3 per cent 11-20 years and 4 per cent more than 20 years, while 32 per cent said the issue should never again be put to a public vote.

Savanta questioned 2,096 adults in Britain over 10-12 December

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