Brexit’s “Liberal Leave” voters might swing negotiations

Brexit’s “Liberal Leave” voters might swing negotiations

Polls show that most UK citizens favor strong EU relations post-Brexit.

Brexit’s “Leave” voters have been painted with a broad brush. Following the UK referendum to leave the EU in June, endless articles lamented citizens who voted to leave, then expressed remorse. Outliers notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that this sample size does not speak for what the masses want.

Voter demographics for the referendum explain how the Leave campaign triumphed. But post-Brexit insights reveal how the UK public wants to work with the EU moving forward. There is much less division on this specific issue: most UK citizens want to maintain strong EU relations, regardless of whether they voted to leave.

Economy > immigration

The typical trope of a Leave voter portrays disenfranchised “Little Englanders” who want no involvement with the EU project. Although there is some truth to that trope, data shows that it is not all-inclusive. A post-Brexit poll by ORB international showed that of more than 2000 adults, one in five Leave voters (20 percent) prioritizes Single Market access over immigration control. More than three quarters of Remain voters (76 percent) share this opinion.

This data suggests that most UK citizens want to retain Single Market access even if it means not capping immigration. It also challenges the belief that most UK citizens want to abandon relations with the EU. On the contrary, there is a sizable “Liberal Leave” population that wants the UK to leave the EU under a set of policies which seal a close relationship.

This is significant for two main reasons. The first concerns how UK citizens want to engage with the EU moving forward. The referendum results show that most UK citizens want to leave the EU. But leaving the EU is not synonymous with shunning it.

A pre-Brexit poll from the Adam Smith Institute showed that support for a “Norway-style” arrangement outweighed opposition by two-to-one. That poll of 1750 adults showed that 54 percent of Britons supported keeping the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA) for five to 10 years following Brexit. There is still strong support for this option following the referendum.

The “Pro-EU Leave” position

The second reason is that citizens of EU countries (not to mention EU officials) do not embrace Boris Johnson’s “have your cake and eat it” approach. YouGov data shows that in four out of five EU member countries polled, voters say the EU owes Britain no negotiation favors. On the issue of trade, this same data found that nearly half of adults in France and Germany “would only support a free trade deal with Britain in exchange for them allowing EU citizens to live and work there – the ‘free movement of labour’ many pro-Brexit voters likely felt they had rejected in June’s referendum.”

In other words, it is unlikely that the UK will retain its Single Market access while capping immigration from the EU. This not to say that the idea is impossible; Simon Hix, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, suggested several policies which advocate for “Pro-EU Leave” positions.

The challenge, Hix argued, is that no one in Theresa May’s cabinet is advocating such positions. By stocking her cabinet with “hard-Brexiteers” and “reluctant-Remainers,” Hix wrote that there is little room for the “Liberal Leave” voice. And absence of this voice means that the UK risks continental isolation. Or does it?

The Scottish wild card

May has made no secret of the fact that she plans to delay Brexit. Despite her now-famous “Brexit means Brexit” line, she is intent (at least in public) on keeping the United Kingdom intact. May upheld this image last month when she traveled to Edinburgh and spoke with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon advocates to keep Scotland in the EU, even if that means seceding from the UK. Her position reinforces fears that since Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU, they will hold their own independence referendums and, in turn, break up the UK.

Few Prime Ministers would claim to want that legacy. Perhaps that’s why May declared, following her talks with Sturgeon, that she will not trigger Article 50 until “we have a UK approach and objectives.” For her part, Sturgeon finds Scotland in a strong position to negotiate. She told the BBC that options could include having Scotland stay in the EU and UK while the rest of the UK leaves the EU.

But that option does not support Brexit negotiations to keep the UK as a truly unified nation that maintains close EU relations. If Scotland chooses and is able to stay in the UK as well as the EU, then by default its approach and objectives differ from the rest of the country. So, if May truly wants a UK approach and objectives for its exit from the EU, her cabinet must take a “Liberal Leave” approach. It is what the majority wants, regardless of their votes on June 23rd.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo has reported on and worked within the global tech sector. In 2012, Lauren earned commission from the government of Taiwan to report on the island's media market -- the largest, freest market on the Asian continent. Lauren earned her MSc from The London School of Economics and her BA from The Catholic University of America, where she was a CUA Oxford Honors Scholar at St. Catherine's College, Oxford.