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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Brexit and the refuge of ambiguity by John Curtice

The key message of the polls is that the country is still split more or less equally down the middle on the merits of Brexit, thereby creating little incentive for any party to clarify its position any more than immediately necessary, says John Curtice

Britain’s membership of the European Union has long been a source of angst and difficulty for Britain’s two main political parties. Labour MPs split over the original decision to join the ‘Common Market’ in 1973. The party only resolved its internal differences by agreeing to hold a referendum, a ballot that eventually resulted in a vote in 1975 in favour of staying a member. Even so, Labour was still debating the merits or otherwise of EU membership as much as a decade later. Then, no sooner had the party eventually swung round in favour of EU membership in the late 1980s, than the Conservatives began to disagree amongst themselves about Europe, not least in the wake of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Their disagreements eventually helped propel the country towards another referendum on the UK’s EU membership in June 2016; this time around the public voted, albeit narrowly, to leave. In giving their verdict, voters rejected the advice of both the Conservative government and that of the Labour opposition, with the almost inevitable consequence that ever since, both have been struggling to work out how best to respond to this rejection of their common policy stance.

It is then perhaps not surprising that one of the more memorable phrases in the subsequent debate about what Brexit should mean has been ‘constructive ambiguity’. In coining it, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was suggesting that the apparent lack of specificity in the Conservative government’s stance on the subject was a negotiating ploy. However, it could also be said to be an acknowledgement that making one decision at a time rather than laying out a grand vision was also the best way of maintaining the fragile unity of his party. But Labour too has been criticised for failing to take a sufficiently clear position on Brexit. While the party has not come out in favour of a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, it has not ruled the idea out either. Labour says it wants the UK to be in ‘a’ permanent customs union with the EU but not necessarily ‘the’ Customs Union. Meanwhile, the Labour leader (if not all his MPs) rejects remaining in the EU single market, but still wants to secure ‘full access’ to it. True, the most strident critics of these seemingly delphic positions have been those such as Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis who simply want the Brexit decision reversed, but they are far from alone in criticising the apparent ambiguity of their party’s utterances.

Not least of the reasons why Labour has sought refuge in ambiguity is that its voters are divided about Brexit. While two in three of those who voted for the party in 2015 backed Remain, one in three voted Leave (Curtice, 2016a), Although the party advanced more strongly amongst Remain voters in last year’s general election, that still meant that at least 30% of the party’s vote came from those who voted Leave. At the same time, around a quarter of the party’s supporters prioritise control of immigration over access to the single market. Moreover, those Leave voters who want to see control of EU immigration consist disproportionately of the party’s working class supporters, who, although they constitute only around three in 10 of the party’s supporters these days (and only around 45% of whom actually voted to Leave), are still accorded a particular importance by a party that was founded to promote the representation of the working class.

Meanwhile, there is as yet at least, only the slightest of signs that the attitudes of the public in general towards Brexit have changed. True, during the last six months most polls have found slightly more people saying they would now vote Remain than indicate that they would vote Leave. On average the four most recent polls that have asked people how they would respond now to the question that appeared on the ballot paper in June 2016 have put support for Remain at 48% and that for Leave on 44%. Other evidence, such as polling from YouGov on whether people think that the Brexit decision is right or wrong, now also points in the same direction; typically, slightly more now say the decision is wrong than claim it is right. But the difference between the Remain and the Leave tallies is far too small for anyone to be sure what the outcome would be if another ballot were to be held now, especially given that the narrow Remain lead seems to rest on a greater willingness of Remain supporters to turn out in a second ballot, a pattern that might or might not be in evidence in a real referendum (Curtice, 2016b). In truth, the key message of the polls is that the country is still split more or less equally down the middle on the merits of Brexit, thereby creating little incentive for any party to clarify its position any more than immediately necessary.

An even division in public opinion is also in evidence on the merits of a ‘hard’ versus a ‘soft’ Brexit, an issue that is usually simplified in polls by asking people which they think is more important, access to the EU single market or being able to control immigration. For example, in five readings obtained by Opinium in the last quarter of 2017, on average 39% said that ‘staying in the single market’ was the more important priority, only slightly more than the 36% who indicated that ‘ending free movement of labour’ mattered more. Similarly, while in three polls conducted by ORB so far this year on average 44% have agreed that ‘having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU’, 44% have disagreed. Meanwhile, in a survey conducted by NatCen in October, 53% said that the UK should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow ‘people from the EU to come here freely to live and work’ if that was the price that had to be paid for British firms being able to trade freely in the EU, but 47% indicated that it ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ should not (Curtice, 2016b). Britain is more or less evenly divided on the merits of the two kinds of Brexit, not least because soft Brexiteers are mostly Remainers and their hard counterparts mostly Leavers. Again, there seems to be every incentive for parties to sit on the fence wherever possible.

