First published in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 12 December 2018.
Many admire Theresa May’s fortitude in trying to construct a Brexit deal that will simultaneously please or at least placate Leavers, Remainers and the EU – but they have rather less regard for the fruits of her endeavours.
My latest research finds that few believe the draft Brexit deal honours the referendum result, or that it beats remaining in the EU on our current terms. And while voters overall still think, just, that Mrs May’s deal is better than no deal, Tories as a whole now disagree, as do Leavers by a wide margin.
The problem is not simply how to sell the deal, but how to achieve any kind of national consensus. I found the three biggest priorities for Leave voters were the UK making all its own laws with no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice, being able to do our own free trade deals with countries outside Europe, and no longer paying money to the EU.
For Remainers, top of the list was continued free trade with the EU with no customs checks, UK citizens being able to move easily to EU countries to live and work, and EU citizens already here being allowed to stay.
For the population as a whole, the two most popular priorities are the UK doing its own free trade deals and continued frictionless trade with the EU with no customs barriers – the very definition of having our cake and eating it. It is hard to see how any deal could satisfy a majority of both Remain and Leave voters and win the EU’s agreement.
The public are almost evenly split on May’s deal So what should happen next? There is no agreement here either. For Tories and Leave voters, the first choice is leaving with no deal, with a delay to seek anew agreement second, and accepting the PM’s deal third.
Remain voters’ top three is different: a second referendum to choose between the draft deal and Remain, a three-option referendum to choose between the draft deal, no deal and Remain, and sending the PM back to Brussels to renegotiate. Labour voters are alone in showing any enthusiasm for another general election.
The argument for a second referendum is that, in 2016, people did not really know what they were voting for – the implication being that they do now. But only just over three in 10 voters say the consequences of Brexit are clearer to them today than they were during the referendum.
Brexit Bulletin promotion – RHS In fact, more than half of voters say either that these things are no clearer than they were two years ago, or that they are even less clear now. If a second referendum does happen, anyone expecting the campaign to be some kind of Socratic dialogue is likely to be disappointed.
Meanwhile, we continue to endure the Brexit crisis, if that is what it is. And if it is, how does it compare with other crises? For about half of all voters (and rather more Remainers), Brexit is more serious than, or compares with, the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the power cuts and three-day week of 1973-74, and the financial crash of 2007-08.
Just over four in 10, but a majority of Remainers, think it is at least as serious as the 1978-79 winter of discontent. Most revealing of all is that a quarter of those who voted Remain think Brexit is a least as serious as the Cuban missile crisis, which could have resulted in the obliteration of life on earth.
Whatever happens next in the Brexit process, a deep breath and sense of perspective might be a welcome first step.