Public support for a "hard Brexit"

Published: 28th Apr 2017

In brief


Millions of people who voted Leave did not vote for Theresa May’s hard Brexit.


We can’t know for certain, but more recent polling could be used to show this—if “hard Brexit” is defined as prioritising immigration control over free trade. A majority of Leave voters probably still support this.

“There were also millions of people who voted Leave but did not vote for Theresa May's hard Brexit

Jo Swinson, 27 April 2017

There has been lots of commentary on who voted for each side in the EU referendum and why. We’re focusing specifically here on people’s expectations in relation to a ‘hard Brexit’, as Ms Swinson referred to.

The term “hard Brexit” means different things to different people, but it’s generally used to mean at the very least leaving the EU’s single market (as Ms Swinson referred to). Theresa May has said this is the only way to control things like immigration, which reflects the position of the European Commission.

“For the most part Remain and Leave voters do not have diametrically opposed views of what Brexit should entail”, according to NatCen’s polling expert Professor John Curtice in a report self-described as “by far the most in-depth study of what the public wants from Brexit”.

A majority of both Remain and Leave voters in the nationally representative sample, asked at the start of this year, were found to want both free trade and immigration control.

Where the disagreement comes—the report says—is in what voters prioritise. Faced with a choice over whether free trade or immigration control comes first, as many as 36% of Leave supporters said they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ maintain freedom of movement in return for free trade, compared to 74% of Remain voters.

So, it is possible to say that millions of Leave voters don’t seem to want Theresa May’s “hard Brexit”—if we define it as prioritising immigration control over free trade—although a majority probably do. And even a quarter of Remain voters appear to opt for immigration control ahead of free trade.

At least half of Remain voters were found to back some of what the research defines as components of a hard Brexit too.  

From What UK Thinks:EU "Hard - but not too hard" report

Beyond immigration and border control, it says “the tone of public opinion seems to be much softer”, with Leave voters expressing support for things like airline delay compensation and “probably” reciprocal health care.

Over the past six months or so, the report says, people’s views on the possible shape of Brexit have been “very stable”.

Ultimately, what you take from these findings will depend on your own views of what counts as a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit, and what type of Brexit you think we can or should seek. It also depends on the value you see in polling.

For a broader examination of the reasons behind voters’ decisions last June, social researchers at NatCen have published extensive analysis.

This factcheck is part of a roundup of BBC Question Time. Read the roundup.


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