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June 26, 2023

Why Remainers are the new Leavers

The opponents of Brexit are now animated by the same desire to “Take Back Control” that powered their rivals.

By Ben Walker

There are plenty of things that campaigners and commentators should have learned in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum seven years ago (enough to warrant a book).

A crucial one was this: message simplicity, message discipline. Vote Leave’s exhortation to “Take Back Control” encapsulated anything and everything that was felt by those unhappy with the status quo (ie most voters) and a politics too remote, too global to be felt here in Britain. It remains to my mind the best slogan of any successful campaign in a democracy. It spoke to a sentiment that transcends European issues and endures to this day.

Vote Leave kept it simple, kept it broad and helped to get people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered. In different ways, the desire to “take back control” animates nimby campaigns in Surrey, nationalism in Scotland and any opposition campaign in traditionally safe Tory and Labour areas. It hasn’t gone away – and this is something that needs to be considered in relation to the debate over whether the UK will one day rejoin the European Union. A cursory glance at polling on Brexit shows a large lead for Return.

[See also: Labour’s Remainers are getting organised]

The share for staying out, 33 per cent, is at its lowest level yet in YouGov polling on Brexit. It’s a stark decline, driven by Leavers becoming uncommitted to staying out or simply indifferent.

This encapsulates the political trends of recent years. While Leavers have been willing to move on from the Brexit divide, the same cannot be said of Remain voters. For a significant number, their stance on Europe defines their political identity. In a sense they have become the new Brexiteers: politically, if not economically, “left behind” and yearning to “take back control”.

Don’t be deceived. A large number of Leavers still feel that they live in a country and community in which they have little control. This sentiment was exploited by Brexit but not solved by it. Indeed, as households endure the biggest living standards squeeze since records began, it has only got worse.

What all this will mean for future debates on the EU is uncertain, however. If Leavers are no longer a unified bloc of voters, the onus is on Remainers to push for the UK to rejoin, be it through a referendum or otherwise. But prioritising this in the current economic climate would alienate far too many voters to be electorally feasible. Few voters attribute the poor state of the UK economy with Brexit. While leaving the EU has made things worse, few cite it as the primary factor. 

Seven years on from the EU referendum, there is a path back for Remainers. But not now, not in this economy.

[See also: Labour’s Remainers are getting organised]

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