What the Public really wants from Brexit

This page first posted 31 August 2018, updated 13 September 2018

Many people easily get confused by the apparent kaleidoscope of possible kinds of Brexit. There often appears to be a galaxy of options, and confusion about what each one means. The confusion is not always accidental, and if often spread both by opponents of a particular scheme or sometimes by its supporters.

To help the debate, Electoral Calculus has created an easier-to-understand explanation of the main Brexit possibilities, along with analysis from several recent polls about what the public thinks about them. The key idea is that the Brexit options mostly lie on a one-dimensional line with a "hard" Brexit at one end and a "soft" Brexit at the other. We call this line the Brexit Spectrum and it is shown below.

Brexit Spectrum

Let's look at five key options which lie on the Brexit Spectrum running from hard to soft:

No deal is what it says. Britain leaves the EU without a specific deal. The UK gains full control of its immigration, laws and trade policy, and makes no more payments to the EU budget. But British exports to the EU will be hit by EU tariffs, at existing EU tariff levels, and by non-tariff barriers. Some, but not all, of that pain will be felt by European consumers who will have higher prices and less choice.

Canada is shorthand for a negotiated free trade agreement between Britain and the EU, similar to the EU's recent deal with Canada. The UK has control of its immigration, laws and trade policy but has to match EU regulations in some areas. There would be no payments to the EU budget. Many British exports to the EU are ok, but not all.

Chequers is the government's current plan, put forward by Theresa May to the cabinet at Chequers on 7 July. With this plan, Britain remains in the EU single market for goods and agriculture, but not services. Freedom of movement might remain (depending on negotiations), despite government denials. There would probably be still some ECJ involvement with Britain, though arranged in an indirect way. Britain would likely still make annual payments to the EU budget, but less than currently.

Norway is shorthand for membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), in a similar way to Norway. This means that Britain remains completely in the EU single market, but outside the customs union. Freedom of movement remains, along with EU single-market regulations and indirect involvement of the ECJ. Britain continues to make annual payments to the EU budget, but at half current levels. Britain can sign its own trade deals.

Customs Union is a less-definite plan, aspired to by sections of the Labour party. With it, Britain remains in the EU single market and the customs union. Freedom of movement remains, along with EU single-market regulations and involvement of the ECJ, with large annual payments to the EU budget. Britain cannot sign its own trade deals or vote on new EU laws.

A simple way of seeing all these options and their properties is in the following table. The table can be seen either from a Leave viewpoint where "Yes" means hard, or a Remain perspective where "Yes" means soft. Acknowledgement is given to Roland Smith and the Adam Smith Institute who created an initial version of this table for the Norway and Remain columns.

AttributeNo DealCanadaChequersNorwayCustoms UnionRemain
Quit single marketYesYesNo (goods)NoNoNo
Tariffs on UK exports to EUYesNegotiableNo (goods)NoNoNo
End freedom of movementYesYesUncertainNoNoNo
Savings on EU budget paymentsYes, 100%Yes, 100%Probably someAround 50%UnlikelyNo
Escape EU laws on single marketYesYesNo (goods)NoNoNo
Escape EU other lawsYesYesYesYesYesNo
No Common external tariff (Customs Union)YesYesUncertainYesNoNo
Can agree independent FTAsYesYesYesYesNoNo
Leave Common Agricultural and Fisheries policiesYesYesNegotiableYesUnlikelyNo
Escape from ECJ subjectionYesYesUnlikelyNo, indirectlyNoNo
End science/education programmesYesNegotiableNegotiableNoNoNo
Leave EU voting on new lawsYesYesYesYesYesNo
AttributeNo DealCanadaChequersNorwayCustoms UnionRemain
Stay in single marketNoNoYes (goods)YesYesYes
Tariff-free UK exports to EUNoNegotiableYes (goods)YesYesYes
Continue freedom of movementNoNoUncertainYesYesYes
Keep paying full EU budget paymentsNot at allNot at allProbably someAround 50%ProbablyYes
Still subject to EU single-market lawsNoNoYes (goods)YesYesYes
Still subject to EU other lawsNoNoNoNoNoYes
Common external tariff (Customs Union)NoNoUncertainNoYesYes
Cannot agree independent FTAsNoNoNoNoYesYes
Still in Common Agricultural and Fisheries policiesNoNoNegotiableNoProbablyYes
Still subject to ECJNoNoProbablyYes, IndirectlyYesYes
Continue science/education programmesNoNegotiableNegotiableYesYesYes
Able to vote on EU lawsNoNoNoNoNoYes

The table shows that the Chequers plan is an attempt to split the difference between the Canada and Norway models. It is a classic political compromise, reflecting divisions within the cabinet and the country.

But what does the country think about these options? We can look at some useful polling which has been conducted on this in July and August.

After the Chequers plan was announced, there was polling on that specific proposal. The first pollster to ask about it was Survation who found a net +11pc approval for Chequers [SV]. But that poll was conducted before the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson. Following that opinion has turned. Three polls by YouGov [YG1, YG2, YG3] and one by Ipsos-MORI [IM] all show more people against Chequers than are for it. The average figures are 17pc think Chequers is good, but 41pc think it is bad.

There was an entertaining poll by Kantar Public [KP] which asked people how important it was to get various features agreed with the EU. This turned out to be a classic opportunity for simultaneous cake-eating and cake-keeping. The public had strong majorities both for stopping EU citizens coming to Britain and also for keeping British citizens' right to move to the EU. These are contradictory requests as no EU government would agree to them. Also contradictory were the desire to have UK laws and no budget contributions, whilst also being in the/a customs union.

