Brexit: Could Britain change its mind?

In a show of what the press has dubbed 'Bregret,' more British voters now think it was the wrong choice to leave the EU than still think it was the right decision.

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London this week. Some who would prefer to stay in the European Union are hoping that the government might call a second referendum once the exact terms of a departure deal are known.

When they meet in Brussels next Friday, European Union leaders are expected to greenlight the next phase of negotiations to set the terms of Brexit – Britain’s exit from the bloc.

British Prime Minister Theresa May may be breathing a sigh of relief that London last week overcame the first major hurdle in its negotiating marathon – a deal on the practical aspects of the divorce.

But the nature of that deal, which Britain secured only by accepting almost all of Brussels’ terms, is giving many citizens pause for thought. In a show of what the press has dubbed “Bregret,” more voters now think Britain was the wrong choice to leave the EU than still think it was the right decision – 47 percent to 42 percent, according to a YouGov poll.

And that is fueling calls for a second referendum that would give the British public a chance to approve or disapprove the final terms of the Brexit deal, due to be signed by March 2019. 

Ms. May has said such a vote is “out of the question.” But opposition Labour Member of Parliament Geraint Davies, who has tabled a bill calling for a second referendum, feels the tide is turning against that view.

He told the BBC that he sensed “a growing appetite from MP’s to give the people the final say,” because “the public don’t trust politicians making shoddy deals behind closed doors, especially when the government’s attitude seems to be to leave the EU whatever the cost.”

And he seems to have some public support. “Up until very recently, the majority of people were saying no when asked if they wanted a second referendum but in the last couple of months things have started to shift,” says Roger Awan-Scully, who teaches politics at Cardiff University in Wales.

In early December, a Survation public opinion poll found that for the first time, half of respondents said they would “support holding a referendum asking the public if they will accept or reject the deal.” 

Though voters who chose the “Leave” option at the June 2016 referendum are mostly sticking to their guns, “Remainers” who had bowed to the result then are now having second thoughts, Professor Awan-Scully says.

“The various difficulties and complications that have arisen with the negotiations seem to have given people reason to think it isn’t over yet and there could be some mechanism to reverse” Brexit, he explains. “It’s just not looking quite so inevitable anymore.” 

The shifts in opinion are slight, and will not necessarily persist, analysts caution. Next March, Britain and the EU will tackle the most important and most difficult issues at stake – notably the shape of London’s trade relationship with its biggest market, Europe.

Public opinion swings will undoubtedly depend heavily on how well the government is perceived to be doing.

“It’s pretty clear now ... that Brexit is turning out to be the most complicated and difficult thing that the UK has tried to do since we fought World War II,” says Awan-Scully. “While many ‘leave’ voters won’t have changed their views on leaving, they are pretty unimpressed with how that decision is being delivered on by government.” 

Parliament debated the prospect of a second Brexit referendum on Monday, as a result of four public petitions, signed by hundreds of thousands of citizens, demanding such discussion.

Petition debates do not end with votes, but it was clear that a majority of MP’s from both the ruling Conservative party and the Labour party opposed the idea of another referendum, arguing that to hold one would show disrespect for the will of the people as it was expressed in June last year. 

If attitudes continue to shift, however, Awan-Scully says they may have rethink this position. “We are definitely seeing a move in that direction,” he says, but it has not yet shifted “far enough for there to be real political pressure.” 

If negotiations next year go badly for Britain, though, and if public opinion turns more sharply against the prospect of a poor Brexit deal, “it will certainly put politicians in a difficult position,” he warns.

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