Britons do want hard Brexit – the problem is they want soft Brexit as well

New research shows public divided on key point of EU negotiations


With its usual regard for nuance, the Daily Express claims today that Britons want a ‘total EU exit’.

Political editor Macer Hall cites new NatCen research, which shows that 70 per cent of people want controls on EU immigration – probably the most important component of a hard Brexit – as well as supporting the re-introduction of customs checks, and equal treatment for EU and non-EU migrants. So far, so accurate.

The problem is that the message the Express has chosen to blare from its headline is the exact opposite of the one NatCen’s Professor John Curtice was trying to communicate.

Because while Hall is right that the NatCen survey showed majority support for the likely components of a hard Brexit, he fails to mention that the majority also support the likely components of a soft Brexit.

A staggering 90 per cent of Britons support retaining free trade with the EU, 76 per cent think currently resident EU citizens should be allowed to stay in Britain, 65 per cent are happy to comply with EU product regulations and 63 per cent support bank passporting.

Quite simply, a majority of people want the government to achieve two outcomes that are (almost certainly) mutually exclusive.

As Professor Curtice puts it,  ‘irrespective of how they voted, voters in Britain do not feel that the UK’s exit from the EU should necessarily be a choice between a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ withdrawal. Rather, many back options on both menus.’

He continued:

“Consequently, the kind of deal that is most likely to prove electorally popular is one that maintains free trade but permits at least some limits on EU migration.That, of course, is the deal that many in the EU insist will not be possible.”

Since Brexit, EU leaders have insisted that the union will only grant membership of (or enhanced access to) the Single Market to countries that also facilitate freedom of movement. While it has been widely reported this week that Angela Merkel is backing down from that requirement, that is probably not the case.

As a result, Theresa May faces an impossibly complex political challenge. Her government is faced with a tough choice on whether it prioritises single market access or controls on immigration and the majority of the population don’t want the choice to be made at all.

Furthermore, when specifically questioned about which choice they would favour, survey participants were split down the middle. 49 per cent would allow people from the EU to live and work here in return for free trade, 51 per cent would not.


Unsurprisingly, this division largely aligns with how people voted in the referendum. 70 per cent of Leave voters would prioritise controlling immigration, while 70 per cent of Remain voters would prioritse free trade.

So instead of cherry-picking results – and we could do that just as easily as the Express – we should focus on the real question: how is the Prime Minister going to square this circle?

Curtice suggests that, given the impossibility of satisfying the electorate at large, May will hone in on her own support base, both in parliament and among the public.

He said:

“The UK government will be faced with a tough choice. But given that most Leave voters – and, indeed, a majority of Conservative voters – prioritise limits on immigration over keeping free trade, perhaps we should not be surprised if that would be the choice that, if necessary, it will be inclined to make.”

However, at yesterday’s report launch in parliament, Curtice also suggested that this kind of research should be conducted at intervals throughout the negotiation process, as public opinion on these issues may be subject to change.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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