There can be little doubt that among voters as a whole there are widespread doubts about the wisdom of the UK government’s decision to pass up the opportunity to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period. However, those doubts are unlikely to trouble Boris Johnson, for they are largely not shared by the army of Leave supporters that gave the prime minister his overall majority last December.
During the last three months, 10 polls have asked voters whether they were in favour or against an extension. All bar one found that extending was more popular than not. On average, just over half (51 per cent) said that they were in favour, while only one in three (33 per cent) indicated they were opposed.
These figures have, though, varied considerably from one poll to another. One reason is that some have mentioned coronavirus as a reason for extending while others have not. The half dozen that mentioned the pandemic have on average found as many as 54 per cent in favour of extending. Those that have not – which might be thought the more neutral approach – have put the figure somewhat lower at 46 per cent.
In any event, there are signs that, now the peak of the coronavirus pandemic has passed (for the time being at least), the public mood has swung against extension. Two polls conducted this month, one of which mentioned coronavirus and one that did not, both found that supporters and opponents of an extension are now evenly balanced.
In truth, what has become clear in all the polling is that, as has been the case throughout the Brexit process, Remain voters and Leave supporters have very different views about what should be done.
Irrespective of whether reference is made to the pandemic or not, every poll has found strong support among Remain voters for extending the transition. On average, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) have been found to be in favour. But then most of Remain voters would prefer that Brexit were not happening anyway.
The mood among Leave voters is very different. True, at the height of the pandemic they were divided on the issue. In polls conducted in March and April as many as 37 per cent of Leavers said that they backed an extension. However, even then, considerably more (46 per cent) said that they were opposed. Meanwhile, in polls conducted more recently less than a quarter (23 per cent) of Leave supporters have favoured an extension, while two-thirds (66 per cent) have said they were opposed.
At this point it has to be remembered that for every Remain voter who backed Boris Johnson in December, as many as four Leave supporters did so. The electoral coalition that enabled the prime minister to deliver Brexit in January consisted overwhelmingly of those who did, indeed, want ‘to get Brexit done’.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the picture among those who voted Conservative in the election largely replicates that among Leave voters as a whole. In more recent polls only 24 per cent have been in favour of an extension.
Although the prime minister has sometimes spoken of a wish to bring the country together after Brexit, in truth he is heavily reliant on keeping the support of that half of the public that does wish to leave the EU. And despite the pandemic, most Leave voters regard extending the negotiations with the EU as an unnecessary hiccup – and one that would be more likely to benefit the EU rather than the UK.
We therefore should not be surprised that, despite the widespread concerns registered by the other half of the electorate, it is this mood among Leave voters that the government has decided to heed. But then perhaps bringing the country together over Brexit is going to prove even more difficult to deliver than leaving the EU has proven to be.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Fellow, NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe