Most Brits Still Want Brexit But Expect It All to End Badly

(Bloomberg) -- British voters increasingly think Brexit is being mishandled. But that doesn’t mean they’re turning their backs on the idea of abandoning the European Union -- just on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government.

A report by the National Centre For Social Research published Wednesday found that 52 percent of people believe the country will get a bad deal, compared to 37 percent in February, a month before May began divorce proceedings.

Even before this week’s embarrassing breakdown, only one in five Brits said the government was handling the talks well. Among those supporting Brexit, 61 percent thought May was conducting talks badly. The survey of 2,200 people was completed in October, before reports that May was increasing the amount of money she was willing to pay to leave and also before the recent dramatic turn of events that has May at the mercy of a Northern Irish ally.

The findings speak to the sense of disconnect between how the population feels about a process they triggered with the 2016 referendum -- and the political realities of a fragile government riven with divisions and bogged down in increasingly technical negotiations.

Still Great Idea

The survey found little change in people’s attitude to Brexit itself. According to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who led the research, this suggests that rather than regretting their vote, Leave supporters are coming to see it as a good idea badly implemented, something that could help Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party.

While Britons wonder what is going on -- and perhaps even why leaving needs to be so complicated -- the EU gave May until the end of the week to deliver a solution to an intractable problem -- how to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Northern Ireland leaves the bloc along with the rest of the U.K. Britain needs to provide an answer that satisfies all sides to move on to trade.

What’s clear, is that May will be blamed for any failure. She set the clock for Britain’s exit in March 2019 and was relying on a summit next week to get EU leaders to allow discussions to begin on commerce, as well as a grace period to give businesses time to adapt.

“There’s a section of the pro-Remain group who think that as people see the Brexit process unravel, they will come to the conclusion that it was a daft idea,” Curtice said. “Instead, they seem to blame the politicians for failing to deliver, as they see it.”

In Trouble

May’s Brexit strategy was in trouble on multiple fronts on Tuesday evening, with allies in Northern Ireland and Scotland attacking proposals she’d tabled on Monday that were seen as splitting up the U.K. into different regulatory environments.

Though Brexit Secretary David Davis denied that this had ever been the intention, the effect was a rare moment of unity in the Tory Party, as both supporters and opponents of Brexit laid into the idea. The answer he provided lawmakers -- when grilled about the previous day’s fiasco -- was for the whole of the U.K. to stay close to EU rules after Brexit.

That has officials in Brussels scratching their heads. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a person familiar with the EU side said there was concern this kind of talk is a return to unrealistic thinking by the British side. For Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman, it was a straight-up “fudge” to try and salvage talks.

Island Spat

Meanwhile, recriminations from different sides in the dispute became increasingly bitter. Arlene Foster, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose support May needs to stay in power, said she’d been denied sight of the proposed deal with the EU, despite repeated requests, until late on Monday morning.

And now all sides in Britain’s Brexit debate see opportunities in the crisis. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, a supporter of Brexit, said the prime minister should threaten to walk away from talks with the EU unless it agreed to “back off.”

There are also the first signs of a possible revolt within her own Cabinet. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who together led the Brexit campaign in last year’s referendum, believe the latest proposals threaten to dilute Brexit, according to people familiar with the matter.

Johnson, in particular, has a history of making life difficult for May.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.