A more useful poll [ICM] was conducted by ICM which identified five possible outcomes similar to those in our spectrum. The ICM options were: No Deal, Canada, Chequers, Norway and Remain. Respondents were asked to identify the best and the worst from the options. The support figures were (of those who expressed preferences for those five options)

Outcome"Best" outcome
votes (%)
"Worst" outcome
votes (%)
Net difference
No deal1851-33

Interestingly, a Canada-style is the outcome with the highest net favourability. The "Remain" option has the largest group of supporters, but less than an overall majority. Let's think about building "coalitions" of voters to build a bloc of at least 50pc of voters' "best outcomes". Such as Leave-inclined bloc would have to include "No deal", "Canada" and "Chequers" to get a majority (54pc). Conversely, the equivalent Remain bloc would include "Remain", "Norway" and "Chequers" which has 57pc support. In either case, the Chequers proposal marks out the centre-ground of Brexit politics.

Exclusive poll for Electoral Calculus

To get a clearer view, Electoral Calculus commissioned its own poll from Survation to find out what the British public actually wants.

Respondents were asked, assuming that Britain is leaving the EU, to rank five possible ways of doing this by their order of preference. The five outcomes were: No Deal; Canada-style free trade agreement; Chequers plan; Norway-style single-market membership; and Remaining in both the Customs Union and the single-market.

The ranking of the five options is helpful in determining the truly most popular outcome, since no single outcome is likely to get over 50% of first preference selections.

Poll Summary Results

Poll Detailed Results

Table 1 Table of first preference votes. Canada is the most popular first choice, with No Deal and Customs Union tied in second place. The Chequers plan is the least favoured option.

OutcomeFirst Preference (%)
No Deal19%
Customs Union19%

Table 1 sums to slightly less than 100% due to rounding.

Table 2 Table of first and preference votes. Table shows, for each outcome, how many people chose it as either their first or second preference. Canada has over half the population choosing it as one of their top two options. No other outcome is as popular.

OutcomeFirst or Second
Preference (%)
No Deal38%
Customs Union34%

Table 2 sums to 200%, since each respondent has two preferences in the table.

Table 3 Table of least favoured outcome. The table shows how many people chose each option as their least favoured outcome. The two extreme positions, "No Deal" and full Customs Union membership, were the most disliked. A Canada-style deal was the least disliked.

OutcomeLeast Favoured (%)
No Deal38%
Customs Union29%

Table 4 Table of overall most-favoured outcome. Using a "single transferable vote" style of assessment to determine the most popular outcome, we transfer support from less popular outcomes to their supporters' next most-favoured preference. This is done over a sequence of rounds until the winner emerges. The results are shown here:

 Round 1Round 2Round 3Round 4
No Deal19%21%23%0%
Customs Union19%22%29%35%

In the first round, first preference votes are counted. Since Chequers is the least popular outcome, it is eliminated and its votes are transferred (split fairly evenly across the other options). In the second round, the Norway-style option is eliminated and its votes mostly split between Canada and Customs Union. In the third round, "No Deal" is eliminated and most of its votes go to "Canada". In the final round between Canada and the Customs Union, there is a clear majority for Canada.

Polling details: Survation conducted the poll on 7 September 2018 with a sample size of 1039 people across Britain. The sample was selected and weighted to match national averages for demographics and past voting behaviour at the EU referendum and the 2017 general election.


Brexit has a spectrum of possible outcomes from the hard to the soft. The Chequers plan is a compromise which lies in the middle of the spectrum and has something to offer both sides, but is not much liked by the public. The EU may try to negotiate Chequers towards a more Norway-style outcome, but the British public seems most content to have a Canada-style free trade agreement.

What do you think?

Having seen the Brexit spectrum and what each outcome means, you have the chance to take part in a semi-scientific Electoral Calculus online poll. Just sort the five options into your preferred order of preference, and complete five more simple demographic questions to help make the poll representative.

Electoral Calculus will not store any personal data about you (not even your IP address) and will only use aggregated anonymised statistics in keeping with our data privacy policy.

Q1. Brexit Spectrum

Please think about the five Brexit outcomes in your order of preference, going from your most favoured outcome to your least favoured outcome.


Press the button corresponding to your first preference.

Q2. Past voting – EU Referendum

EU Referendum vote. At the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016, how did you vote? (If too young to vote in 2016, please indicate your likely decision.)

Remain in the EU
Leave the EU
Did not vote

Q3. Past voting – General Election in 2017

General Election in 2017. At the previous General Election on 8 Jun 2017, how did you vote? (If too young to vote in 2017, please indicate your likely decision.)

Conservative (led by Theresa May)
Labour (led by Jeremy Corbyn)
Liberal Democrat (led by Tim Farron)
UKIP (led by Paul Nuttall)
Green party (led by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley)
SNP (Scotland only)
Plaid Cymru (Wales only)
Other party
Did not vote

Q4. About yourself – Age

Your age. Which age band are you in?


Q5. About yourself – Education

Your education. What are the highest educational qualifications that you have gained?

Degree level or above
At least two A-levels, or four AS-Levels, Higher School certificate, or equivalent
At least five O-Levels (passes), CSEs (Grade 1), GCSEs (grade A*−C), or equivalent
Other O-Level, CSE or GCSE, or NVQ level 1
No qualifications

Q6. About yourself – Constituency

Your constituency. Which constituency were you registered to vote in at the election on 8 June 2017? If you were registered in more than one constituency, choose the constituency in which you voted.

You can either pick the constituency from a list, or enter your postcode to look it up:


Do not press your browser's Back or Refresh button whilst answering the questions.

Click here if you have already voted and want to see the current vote totals.


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