Yes, the mood has shifted against Brexit. But the road back to Brussels is long and hard

<span>Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Brexit is three years old and less popular than ever. More people are unhappy with Brexit outcomes to date, and pessimistic about the gains to come today than at any point in the Brexit process so far. “Rejoin” has opened up a double-digit lead over staying out in polls asking voters how they would choose in a second referendum on EU membership.

Related: Trade down, economy sinking, support falling: is the tide finally turning on Brexit?

While voters have swung against Brexit before, the current shift is different. Earlier remain gains were driven by abstainers and those too young to vote in 2016 breaking against Brexit and by demographic changes which have slowly pulled the electorate in a pro-EU direction. The vast majority of leave and remain voters have hitherto stood by the choices they made in June 2016. That is now changing, and it is Brexiters who are reconsidering. One in five leave voters now say they would vote to rejoin the EU, while remain switching has stayed much lower. The scales of opinion are being tipped against Brexit by growing doubts among its original supporters.

One thing driving this change of heart is the failure of Brexit reality to live up to the hype. Leave voters’ views of the economic impacts of Brexit have shifted from cautiously positive to strongly negative in the past year. “Things have got worse”, and “it hasn’t turned out as expected” are among the most popular explanations given by leave voters when asked by pollsters to explain their shift.

Brexit is no longer an abstract future goal, where coming benefits can be talked up, while potential drawbacks are dismissed as partisan pessimism. Brexit is now a lived reality, whose frictions and costs are a daily experience, and whose promised gains have not arrived. Disappointing outcomes have made sceptics’ arguments more credible, while true believers’ promises of good times just ahead have become harder to swallow.

The government’s failure to deliver on leave voters’ expectations is one weight on Brexit support. Another may be the government’s failure in general. In 2019, Boris Johnson was able to mobilise the cause of Brexit to achieve Conservative breakthroughs in traditionally Labour, but heavily leave-voting, seats. Now Brexit is a settled reality, the opposite dynamic may be kicking in – longstanding partisan antipathies are reasserting themselves, and colouring perceptions of what Labour leavers see as a bad Tory Brexit deal.

Voters who now see Brexit as a botched job know that it was campaigned for, pushed through, and implemented solely by Conservative MPs. A failed Brexit deal is becoming just another instance of Tory betrayal in communities where suspicion of the Conservative party goes back generations. Opinium polling suggests the shift against Brexit is markedly higher among Labour leavers than Conservative leavers. A third of Labour Brexit supporters now want to either rejoin the EU or negotiate a closer relationship with Brussels, compared to just a fifth of Conservative leavers. Every impact of Brexit is rated more negatively by Labour than Conservative Brexiters.

Partisan differences among Brexiters can be traced back several years. Opinium polling from June 2020 shows more than 80% of Conservative leavers opposed close alignment with the EU, while 75% wanted to stick to the December deadline even if it meant leaving with no trade deal. Labour Brexiters were already more ambivalent – only half supported each of these hardline options.

That early ambivalence has now evolved into discontent with the existing deal, and a desire to renegotiate. More than 70% of Labour leavers asked by Opinium in November 2022 think Brexit has gone badly so far, compared to 40% of Conservative Brexiters. The same poll shows majority support from Labour leavers for several closer integration options, including free movement and even the UK accepting some EU legislation, options which remain unacceptable to Conservative leavers.

While dissatisfaction with the Brexit status quo may be growing, ardent remainers should not get their hopes up. Disappointment with Brexit does not translate into desire for another polarising referendum campaign. While a softening mood among Labour Brexiters will make it easier for the Labour leadership to move Britain closer to the EU without opening up divides in their support, the road back to Brussels is long and hard. It will be difficult to achieve more than incremental gains in the short run, making it difficult for Keir Starmer to deliver on promises to “make Brexit work”. Dashed Brexit hopes could come to haunt Labour in future, too.

For the Conservatives, Brexit disappointment and the divides opening up among leavers about the best way forwards add further burdens to an incumbent government struggling on multiple fronts and pose a deep strategic dilemma. Addressing growing disaffection among the public would require a shift in stance, but any move to closer relations enrages Brexit true believers, a declining tribe among the electoratebut still a vocal force at every level of the Conservative party. Changing course requires first admitting that Brexit is not working. That admission is still heresy. The Conservatives won by promising to deliver Brexit. They may soon lose because Brexit cannot deliver for them.

Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of The British General Election of 2019