What Kind of Brexit Would Honour the Referendum?

Much of the debate about what MPs should do in today’s Meaningful Vote starts with the notion that the result of the 2016 EU membership referendum should be respected. MPs from the two main parties nearly all accept this idea. But politicians and commentators on all sides argue about what it means. Some claim that a no-deal Brexit is “the only way to honour the referendum result,” while others think a no-deal Brexit would not respect the referendum at all, including Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick (in HuffPo). At the other of the scale, Wolfgang Münchau of the FT claims that the super-soft Norway model “respects both the vote to leave and its narrow majority,” but David Cameron has previously described such an outcome as being, “out of Europe but run by Europe,” incompatible with a vision of “taking back control.” Such issues are heavily disputed in part because we know relatively little about what the public think is needed to deliver on the referendum.

We do know that Theresa May’s deal is unpopular and that Leave voters would prefer a no-deal Brexit, but it is not clear why. Most Remain voters want a 2nd referendum, because they still want the UK to remain in the EU. But we do not know what they, putting their personal preferences aside, think would be a fair implementation of the referendum result.

To understand better what kind of Brexit people think is needed to honour the referendum result, between 8th and 10th March Deltapoll asked a representative sample of 2001 adults the following series of questions.

Regardless of whether or not you think it should happen, if Britain does leave the European Union, which of the following is needed to honour the 2016 Brexit referendum result? And which would mean that the referendum result had not been honoured? For each of the following, please indicate whether it is needed to honour the referendum, would be disrespecting the referendum, or neither.

These questions are hard work, expecting a lot of knowledge about Brexit politics and policy options. As a result, about 1 in 5 say they don’t know what they think about most of the items. Unsurprisingly, respondents found the issue of Northern Ireland the hardest to judge, with fully 29% saying “Don’t Know”. To the extent that MPs are today agonising over the status of Northern Ireland under the proposed backstop arrangements, they are deliberating over an issue that relatively few people in Britain have a clear view on. Those that do are strikingly divided between thinking that the proposals are necessary and thinking that they would disrespect the referendum.

Since the questions mainly ask about things that might well be part of a Brexit settlement, few people say the potential features would disrespect the referendum. The one exception, “EU citizens living in the UK to leave the country,” is thought disrespectful of the referendum by 32%. But at the same time, fully a quarter of people say that EU citizens need to leave for the referendum result to be honoured.

Generally speaking, Leave and Remain voters tend to agree on which items are more important for honouring the referendum, and on which are relatively unimportant. Typically Leave voters are much more likely than Remain voters to say the things we asked about are needed. Any item with more than half of Remain voters saying it is needed also has over 70% of Leave voters agreeing, with one exception: rights for EU citizens. Only around half of both Leave and Remain voters think Brexit requires giving EU citizens the right to continue living in the UK.

The features that most Remain voters and the large majority of Leave voters agree are needed to honour the referendum result are control of immigration, ending payments to the EU, no longer being subject to EU law, and the ability to negotiate and implement new trade deals. These, along with “no longer being part of the ECJ”, are the same items which a majority of the population as a whole think are needed to honour the referendum. Overall then, the aspects of Brexit that the public, including most Leave and most Remain voters, think politicians must deliver on to honour the referendum result are, in essence, about cash and control.

More specifically, the things the British public (again including Remainers as well as Leavers) thinks are needed to honour the referendum amount to a hard Brexit, not necessarily, but not precluding, a no-deal Brexit. Full control of borders and immigration, and no longer being subject to EU law is incompatible with the Norway plus model. It is also at odds with Labour’s policy of a permanent customs union.

Whether Theresa May’s deal is compatible with the public’s view of what is needed to honour the referendum is complicated to judge, not least because it is not clear what kind of future relationship between the UK and the EU will emerge after the transition period. The current political declaration envisages a technological solution to maintain a soft border in Ireland. If that does prove possible despite the EU’s current reservations, then there would be a case for saying that the deal satisfies the public conception of honouring the referendum result.

However, under both the planned transition period and the backstop the UK would, in part, still be subject to EU law and could not implement any new trade deals. Both of these are things the public say should be avoided to honour the referendum. If the proposed Withdrawal Agreement passes and the future relationship ends up being rather more similar to the backstop arrangements than the UK-EU trade deal envisaged in the political declaration, then the eventual Brexit outcome will have failed to meet the criteria most people set for honouring the referendum result.

Even if the eventual outcome does accord with what most people think is needed, they will not necessarily be happy with it or supportive. Many who favour remaining in the EU will not be content with any Brexit. Those who reluctantly accept Brexit, and even many of who want Brexit, are quite likely to find something about any actual Brexit arrangements that they do not like. What is more, people on both sides might change their minds about aspects of the referendum, including whether or not the politicians need to deliver on it.

Stephen FisherAuthor: Stephen Fisher