Brexit Blues affecting the public this winter

02 Feb 2018 | Research & Business Knowledge

Brexit blues affecting the public this winter

As the dust settles on the end of the first phase of the European Union (EU)-UK divorce settlement and a second more complex negotiation over trade begins, the latest GfK poll commissioned by JGFR* shows the public interest in Brexit on the wane.

At a time when a growing number of domestic issues, especially in health, social care, infrastructure and education, are putting pressure on public resources, delivering Brexit continues to be seen by many as the dominant priority of the government.

Media debates on politics and business seem inevitability to stir up passions when Brexit is mentioned highlighting the deep divide within the country.

JGFR/ GfK has been monitoring aspects of the public’s view of the EU since spring 2016 when a majority of the public expected the country to remain in the EU and believed they would be better off staying there economically and financially**.

Last July a GfK poll for JGFR found that 38% of the public accepted the vote to leave but that 1 in 5 of the population did not. A large minority of the population (42%) had no view (see Figure 1). 

Across various statements on attitudes to Brexit in last July’s poll responses often were well below 40% suggesting that over a half of the public had disengaged from Brexit.

Indeed respondents were asked whether the statement Brexit means Brexit applied to them or they agreed with.  Last July 28% agreed that the statement did apply, well down on 49% in September 2016 in the wake of the Prime Minister’s Brexit assertion.

More people affected by Brexit blues

Brexit disengagement noted in July is a feature of the December GfK/JGFR poll.  A number of statements were asked of a representative sample of 1,997 UK adults aged 16+.

Which, if any, of the following statements do you agree with, or apply to you?

  • I wish Brexit had never happened
  • The UK will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019
  • I/my family will be better off leaving the European Union
  • I/my family will be better off staying within the European Union
  • The UK should leave the Single Market
  • The UK should stay in the Single Market
  • If there was a referendum tomorrow I would vote to leave the European Union
  • If there was a referendum tomorrow I would vote to stay in the European Union

Overall 92% of respondents answered one or more of the statements but no one statement drew more than a 40% response rate suggesting that Brexit is of interest to only a sizeable minority of the public.  This does raise the question about whether Brexit is something the public really wants.

Nearly 40% of the public wish Brexit had never happened (see Figure 2)

More people (39%) supported the statement wishing Brexit had never happened than for any of the other statements.  Greatest support shown in Fig 2 is among the under 30s and ABs.  Other segments where there is stronger support for the statement (not shown) are students (52%), graduates (51%) and top earners (49%). Least support is among the over 50s (33%), C2s (32%) and the retired (35%).

Figure 3: Did the public really want a Referendum shows notable differences between regions.  As Remain supporting regions Scotland (51%), London (46%) and Northern Ireland (45%) have the highest proportions wishing Brexit never happened, with the East Midlands (31%), North West (32%), and Wales (34%) least in agreement.

While almost all potential leave voters (see Figs 2 & 3) are represented in ‘no responses’, 61% of stay voters are represented in the ‘wish Brexit never happened’ grouping.  Within the latter group of respondents is a sizeable minority (39%, equating to around 16% of the public) of non-voters.

Many people wishing Brexit had never happened are under 30 (Millennials and Generation Z) but who do not appear to view it as an issue that really energises them to seek change.

Weak awareness of Brexit day

Further evidence of the lack of engagement around Brexit is the lack of awareness of the day when the UK formally leaves the European Union.  The autumn publicity surrounding the date being enshrined in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill going through Parliament failed to make much of an impression.

Only around a third of the public believe the UK will leave the European Union on March 29th 2019 suggesting either that the message has not got through, or if it has, people do not believe it or that its impact bears little on their lives (Figure 4).

Such lack of positive response is particularly notable among the young where less than a quarter of under 30s support the statement (12% students), compared to nearly a half of over 65s.

Regionally, most leaving the EU date awareness is found in the East Midlands (39%) and South West (37%), with lowest leaving awareness in Scotland (22%), Wales (24%) and the West Midlands (28%).

Uncertainty over future rules

Prior to the Referendum in March 2016 over a half of people had a view on whether the economy (74%) and their own household finances (63%) would be better off in or out of the EU post-Brexit.  In last July and December’s surveys the economy and household statements appeared as ‘better off in ‘ or ‘better off out’ out statements. Some confusion may have resulted in what ‘better off’ means.

