Brexit means Brexit. That is what we have been told, time and again, but what does Brexit actually mean for the British public, for Leavers and Remainers? And is anyone still paying attention?
The party conference season is just around the corner, and while MPs, commentators and activists on numerous sides of the Brexit debate continue to dissect and argue over even the smallest of details, it appears that most of the British public really do not actually have much stomach for this magnum opus of a political saga.
During parliament’s summer recess, Deltapoll ran a series of questions looking at different responses the public have to issues surrounding Brexit. Inevitably some observers will find some of the question wording is not entirely to their liking (and often those who find themselves falling on the wrong side of public opinion are the loudest), but these questions were not intended to deliver definitive verdicts.
in your inbox
Instead they are specifically asked in order to highlight the immediate “top of mind” responses from those outside the daily cut and thrust of the Brexit debate, in other words, the ordinary people of Britain.
We asked Leave voters if, when forced to choose, they would prioritise leaving the European Union or peace in Northern Ireland. Under two thirds (58 per cent) said Brexit should take priority over Northern Ireland while (32 per cent) favoured peace.
Does that therefore mean that over 10 million people would really rather go back to a time when nearly 2,000 civilians died than stay in the EU? Almost certainly not. Instead what the question demonstrates is the importance of the Leave narrative to so many Brexit supporters. Frequently they are not interested in the details, just the overall outcome. They want to leave, and that is that.
This was further demonstrated when we asked respondents if they agreed with the statement “Right now, I no longer care how or when we leave the European Union, I just want it all over and done with.” Three quarters of Leave voters agreed, with over a third (36 per cent) agreeing strongly.
For most voters on either side of the debate the discussion of the detail and the focus on the minutiae is unimportant. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit and blind Brexit – it does not matter to many of them, it is instead the eventual outcome that is key.
What Leavers want is a “real Brexit”. Like a 1980s East German shot-putter, their eyes are on the prize, and they don’t really much care how they get there.
Deltapoll’s recent survey for LBC helps to shed some light on what a real Brexit looks like in the minds of Leavers. Nearly two thirds want Brexit to mean full control of immigration and borders (65 per cent) and almost as many want no more payments to the EU (63 per cent).
Around a third want it to mean leaving the customs union (34 per cent) and the single market (33 per cent). A tenth would like it to result in EU citizens living in the UK leaving the country.
If the final negotiations eventually produce an outcome that does not meet these requirements, what then? Does the prime minister try and sell the deal to a country so deeply divided with Remainers on one side, predisposed to object, and disappointed Leavers on the other? Can any strategy to capture hearts and minds succeed when so many from both sides are regularly uninterested in paying much attention?
Of course, what the data cannot answer is what the view of the public will be about all of this next year, as the March deadline approaches. They may say that now, whatever “that” is, but will their expectations have changed or softened by the new year?
With nearly six out of ten of all British (59 per cent) already agreeing that they are “really bored by Brexit” it is difficult to see views adjusting substantially, but as things in the world of Brexit move from theoretical concepts to real world outcomes, it could mean the support of the public becomes very much up for grabs in 2019.
Selling Brexit as real Brexit is quite clearly no small task and, as things currently stand, the Chequers deal does not meet the expectations of many Leavers.
After the negotiations are finally over Mrs May (or a successor) could easily find themselves stuck precariously between the rock of Remainer opposition and the hard place of Leaver expectancy – not just within their own party, but within the British public as a whole.
Would the 46 per cent of British adults who think they could do better job than Theresa May really want to actually be prime minister right now? I doubt it.
One person who a great many think does want to be prime minister, and it is fair to suggest thinks he can do a better job, is Boris Johnson.
Nearly four out of ten Leavers (39 per cent) think he is most likely to deliver a real Brexit in a two-way fight against Theresa May, who only manages three out of ten. But with just over three out of ten (31 per cent) unsure, the result is far from a mandate from the masses.
As we all know, a week is a long time in politics and there are fewer than 30 remaining until the Brexit deadline. Will we end with a Brexit that feels “real” in the eyes of the electorate? An awful lot can still happen, even if most people may not be paying attention when it does.
This article originally appeared in The Times.