The seven years since the EU referendum have seen a remarkable change in the fortunes of Brexit. On 24 June 2016 there was euphoria in the Vote Leave camp as it became clear that a narrow majority of British voters had elected to quit the European Union. Seven years on and Peter Kellner, a former CEO of the pollsters YouGov, felt confident enough to write an article for the New European: ‘Anti-Brexit Britain has reached the point of return‘ confirming that Britain “is now an anti-Brexit country” and suggesting the “change in the national mood has not required anyone to change sides”.
The ‘remorseless’ demographics
What he euphemistically calls “the power of remorseless demographics” – the grim reaper to you and me – has take its toll on the 1,269,501 majority that saw the Vote Leave campaign through to victory. Since then, over four million largely pro-Brexit voters have departed, to be replaced by a newly enfranchised and overwhelmingly anti-Brexit cohort of almost five million 18-24 year olds.
A rough calculation shows the initial majority is being eroded by this demographic shift at a rate of about 350,000 a year. If the referendum were held today, Kellner suggests, remain would defeat leave by 17 million to 15.4 million – again, “assuming nobody has switched sides”.
However, to make matters even worse for Brexit, there has definitely been a switching of sides.
Despite what some commentators on social media claim, many disenchanted 2016 leave voters have changed their mind about Brexit. This has not been in doubt since August 2016 when YouGov first began to ask the question: In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?
How voters are changing their mind
Within weeks of the referendum, 2% of leave voters already thought it was a mistake while another 4% had become don’t knows. This made little difference because just as many Remainers (4%) had switched the other way or become undecideds.
By 2017 however, a firm pattern had been established. Since then, with the exception of two brief periods at the end of 2019 when Boris Johnson ‘got Brexit done’ and early in 2021 when the trade and cooperation agreement came into force, more remain voters have remained true to their belief that Brexit was wrong than leave voters adhered to thinking it was the right decision. In other words, a leave voter’s conviction about Brexit has nearly always been more flaky than a remain voter’s.
Initially this was never more than a few percentage points, but since mid-2021 the difference has become increasingly marked as the chart below shows:
The data points are generated from 81 representative polls all conducted by YouGov to ensure the methodology was consistent and selected to represent one for each month since August 2016 (some months had no polling while others had several).
In May 2023, only 68% of leave voters believed the decision to leave the EU was right. Almost a third (32%) have since become disenchanted. Of those, fully one in five have switched to a belief that they had made a mistake in 2016 while a further 12% are now unsure.
Meanwhile, note the rise in the number of remain voters finding their decision in 2016 being confirmed by events, as Britain’s trade with Europe and living standards both suffer a post-Brexit hit with a corresponding fall in those unsure or thinking Brexit was right.
To this can be added voters who didn’t cast a ballot at all in June 2016 but would do so in the event of another referendum and, by a factor of four to one, would support remain/rejoin according to Professor Sir John Curtice.
Brexit, the direction of travel is now clear
Polling commissioned by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) suggests most Britons now think the country made the wrong choice in 2016 and was wrong to leave the EU while just one-in-three (34%) believe the decision was the right one.
This shift, says TBI, is attributable partly to the fact that almost one-in-five Britons (18%) who voted Leave in 2016 think their decision was wrong and partly to the more pro-European views of young people who are now entering the electorate.
In fact, the YouGov figures show it is actually closer to one-in-three leave voters who now either see Brexit as failure or have become more dubious about its success, and, although I would theorise it’s likely this change of mind has taken place predominantly among middle-aged and younger leavers and is therefore more of a long-term problem for Brexiters.
However, this still leaves 70% of those who voted to leave thinking that given enough time Brexit will be successful, albeit with little evidence that it will do so.
Nobody is suggesting that any of this points to Britain rejoining either the single market or the EU anytime soon, but the direction of travel is now set.