British Prime Minister Theresa May has managed to do what many thought impossible: unite the country against her Brexit strategy and deepen divisions over the decision to leave the European Union.
A report released Tuesday from Britain’s National Centre for Social Research, NatCen, painted a grim picture for the Prime Minister who has been struggling for months to get her withdrawal agreement with the EU approved by Parliament. The deal has been rejected twice and on Wednesday members of Parliament will start the process of trying to find a different way out of the Brexit impasse.
NatCen, an independent agency, has been regularly tracking more than 2,600 voters since the 2016 referendum to get their take on how the government has been doing on Brexit. It’s among the most comprehensive studies of voters’ attitudes and the latest results found that support for Ms. May’s approach has plummeted to just 7 per cent, while 81 per cent said she was doing a bad job.
Ms. May’s strategy has never been wildly popular but support for it stood at 29 per cent two years ago when she triggered the formal mechanism to leave the EU, known as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Back then, she also commanded the backing of 42 per cent of those who voted to leave the EU. That compared with 18 per cent of those who voted to remain in the EU. Now, both groups oppose her handling of Brexit almost equally. The latest report found 80 per cent of Leave voters and 85 per cent of Remain voters believed she was doing a bad job on Brexit.
The new report, based on research conducted in January and February, also didn’t have great news for those who want a second vote on Brexit. A group of MPs has been pushing for another referendum for months, and a well-funded campaign called the People’s Vote organized a march in London last weekend that drew an estimated one million people. Supporters of the idea see it as the only way out of the Brexit deadlock and it will be one of the options MPs consider on Wednesday, along with revoking Brexit and negotiating economic ties with the EU much like Norway.
The NatCen report found only 39 per cent of voters backed a second referendum on Brexit and although support for remaining in the EU has been rising, it has not gone up by a large margin. The report said support for remaining in the EU stands at 54 per cent, up from 48 per cent in 2016. But it also noted that the vast majority of voters have remained entrenched in their positions and that another referendum wouldn’t necessarily produce a different result. The finding “suggests the proposal [for another vote] is not yet a way out of the Brexit impasse that is backed by both sides in the Brexit debate,” the report said.
The overall message to MPs “is just be aware of how difficult it can be to satisfy voters and that because Mrs. May’s Brexit compromise hasn’t gone down too well, doesn’t mean to say that Norway-plus is going to find it any easier,” said Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen.
The report did offer some hope to those who support another vote on Brexit. Young people voted Remain by a large margin in 2016 and “the passage of time means that there is now a body of people who would be able to vote in a second ballot but who were too young to do so in 2016,” it said.
That includes Rachel Chowings, who was 17 years old in 2016 and feels ripped off by Brexit. Now a student at the University of Glasgow, she said she has already seen her ability to work and study in Europe close down because of Brexit. “I was six months too young in 2016,” she said during a recent rally in London for a second vote. "There are just so many opportunities people my age will miss out on. A lot of people voted Leave based on lies that have been told. People say it’s not democratic to have another referendum, but we don’t think it’s democratic to leave the EU based on people voting when they were lied to.”
The Prime Minister has said she won’t agree to another vote and she has vowed to try and get her deal through Parliament once more this week, However, she has acknowledged that she doesn’t yet have enough support. Much of the opposition has come from within her Conservative Party caucus and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs prop up Ms. May’s government. On Tuesday, the DUP said its opposition to the deal hadn’t changed and while Ms. May continues to negotiate with her MPs, a significant number still appear to be opposed as well.