by Frank Schnittger
Tue Dec 19th, 2017 at 02:24:56 PM EST
Admitting a mistake, in life as in politics, is, for many people, one of the hardest things to do. An Independent opinion poll now shows "Remainers" with a 10% lead over Brexiteers and this rises to 11% if don't knows are excluded or pushed for an answer. However most of the change of heart is amongst those who didn't actually vote in the referendum.
BMG Research head of polling, Dr Michael Turner, said: "The last time Leave polled ahead of Remain was in February 2017, and since then there has been a slow shift in top-line public opinion in favour of remaining in the EU.
"However, readers should note that digging deeper into the data reveals that this shift has come predominantly from those who did not actually vote in the 2016 referendum, with around nine in ten Leave and Remain voters still unchanged in their view.
"Our polling suggests that about a year ago, those who did not vote in the referendum were broadly split, but today's poll shows that they are now overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, by a margin of more than four to one."
So the bottom line is that Brexit remorse is predominantly among those who didn't actually vote in the referendum. Few who actually voted for Brexit have changed their minds.
The same can be said for the political classes in Westminster. Virtually no Brexiteers have changed their minds, although many have been surprised at how difficult and complex the process is proving to be. Those who switched from the Remain camp after the referendum "to respect the vote of the people" have predominantly become soft Brexiteers, hoping to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union in practice if not in name. But the actual number of Remainer rebels in the Tory party have been few - 11 on the critical vote to give Parliament a vote on the final deal - and even they have been careful to stress they are not opposing Brexit per se, only insisting that Parliament have the final say on the deal.
It takes a lot for a polity to change course, and politicians generally need a very strong reason for performing a U -turn. There is too much credibility at stake, and the electorate can be unforgiving towards those who are seen to not stand by their principles. I have therefore been sceptical of those who believed that the UK could yet have a change of heart on Brexit. Both the Tory and Labour party leaderships simply have too much political capital invested in staying the course.
One thing that could change that would be if there where a major change in party preference voting intentions: But the graph shows relative stability:
The graph shows polls conducted for the next UK General Election, including polls released by 8 December 2017. The trend line is based on the average of the last 10 polls.
Labour (red line) is consistently ahead of the Tories (blue) by a small margin, making it unlikely the Tories will call a general election. But the Lib Dems and SNP (brown and yellow) - the only clearly pro-Remain parties - have yet to experience a a major resurgence. Neither have UKIP (Purple) for that matter, despite the gradual softening to the Tory government's negotiating position. The only slightly discernable trend is perhaps that both the predominantly pro-Brexit large parties, Labour and the Conservatives, are experiencing a small decline in support. So the consensus, insofar as there can be said to be one, seems to be converging slightly towards a "softer" Brexit, with the UK seeking something approaching continued access to the Single market and Customs Union - even if it is called something else.
The difficulty here is that such a "soft" Brexit is simply not on offer from the EU without continued regulatory "alignment", relatively free immigration, and adherence to the same free trade agreements as negotiated by the EU. However the Irish border issue has more or less forced the UK government's hand on regulatory alignment. Sterling devaluation, hostility experienced by immigrants, and the relative economic downturn has dramatically reduced net immigration. The EU's demonstrated ability to negotiate new free trade agreements, with deals in the pipeline with Canada, Japan, MERCOSUR (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay), Mexico, Chile, Australia and New Zealand may yet lead to a realisation that the UK - with a smaller market and no experienced negotiators - is unlikely to do as well on its own.
So it is possible to envisage a fudge where regulatory alignment is maintained within the British Isles, and hence with the EU, where the de facto decline in immigration is evidenced by some form of immigrant registration system, as already exists in some other EU member states, and where, for the foreseeable future, the UK simply "piggy-backs" on EU trade deals as a nominal third party.
The political problem will be that the UK will then, for all practical purposes, remain an economic member of the EU, while having little or no say in the political processes of developing those regulations and treaties. And the political crunch will come when the UK is required to pay for such preferential treatment - a la Norway - and thus make little or no saving on its current contributions to the EU budget. Pride is a terrible thing, in politics as in life, and I could well see the UK rejecting such a fudge even if it is demonstrably in the UK's economic interests to agree such a deal.
I suspect it would take a major upsurge in the Lib Dems electoral support, sufficient to threaten the Tory/Labour duopoly, to force a change of heart in Westminster by encouraging all those former Remainers to rediscover the courage of their former convictions. Many people who actually voted for Brexit or Remain would have to switch their allegiance to the Lib Dems and SNP, and so far, there is simply no sign of that happening. Britannia remains determined on a Brexit course, and it would take a major upheaval in Westminster politics, or a spectacular failure of governance for such a change of course to happen in time for the end March 2019 Brexit deadline.
And that is before we even consider the question of whether the EU Council would accept a withdrawal of the A50 notification letter, and if so, what conditions it might attach. So the dominant political prognosis for 2018, as we leave 2017, is that Brexit is still very much the UK's chosen political course, despite some signs of a popular change of heart. The only question is how hard or soft it is, and how long any transitional period. More people may be coming around to the view that Brexit has all been a great mistake, but for a government to admit that on the world stage is another matter entirely. May will, in all probability, stay the course. Brexit will happen end March 2019, hard or soft, deal or no deal, and the consequences will be the next government's problem to deal with.
Admitting a mistake is the hardest thing to do.