Tom Clarkson: The PM still needs to win over voters on Brexit

Written by Tom Clarkson on 16 November 2018 in Opinion

Since Theresa May revealed that she had a deal, Westminster has been in a frenzy. But what does the public think?

“It’s like a friends with benefits situation,” says one voter at a focus group in Birmingham. “It might seem good in the short term but it’s not going to work in the long run, is it?” 

As Theresa May struggles to convince her party and Parliament that hers is a deal worth voting for, there’s little evidence to suggest that it’s any more popular among the wider public. It might seem logical to think that, with such a close referendum result, the public would get behind a compromise deal – a deal which respects the fact that Leave won the 2016 vote but reflects the reality that 48% of the public wanted to stay within the European Union.

But in a divided country, compromise is the “worst of all worlds” as far as the public is concerned. Both Leavers and Remainers say that a transition period where we continue to abide by EU rules without having any say in them is inexcusable. 

For Remainers, May’s deal is “pointless” – they think that we might as well not leave. For Leavers, the deal flies in the face of the desire for greater sovereignty which motivated them to back Brexit in the first place.

MPs’ reactions in Parliament and on Twitter have made it clear that few in Westminster love Theresa May’s deal. But most (with some notable exceptions) appear to prefer it to leaving without a deal – a scenario which causes many Remainers to lie awake at night. The bad news for them is that “no deal” does not scare swing voters in the same way. 

To Leavers, no deal feels like the Brexit that they voted for – its lack of a compromise makes it feel “pure” in a way that Theresa May’s deal does not. And while many have only a limited understanding of what no deal would mean in practice, they ultimately believe that the UK is too economically strong for this scenario to have a negative long-term impact. They trust that trade with non-EU countries would mitigate its worst effects and continue to believe that EU members need us more than we need them. “We can stand on our own two feet perfectly well,” one Leaver told me recently.

While many in Westminster love the roller-coaster of Cabinet resignations, potential leadership challenges and confidence votes, most of the public is less impressed. Like it or loathe it, voters see Brexit as one of the most important decisions the UK has faced in its recent past. In this context, intra-party blood-letting feels like an abdication of responsibility. One familiar cry is: “Just get on with it! All you ever hear is the politicians arguing about it.” 

To voters up and down the country, this is politics at its worst – exactly the kind of ‘Punch and Judy’ drama that so many people hate. A loss of faith in the political establishment was one of reasons so many people voted to Leave in the first place. It seems unlikely that their trust is going to return any time soon.




Tom Clarkson is a Research Director at BritainThinks.



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