Voters worried that Brexit has been bad for economy, as official figures show massive slump in trade

‘Major shock’ from 40 per cent fall in exports to EU in January

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 12 March 2021 19:04 GMT
UK sees record fall in trade with EU after end of Brexit transition period

More Britons believe Brexit has been bad for the economy and trade than good, according to new polling for The Independent.

The findings offer the first indication that the damage caused by leaving the EU’s single market and customs union in January is cutting through with voters.

Official statistics showed on Friday a precipitous 40.7 per cent fall in goods sales to the EU in January, with experts blaming Brexit for a large chunk of the lost exports.

The slump – which also saw imports from the EU decline by 28.8 per cent – represented the largest monthly decline in trade with the UK’s largest commercial partner since records began in 1997.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister, Lord Frost, blamed the effect of pre-Christmas stockpiling by businesses and Covid lockdowns reducing the demand for goods on the continent.

He also said the number of lorries going to and from the EU were now back to normal levels – though experts pointed out that many were returning to the continent empty.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed no similar falls in Britain’s trade with non-EU countries, in apparently firm evidence that Brexit red tape was to blame.

Professor Thomas Sampson of the London School of Economics said that the figures represent a “major shock”, with Brexit “likely to be the primary explanation”.

Worst-affected sectors had seen massive declines, such as 83 per cent in fish and shellfish exports and 73 per cent for live animals.

John Springford at the Centre for European Reform calculated that Brexit had reduced Britain’s total goods trade by £16bn (22 per cent), on top of a 10 per cent reduction in volume in the years after the 2016 referendum.

Prof Sampson told The Independent that some sort of bounce-back could be expected in the coming months as “teething problems” are dealt with. 

But he said a steady decline was then likely, both due to new import checks – deferred this week to 2022 as Michael Gove admitted the UK was not ready – and permanent barriers to trade which will be exacerbated if London diverges from Brussels rules.

“If anything like these numbers goes on in the future, it means businesses that were previously viable based on exporting to the EU will no longer be viable and will shut down, and people will lose their jobs,” said Prof Sampson. 

Friday’s poll by Savanta ComRes showed that 39 per cent thought Brexit had so far been bad for trade, against just 18 per cent who said it had been good, while 37 per cent rated it bad for the UK economy, compared to 25 per cent who said its effects have been beneficial.

It also suggests voters have yet to feel a Brexit impact on their pockets, with 26 per cent reporting an improved financial position and 18 per cent worse since the start of the year. Some 36 per cent said the UK’s standing in the world had improved, against 27 per cent who believed it had deteriorated.

Some 32 per cent said the UK government was principally to blame for disruption to trade, against 30 per cent who named Brussels and 27 per cent who said they were equally culpable.

Participants were split 50-50 on whether they would vote to Remain or Leave in a referendum held now, and 54 per cent said they would vote to stay out, compared to 46 per cent who want to rejoin the EU.

Professor Anand Menon, director of the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe, said the figures indicated that voters are likely to hang onto their views from the time of the referendum unless they feel a direct financial hit.

“For quite a while there has been a general drift among voters - including Leave voters - towards thinking that Brexit will be bad for the economy,” he told The Independent. “But whether that translates neatly into seeing Brexit as a bad idea is a lot less clear. The simple answer is no, it doesn’t. 

“There’s still very little evidence for believers changing their minds, which indicates either that they’re willing to take an economic hit for the sake of Brexit, or they think that the sort of economics we’re talking about won’t impact on them. Many people would say ‘Yes, it’s bad for trade, but I don’t trade’.

Prof Sampson said there were moments when apparent technical changes to trade policy have the power to spark a bitter political backlash, as seen with the decline of heavy industry in the US “rust belt”.

“It will be very interesting to see whether there is a similar backlash to Brexit in the UK triggered by the hits we are seeing to agriculture and fishing,” he said.

In a pamphlet for the Tony Blair Institute, former Foreign Office trade expert Anton Spisak said that economic frictions in Northern Ireland will “likely get worse in the short term”, with a “regulatory gulf” adding new costs and barriers to trade as London separates from EU rules.

Failure by the UK to comply with the Northern Ireland Protocol could lead to court cases and attempts by Brussels to impose fines, risking a breakdown in trust and tit-for-tat tariff war, he warned

With mutual mistrust liable to test the protocol “to the point of destruction” and a Stormont vote on its continuation due in 2024, the durability of the arrangements negotiated by Mr Johnson in 2019 is “uncertain”, he said.

Unless London drops its “denialism” about the customs border in the Irish Sea and both sides agree to negotiate an “equivalence” deal on animal health checks and minimise barriers, the UK and EU face “the gradual disintegration of their relations into a fractious relationship that will serve no-one,” he warned.

Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,129 UK adults between 5 and 7 March

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in