Growing numbers of voters want the government to negotiate a “soft” Brexit, new research has found.
The survey found more than two fifths of voters (43%) would like Brexit negotiations to end with the UK in a close relationship with the remaining EU, along the lines of Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area.
The figure was up from 38% on a similar survey in 2017, and suggests that the EEA option is the most popular outcome to negotiations among voters, despite being ruled out by the government.
By comparison, some 25% of those questioned said the UK should remain in the EU (up three points since last year), while 11% said they would like a deal in which Britain stays in a customs union (down three points) and 22% said they preferred a no-deal exit (down five).
Even among Leave voters, the EEA option is becoming more popular, backed by 34% in 2018, compared to 24% last year.
The finding will raise questions about the claim from some Brexiteers that the victory for Leave in the 2016 referendum indicated a clear desire for the UK to quit the single market and customs union.
Researchers from the Policy Institute at King’s College London, RAND Europe and the University of Cambridge questioned 917 British adults in spring 2017 about their preferred outcome for Brexit talks, and asked 752 of them the same question in April and May 2018.
They found that overall almost one-third of voters switched their preference to a closer relationship with Europe, with more Leave voters backing EEA membership and more “Soft Brexiters” switching to Remain.
By contrast, one fifth had moved to a more distant relationship with the remaining EU and half did not change their views.
In an in-out referendum, the researchers found that 52% of respondents would now back Remain and 48% Leave.
Participants would vote Remain over a customs union or no-deal outcome, but would back the EEA option over Remain in a referendum, the research found.
Researchers did not ask for participants’ views of Theresa May’s Chequers plan, because “key aspects of the proposals are too vague”.
Jonathan Grant, professor of public policy at King’s College London, said: “As we approach the cut-off date for finalising a Brexit deal, it appears that more and more people are seeing a close relationship between the UK and the EU as a good thing.
“While there may be political difficulties in implementing what our research found to be the most popular type of deal – one that resembles membership of the EEA – it is clear that the public place a high value on a soft exit.”
Charlene Rohr, senior research leader at RAND Europe, said: “While the referendum delivered a result to leave the EU, it is simply not possible to know from this outcome what sort of relationship with the EU that Britons wanted.”