The low level of combined responses last July (34%) and last December (39%) may reflect such confusion although it also suggests little interest in speculating about a very uncertain future.

Fewer people feel they will be better off staying in the EU (21%, December) compared to 24% in July, with more people feeling they will be better off outside the EU (18% v 10%, July), although the majority of people (61% v 66%, July) do not have a view.

Whereas in July all gender, age and social class segments showed net balances of people believing they would be better off in the EU, in December all segments showed a reduction in a belief that they would be better off staying in.  Indeed men, the over 50s and C2s all show a net balance now believing they will be better off outside the EU (see Fig 5).  Low earners also feel they will be better off outside the EU.  Many other segments have seen similar sharp drops, especially among higher paid workers who have become less certain about the future.

Regionally, people in 6 out of 12 regions believe they will be better off outside the EU (especially in the East of England) while in London and the South East they are neutral and in 4 of the regions, notably in Scotland they believe they will be better off staying in the EU (Figure 5).

Minority report interest in Single Market status (Figure 6)

Compared to July (48%) fewer people (39%) had a view on the Single Market, despite much media commentary on the various EU relationship options over the past year.   

21% of people believe the UK should stay in the Single Market (30%, July) with 18% (unchanged, July) supporting leaving the Single Market.  A big drop is support among the under 30s (18% v 42%, July) with more not responding (74% v 51%) is a big factor in the fall in Single Market support.

Among workers there is greater support for staying in the Single Market, especially higher earners and graduates.  Support is notably lower among these groups than last July. 

More regions (9) support staying in the Single Market. Highest net support is in the South West, Wales and the South East. In the East of England, North West and North East more support leaving.

Around 6 out of 10 would vote in a Referendum tomorrow

To test the public’s desire for a second referendum and support for leave or remain, respondents were asked whether they would leave or stay if a referendum was held tomorrow.

A feature of the 2016 Referendum was the narrowness of the result (52% leave v 48% remain) on a 72% turnout.  If a Referendum was to be held tomorrow on a 59% response rate, 51% would vote to stay and 49% leave highlighting the Brexit division that continues to split the voting public. (Figure 7) 

Across all segments in Fig 7, apart from the over 50s and C2s, more people would vote to stay in the EU.  Turnout in several segments, especially among the under 30s, would be low, which could help boost the Leave campaign, who were better at getting their supporters to vote in June 2016.  As in the actual Referendum, such lack of voting intention among the young could be decisive.

Strong support for a stay vote would be forthcoming among higher earners, graduates and workers in general although in all cases turnout is the key. Regionally the turnout of the young would also be a factor, with 5 regions voting to stay and 7 to leave. 

The Brexit blues: who really wants to leave?

With only around 3 out of 10 adults indicating they would vote to leave, the great majority of the population would either seem happy to continue with the status quo, or are content that the decision to leave has been made but show little enthusiasm in support. (Figure 8)

As well as the 30% of the public who would vote to support staying in the EU, a further 15% of the public wish Brexit had never happened.  This anti-Brexit group are likely to include many young people, some may be too young to vote, but all will want to get on with their lives currently under the cloud of uncertainty created by Brexit.

Fig 8 also shows around a quarter of adults appear to have had enough of elections and politics following general elections in 2015 and 2017 and the EU Referendum in 2016.  Many will not be politically engaged (in the 2016 Referendum around 28% of adults did not vote) and content to let others decide on the political direction the country takes.  Inertia rules for them; most will be happy with life in the UK as a member of the EU.  Que sera sera.

Seeking a further referendum may not be the solution that Remain supporters seek as it is likely that such a Referendum may again return another inconclusive result.


While over 9 out of 10 of the public have a view on one or more aspects of the EU debate, for many Europe does not really interest them.  For politicians they need to consider whether the continuance of Brexit negotiations will enhance the happiness, health and prosperity of voters and non-voters at a time when costs are rising, resources are becoming increasingly stretched and focus is needed on pressing domestic issues.  Is Brexit what the country (and the EU) really really wants?

Notes: *GfK interviewed 1,997 adults aged 16+ representative of the UK population online between December 1-15 2017

**GfK interviewed 2,002 adults aged 16+ online between 1-16 March 2016

** GfK interviewed 2,000 adults aged 16+ representative of the UK population online between July 1-16 2017

If you want to know more, contact John Gilbert: +44 (0) 7740 027968 Twitter: @JohnGilbertJGFR