Blog: As leave voters’ Brexit regret rises, will political parties dare to follow? – The Guardian

While Brexit may have been chased out of the headlines in recent months by the cost of living crisis and the chaos in Westminster, the tectonic plates of public opinion on this deeply divisive issue have been quietly shifting.

The opposition parties have shied away from blaming Brexit for the UK’s woes, but UK voters’ scepticism about the project has increased through the past 18 months, as the economic outlook has darkened.

As the elections expert Prof John Curtice put it in a blogpost last week, “rather than looking like an unchallenged ‘fait accompli’, Brexit now appears to be a subject on which a significant body of voters has had second thoughts”.

Crucially, his analysis shows that the shift has been mainly driven not by changes in the makeup of the electorate – with younger voters coming of age, for example – but by leavers changing their minds.

By the autumn of 2022, as Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership exacerbated concerns about the state of the economy, support for rejoining the EU had increased to 57%, against 43% preferring to stay out, according to a poll of polls by NatCen social research.

That marked a significant turnaround from mid-2021, when 52% wanted to stay outside and 48% to rejoin – the same margin as in the referendum five years earlier.

Nevertheless, many political analysts say Keir Starmer and the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, have good reason for not placing Brexit’s shortcomings front and centre.

Luke Tryl, the director of the thinktank More in Common, which conducts frequent focus groups, confirmed that he and his colleagues had been hearing from a growing number of former Brexiters who had lost faith.

“It tends to come in two forms: one sense is, we’ve got all this trouble and we could do without it; and then there’s another sense, which tends to be a bit grumpier, which is that it could have been done well but politicians have fluffed it,” he said.

Yet he said that after living through the unedifying political turmoil of 2016-19, when Brexit preoccupied the country’s politicians to the exclusion of almost everything else, many voters were reluctant to see Brexit return to the top of the agenda.

He described “the horror on people’s faces – and you can literally see it on people’s faces in focus groups – when you talk about going back to Brexit debates”, adding: “The big reason they don’t want to touch the ‘rejoin’ thing is that they think it would be four more years when that’s all we would talk about.”

With Labour running 20 points ahead in the polls, and public attention focused squarely on the state of the economy and public services, Prof Rob Ford, of Manchester University, said Starmer’s reluctance to focus on Brexit was understandable.

“This is a country with a rather large collection of ongoing dumpster fires, right here, in domestic politics,” he says. “Some of them are contributed to by Brexit, yes, but rejoining is a long-term project.”

Even the Lib Dems, whose hearts lie firmly inside the EU, believe there is little to be gained from using up precious airtime attacking Brexit, when the public is more focused on more immediate crises – and already very receptive to the argument that the government is to blame.

Ford, who is the co-author of the book Brexitland, about the politics of leaving the EU, argues that any plan to rejoin now would be likely to hit a brick wall in Brussels anyway.

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“EU leaders are not stupid. They haven’t forgotten who they were dealing with for the last three years. They’re never going to let us in the door until both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to doing it,” he said.

He believes support for rejoining would have to settle at perhaps 70-75%, and have the backing of both main parties’ leaderships, before the EU would risk investing precious political capital in negotiations that could be unpicked by a change of government.

One finding in recent More in Common research also helps to shed light on why opposition politicians are not falling over themselves to promise to rejoin.

In a poll carried out shortly before Christmas, 34% of voters said they would be more likely to back Labour if the party advocated reversing Brexit, against 30% who said less likely.

Yet among those who voted Conservative in 2019 – the potential swing voters on whom Starmer’s team are focused – only 16% said they would be more likely to back a Labour party promising to rejoin, while 48% said less likely.

Prof Paula Surridge, of Bristol University, said Labour would be very keen not to alienate the very voters they hoped to win over – but where public opinion leads, politicians may eventually follow.

“The main thing for Labour is that there is no need to shout about it at the moment,” she said. “There’s a a sense of, well, the voters will come to their own conclusions on this, and then there might be some space later.”

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