Meanwhile, we have to remember that an opposition is not always wise to be forward in its policy pronouncements. It is often better to wait to see what the government proposes and then take whatever stance provides the platform for an effective critique of that stance, than prematurely to urge the government to adopt a policy position and so run the risk that that position is then duly adopted by the government without attribution, thereby leaving the opposition benches looking flat footed. Governments have to make decisions; oppositions prosper by developing effective criticism.

Still, even if Labour wishes not to offend the sensibilities of those of its supporters that voted to Leave the EU, it arguably still has to be even more mindful of the wishes of the majority of its supporters who voted Remain. Might the party be at risk of losing their support through a failure to adopt a clearer, pro-soft Brexit stance? Here, of course, much depends on what alternatives might be open to any Remain voters who come to feel that Labour is not being sufficiently robust in articulating their views. Switching to the Conservatives certainly does not seem to be a likely option. More attractive, perhaps, would be backing the Liberal Democrats, who have done little to hide their wish that Brexit might be stopped by holding a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal that the government eventually negotiates. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats are usually relatively successful at winning the support of the kind of young, socially liberal graduates that were particularly inclined to switch to Labour in last year’s general election. But for the time being at least the party still seems to be struggling to rediscover a popular voice in the wake of its much criticised role in the 2010-15 coalition. Consequently, for the time being at least the Liberal Democrats seem to pose relatively little threat to Labour’s Remain support.

However, while Labour are under much less immediate pressure to take a clearer position on Brexit than some of its critics argue, this does not mean that this will continue to be the case. Negotiations about what the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU should be are now about to begin, with the aim of achieving an outline agreement by October. Until now pronouncements by both Conservative and Labour politicians about what Brexit should mean have been little more than a wish list. They represent the outcome they would like the UK to secure from the negotiations, crafted in the vacuum created by the fact that only now has the EU begun be specific about the kind of deal to which it might be willing to agree. Consequently, it has been quite possible to argue the UK should seek the benefits of the single market while not being a member, or that the UK should be in ‘a’ rather than the customs union. There has been little or no comeback from the other side of the negotiating table.

But now we are beginning to learn where the EU does stand on these issues. Draft EU negotiating instructions published this week suggest that there is no prospect of the UK securing ‘full access’ to the single market to a country that is not a member. Meanwhile, although the EU contemplates co-operation over customs, there is no hint that the EU might be willing to establish for the convenience of the UK a separate customs union that would allow the UK to negotiate its trade agreements with non-EU countries. Of course, the immediate headache created by what the EU does and does not eventually offer in the negotiations will be one for the Conservative government, as it faces the potential prospect of making choices that it has so far largely avoided. But Labour too will also have to begin to show more of its hand. Developing an effective critique of the choices Theresa May and her colleagues opt to make will require some indication at least of what alternative choice Labour thinks should have been made instead.

If the public remain as divided about Brexit as they are at present, none of the choices that Labour backs are likely to be easy ones. How Britain leaves the EU could create at least as much angst and difficulty for the party as did the original decision to join.  But in making its choices Labour probably cannot avoid the pro-Remain, predominantly soft Brexit balance of opinion amongst its voters. Being at least a little softer than the Conservatives would appear to be the only place that the party can afford electorally to occupy. Such a position will not be without its risks – but any other looks even riskier.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University, senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research and contributor to the Economic and Social Research Council's UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

References

Curtice, J. (2016a), Has Brexit Reshaped British Politics?, London: NatCen Social Research. Available at https://whatukthinks.org/eu/analysis/has-brexit-reshaped-british-politics/

Curtice, J. (2016b), Half-time in the Brexit negotiations: the voters’ scorecard, London: NatCen Social Research. Available at https://whatukthinks.org/eu/analysis/half-time-in-the-brexit-negotiations-the-voters-scorecard/