What will post Brexit identities mean for Britain’s future relationship with the EU?

Paula Surridge | May 2021

The divide between leave and remain has dominated our political discourse since 2016 but with Brexit now ‘done’ these categories may gradually lose their potency as a way of describing attitudes to our relationship with the EU. It will no longer make sense for polling companies to ask people how they would vote in a rerun of the 2016 referendum, or the hypothetical ‘2nd referendum’ that caused so many headaches for those on the left in recent election campaigns. In the future, the question will not be remain or leave but re-join or stay-out.

Brexit identities themselves may change as a result. Combined with evidence from other sources, recent data from Ipsos-MORI, shows that there has been a decline in the intensity of Brexit identities, 35% now say their Brexit identity is ‘very strong’ compared with 55% in 2019. This softening of Brexit identities may foreshadow a decline in influence in British politics, or it may reflect that the past year has reordered people’s priorities and that there may be a rebirth of these identities as the effects of Brexit are felt more widely. So far, most people say they have not yet felt any impact of Brexit on their daily lives.

In some sense Britain is still waiting for what happens next, Brexit left on a cliff hanger, if not a cliff edge, while the country is gripped by a new crisis. A large part of the British public don’t see Brexit as ‘done’ (Ipsos-MORI found 44% thought that ‘there are still many important issues to finalise in Britain’s future relationship with the EU, which will mean lots more negotiations over the next few years’). Second, although Brexit identities may have softened, they are still widespread and held more strongly than party identities.

What might this mean for how the British public view the future relationship with the EU? Opinium recently asked about views on the future relationship. Support for rejoining the EU was just over 1 in 3 voters, at 36%, just over a quarter wanted to stay outside the EU but with a closer relationship while another quarter wanted to stay outside with either the same relationship as now or a more distant one. A key feature of polling on this question currently is the strength of its relationship to EU referendum vote.

Very few people on either side of the Brexit debate give a different answer now to the one they gave in 2016 – and this is also true of the re-join/stay outside question. This may change, and many on the remain side continue to hope (if not expect) that the reality of Brexit will lead those who voted for it to change their positions, despite evidence that this has not so far occurred. Even if individual voters don’t change their mind the make-up of the electorate changes over time. Those eligible to vote for the first time in 2024 were age 10 in 2016; their formative political experiences will be shaped by the Covid crisis in ways we cannot yet predict.

We may hazard a guess at how those coming to voting age now might have been shaped by events, but what of those born tomorrow and able to shape our politics within the next two decades? On the current evidence it seems unlikely that there will be any significant ‘re-join’ movement within the British public in the medium term, there is little appetite for it among political parties. But deeply embedded political identities, as evidence suggests Leave and Remain have become, do not change rapidly when left unattended. They can be mobilised by political leaders and should the landscape shift so that it becomes more political advantageous to build on these identities, there may be space to do so.