Conservatives nearly 2:1 against a delay
Conservative voters are overwhelmingly opposed to any extension of the transition period leading to Britain’s final break with the European Union at the end of the year, according to the first opinion poll to explore in detail public attitudes to Brexit in the wake of the coronavirus emergency.
By a narrow majority, all voters are also opposed to an extension, giving welcome support to the Government’s insistence that irrespective of the outcome of talks with Brussels on a free trade deal, the UK will regain full independence by January 1, 2021.
In a critical finding, the survey, conducted by Savanta ComRes, found that the public do not believe that the Government should put Brexit on hold while it battles to contain the virus.
Nearly half the people (45 per cent) agreed that the government was capable of managing both the Coronavirus pandemic and the transition period at the same time, with just 24 per cent disagreeing – a margin for hitting the December 31 deadline of 21 points.
The survey, commissioned by the newly formed think-tank, the Centre for Brexit Policy, found that the public are deeply cynical about the EU’s motives. Asked if extending the transition will lead to further extensions, 46 per cent agreed with only 16 per cent disagreeing – a gap of 30 points, indicating that four years after the referendum in which 17.4 million people vote to Leave the EU, they do indeed want to get Brexit done.
Asked if the transition period should remain as currently arranged, ending 31 December 2020, 35 per cent of voters agreed; in addition 8 per cent wanted the transition period shortened, making a total of 44 per cent (after rounding) of the electorate in favour of either the status quo or a quicker exit. They outnumbered the 40 per cent who wanted the transition period extended into 2021 or beyond.
Importantly, big differences emerged between Conservative and Labour voters as judged by the December 2019 election. Over half of Tories (52 per cent) support the current timetable; a further 9 per cent of Conservatives want a shorter timetable, meaning that 61 per cent of Boris Johnson’s supporters want the UK to exit the transition period by the end of the year or sooner.
Among Labour voters, 56 per cent want an extension, as opposed to only 29 per cent of Conservatives. A similar divide appeared among Leave and Remain supporters in the referendum, with Leavers favouring the end of year timetable and Remainers wanting an extension.
The survey also uncovered stark regional differences, although given the small sample sizes the findings should be treated with some caution.
In England, London is the only region where there is greater support for extending the transition period than maintaining or shortening – 45 per cent for extension against 40 per cent for sticking to the end of year timetable plus those who want an even shorter transition period. A rating of plus 5 percentage points for going long.
All the other English regions oppose extension: North West (minus 5 percentage points); North East (minus 7); Yorkshire and Humberside (minus 15); West Midlands (minus 2); East Midlands (minus 37); South West (minus 14); South East (minus 7); Eastern (minus 2).
Wales (minus 16) is also opposed to extension.
Besides London, the support for delay came from Scotland (plus 43) and Northern Ireland (plus 8).
Take London and Scotland out of the equation and there is a strong preference for no delay (47 per cent to 37 per cent), a difference in favour of completing our exit this year of 10 percentage points.
Extending this analysis to the so-called “Red Wall” seats that the Conservatives captured from Labour at the general election also reveals a heavy preference for no delay.
The combined result of the regions roughly analogous to the Red Wall seats (North West, North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, Wales, West Midlands, East Midlands, South West) results in a 48 per cent to 34 per cent majority against extension – a margin of 14 percentage points.
Despite the grave suffering and insecurity provoked by the pandemic and the consequent lockdown, the public remains sanguine about Brexit. Asked if the UK would be better off in the long run outside the EU, 45 per cent agreed, with 28 per cent disagreeing – a margin of 17 points for those believing the country has done the right thing to quit.
People also rejected claims that the December 31 deadline and virus-induced interruptions in the talks were grounds for delay. By 42 per cent to 24 per cent, people agreed that there was enough time to negotiate with the EU before the end of the transition period.
National pride and honour are also at stake. By 40 per cent to 27 per cent, the public said it would be “embarrassing” to continue the talks into 2021. People also thought that extension was more in the EU’s interests than the UK’s.
Drilling down into the “agree” or “disagree” responses of voters, the differences between Conservatives and Labour are clear, mirroring the Leave/Remain split. Roughly three in five Conservative voters are opposed to any delay in the transition period and see delay as damaging to the national interest. Among Labour supporters the opposite is the case.
- Three in five 2019 Conservative voters (61 per cent) agree it is important for the UK to stick to our agreed scheduled transition period, in comparison to less than a third of 2019 Labour voters (30 per cent).
- Three in five 2016 Leave voters (63 per cent) and 2019 Conservative voters (59 per cent) agree that extending the transition period will lead to further extensions, in comparison to just a third of 2016 Remain voters (34 per cent) and 2019 Labour voters (35 per cent)
- Three in five 2016 Leave voters (59 per cent) and over half of 2019 Conservative voters (54 per cent) agree that we still have enough time left to negotiate with the EU before the end of the scheduled transition period, in comparison to just a third of 2016 Remain voters (31 per cent) and 2019 Labour voters (33 per cent).
- Three in five 2016 Leave voters (63 per cent) and 2019 Conservative voters (58 per cent) agree that the government should be capable of managing both the Coronavirus pandemic and the transition period at the same time, in comparison to just a third of 2016 Remain voters (32 per cent) and 2019 Labour voters (34 cent)
- Three in five 2016 Leave voters (61 per cent) and 2019 Conservative voters (56 per cent) agree that it would be embarrassing for the UK to extend the transition period with the EU into 2021, in comparison to just a quarter of 2016 Remain voters (24 per cent) and 2019 Labour voters (26 per cent).
The poll also asked people if they thought the transition period was too long, too short or the right amount of time. Opinion divided three ways on this question, with 27 per cent saying too long, 24 per cent saying too short, and (the largest group) 35 per cent saying it was the right amount of time.
The significant number for too long (27 per cent) suggests that there is a large group of people highly sceptical about the value of the transition period, mirrored by the answer to another question leading to the response that an extension would lead to yet further extensions.
It also found that there was quite a lot of confusion about Britain’s precise relationship with the EU in the light of the Withdrawal Act and the formal, legal exit from the EU on January 31 this year.
Approaching half the population (45 per cent) do not know that the “the UK is no longer a member of the EU, and is in a transition period where it still abides by most EU rules”.
Nearly one in eight people think that the UK is no longer a member of the EU and abides by its own rules; nearly one in five think that Britain is still a member of the EU and negotiating the terms of its exit; and a tiny fraction (one in 50) have missed the whole Brexit saga and think that the UK is still in the EU and has no plans to leave.
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