Public might expect a hard Brexit but it will remain divisive

Newspapers have widely reported that Theresa May will announce a ‘hard Brexit’, abandoning the UK’s place in the single market. Our latest poll shows that the public thought she would have to make this choice to restrict immigration. But, it doesn’t make it any easier to please everyone with different ideas about how Brexit Britain will look.

Just under half (48%) of UK adults think it is unlikely that the UK will be able to stay in the single market and restrict immigration from the EU. At the start of the process in August as many as 40% thought the ‘best of both worlds’ approach was unlikely. It appears the public have been prepared for this for a while, and what they’ve heard since the referendum has confirmed it.

Theresa May’s choice to opt for a ‘hard’ Brexit is broadly on the right side of public opinion for the moment. Currently 41% think ending free movement of labour should be the government’s priority, compared to a third (32%) preferring for Britain to staying in the single market even if it means accepting free movement.

Also in Mrs May’s favour is that the public is edging further in this direction. In August the gap was only 39%-33% preferring to end free movement over staying in the single market.

VI 10 01 2017 - Chart 1a

In addition, it’s only young professionals that prefer to say in the single market by a clear margin. Otherwise most demographic groups, particularly older sections of the population, clearly prefer leaving the single market if it means the end of free movement.

The danger for the prime minister

The danger for the prime minister is that her own ratings are slowly declining. In October more approved of the way she was the handling Brexit compared to the number that disapproved (37% approved vs 29% disapproved). Now 34% actually disapprove of the way she is handling the process, with only 33% approving – turning a positive approval rating of +8% to a negative -1%.

Mrs May’s approval on Brexit is noticeably down amongst Leavers (from 48% approved in October, falling to 41% now). This is despite many of the messages from the prime minister being in line with their preferences.

Another worry is that Leavers might think backing Mrs May and the Conservatives on Brexit is the best bet, but they do not altogether trust the Conservatives. For example, older blue collar workers are three times more likely to say they trust UKIP than the Tories most on immigration (31% vs 11% respectively).

This group in particular actually has quite strident opinions on immigration that the prime minister is unable to match. Almost half (45%) of older blue collar workers think British businesses could thrive without any immigration from Europe whatsoever.

VI 10 01 2017 - Chart 2

The balancing act for Theresa May over this parliament will be keeping strident Brexiteers, mainstream Leave voters and persuadable Remainers all on side, when they are each looking for something different from the government on Brexit.

See the results from our political polling from the 10th January here.