Leave voters not keen on divergence, despite PM’s rhetoric

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People who voted Leave in 2016 do not believe the UK should insist on its own regulatory regime after Brexit, but want certain standards maintained after transition, a new survey has found.

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson made much of the UK government’s plan to reject the EU’s insistence of a level-playing field, saying: “There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar.”

He added: “Are we going to insist that the EU does everything that we do as the price of free trade? Are we? Of course not.”

The government has made much of its plans to diverge as part of Brexit, with the Conservatives committing to it in their manifesto and key ministers including the chancellor flagging it as the UK’s position heading into trade talks.

But a study by NatCen Social Research suggests that on existing EU standards – for example mobile phone roaming or flight compensation, the general public backed ongoing alignment, being supported by 72 per cent and 78 per cent of voters respectively.

Even those who voted Leave were heavily in support of these two areas, with 65 per cent and 70 per cent of Brexiters backing the status quo.

Professor John Curtice said: “The government is particularly exercised about divergence, and perhaps less concerned about immigration… but [divergence] is not necessary one that exercises Leave voters.”

Leavers took a stronger position on geographical indicators such as Cornish pasties, which Curtice interpreted as “arguably more to do with identity”, but stressed it was still not a red line. “Even so, it’s 50-50 for any Leave voters. It’s not clear they want to throw the EU baby out with the EU bath water,” he added.

Allowing imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef scored low regardless of how people voted – approved by just 24 per cent and 13 per cent of people respectively. On this, at least, the government appeared to get the message, Curtice said.

However, if the government forges ahead with plans to diverge, Downing Street should brace itself for positions to become entrenched or even shift in favour of sticking with EU regulation. Curtice noted that during a weekend debate, study participants appeared to increasingly approve of red tape imposed by the EU.

This could present an opportunity for Labour after transition, he noted.

“I’d be trying to find people with… an enormous phone bill and say ‘that’s Boris’ bill,” he said.

“But if I were trying to deliver Brexit, I would be worrying less about the long-term economic impact and more about the short term,” he said. “If there are people who can’t get in or out of the country, fruit rotting at the border or a shortage of medicine… your colleagues would be taking lovely pictures, worth a thousand words, causing lots of trouble.”