Do British Voters Regret Brexit Enough to Dump Theresa May?

With polls tightening in the run-up to Thursday’s election, issues of terrorism, NATO, and the EU could determine the fate of the United Kingdom.


A year ago, the Brexit referendum shocked many political observers when the final vote tally favored leaving the European Union by a slim 52-48 margin — a sign that the country was, at the time, deeply divided on the question of Europe. As Britons prepare for snap elections on Thursday, that divide shows little sign of healing. A new Pew Research Center survey finds that 48 percent in Britain think exiting the EU will be bad for their country, compared with 44 percent who say Brexit will benefit their nation. But this overall finding obscures further important divides along partisan, generational, and educational lines.

Among supporters of Theresa May’s Conservative Party, fully 63 percent say that Brexit will be a good thing for their country, while only about a third (34 percent) who favor Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party share this view. While Labour Party’s manifesto accepts the results of the Brexit vote, Corbyn campaigned for the U.K. to remain within the bloc. Even fewer in the Liberal Democrats’ camp (16 percent) think the outcome of Brexit will be positive.

For their part, backers of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which played a crucial role in drumming up public support for Brexit, remain convinced that exiting the EU was the right decision. About three-quarters (74 percent) say withdrawing from the “European project” will be good for the island nation. But even among UKIP backers, about 2-in-10 now say that Brexit will be bad for Britain.

As was the case in the June 2016 plebiscite, public assessments of Brexit continue to differ depending on age and educational attainment. The proportion of Britons 50 and older who say leaving the EU will be good for the country is more than twice that among those ages 18 to 29 (54 percent versus 25 percent). The gap by education is nearly as dramatic. Fifty-one percent of Britons with a secondary education or less predict a rosy future thanks to the 2016 referendum results, compared with just 26 percent of those with a college or advanced degree.

Compared with public assessments of Brexit, attitudes toward the current U.K. government are even more closely divided. Roughly half of Britons (49 percent) say they trust the government to do the right thing a lot or somewhat, while nearly the same proportion (48 percent) say they trust the government not much or not at all. Trust in government is another partisan issue, likely reflecting the fact that a Conservative prime minister resides at No. 10 Downing Street, with Conservative followers much more likely to say they trust the government most or nearly all the time (76 percent), compared with 42 percent of Labour supporters who say the same.

One of the key responsibilities of the national government is security — an issue definitely on the minds of Britons, thanks in part to the recent terrorist bombing in Manchester and the vehicle and stabbing attack in London. Although the Pew Research Center survey was conducted before these tragic events, 79 percent of Britons were already concerned about extremism in the name of Islam, with 43 percent very concerned. Similar levels of concern were evident this spring elsewhere in Europe and the United States. In general, older and more conservative Britons were more worried about Islamic extremism than either younger or more left-leaning U.K. citizens. Age is generally seen as a strong predictor of voting intent in Britain, with older people being more likely to vote compared with younger voters.

NATO, of course, is another factor in the United Kingdom’s security. Overall, Britons are supportive of the alliance. About 6-in-10 (62 percent) say they have a favorable view of the trans-Atlantic alliance, with only 19 percent holding an unfavorable view. This is about the same split in public opinion found in Germany (67 percent favorable toward NATO), the United States (62 percent), and France (60 percent). Positive views of NATO are more common among Tory (73 percent) as opposed to Labour supporters (57 percent).

The British public’s embrace of NATO does not necessarily extend to Article 5 of the trans-Atlantic treaty, which obligates alliance members to treat “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America [as] an attack against them all.” When asked about a scenario in which another member state becomes embroiled in a conflict with Russia, 45 percent in Britain say their government should use military force to defend the NATO ally, while 43 percent say the government should not. Conservative and Labour supporters are similarly divided on this issue. Overall, British willingness to live up to the Article 5 commitment has ebbed slightly since 2015, when 49 percent said they would defend an ally.

Britons are less conflicted when it comes to the likelihood of the United States coming to the rescue of a NATO ally. Despite mixed signals from Washington in recent months, nearly two-thirds (66 percent) think the United States would use military force to defend a NATO ally engaged in an active conflict with Russia. This assessment is unchanged from when the question was first asked during Barack Obama’s presidency in 2015.

With just a day to go before the British election, there are signs of a tightening race. British voters, of course, will face a choice between parties and platforms. How they see those choices will be based, in part, on their views of Brexit, the current government, national security, and the United Kingdom’s place in the world — issues that will confront the new British government on Friday, whatever its composition.

Image credit: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/AFP/Getty Images

Jacob Poushter is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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