Another Dose of Chequers? Voters’ Initial Reactions to the Draft Brexit Deal

Posted on 19 November 2018 by John Curtice

The announcement by the Prime Minister outside Downing St. last Wednesday that her Cabinet had collectively agreed to back the draft withdrawal agreement with the EU together with an outline political agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU has resulted a flurry of opinion polling. By Saturday morning, no less than six polls about the Brexit deal had been published, while Sunday saw the appearance of yet further readings, including the first post-deal polls to ascertain general election vote intention. Between them these polls represent the most intense round of polling about Brexit since the announcement of the Chequers agreement at the beginning of July, when the UK government outlined what it hoped the shape of Britain’s future relationship with the EU would be.

Chequers was widely regarded as a compromise between the hopes of those who had backed Remain and the aspirations of those who voted Leave. Now, even ministers acknowledge that the draft deal is also a compromise – in this instance between what the UK government would like and what the EU wanted. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the draft deal has so far been greeted by voters in much the same way as they responded to Chequers  – that is, with little enthusiasm, including not least from those who voted Leave.

Many voters yet to decide

True, one caveat should be acknowledged straight away. Despite the excitement and speculation at Westminster, many voters have yet to come to any very firm views about the deal. As many as 34% told Survation on Friday that they had not seen or heard anything about the Brexit deal (while another 6% said they did not know whether they liked it or not). In three polls it conducted on Thursday and Friday, YouGov found between 33% and 44% saying ‘Don’t Know’ in response to questions designed to ascertain their support for or opposition to the deal. Meanwhile, in polling Opinium conducted over the same two days, 17% acknowledged that they had not heard anything about the deal, while another 25% indicated that they did not know whether the deal was acceptable or not.

So, potentially at least, many a heart and mind is still open to persuasion. However, the balance of opinion among those who are willing to give an immediate response is distinctly unfavourable to the deal, much as was true of Chequers.

An unpopular deal

Every single poll has found that, on balance, voters are unhappy with the draft deal. The very first indication of its unpopularity came in a quick poll of 500 voters undertaken on Thursday by Hanbury Strategy – just 28% indicated that they thought the deal was a good one, while 53% felt it was a bad one. That mood has simply been replicated since.  Amongst the subset of their respondents who said that they had heard or seen something about the deal, only 27% indicated to Survation that they supported the deal, while 49% were opposed. The balance of opinion was even more unfavourable according to polling conducted by YouGov. In the first reading it published, the company reported that 19% supported the deal, while 42% were opposed. Then in a further poll for The Times on Saturday, just 15% said they supported the deal, while as many as 51% stated that they were opposed. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Opinium reported that just 22% believe that the deal is ‘acceptable’ while 36% reckon it is ‘unacceptable’.

But perhaps what is most remarkable about these readings is that Remain and Leave voters are largely of one mind about the deal. Survation suggest that, among those who have heard something about the deal, a half of both Remain and Leave voters oppose the deal, although, at 31%, the proportion of Leave voters supporting the deal is somewhat higher than the proportion of Remain voters doing so (23%). In one of their polls YouGov found that Remain voters opposed the deal by 47% to 20%, while amongst Leave voters the balance was 42% to 22%. In another YouGov poll, as many as 56% of both Remain and Leave voters expressed opposition to the deal, with just 16% of Remain voters and 17% of Leave supporters in favour. Meanwhile, Opinium report that 36% of Remainers and 38% of Leavers feel that the deal is unacceptable, with just 23% of the former and 22% of the latter reckoning that it is acceptable.

However, it is clear that the reasons why Remain and Leave voters oppose the deal are very different. Despite being a comprise that might be regarded as pointing towards a softer Brexit than the government originally had in mind, for most Remain voters the deal looks less attractive than remaining in the EU. Meanwhile, because it points to a softer Brexit than they had hoped would transpire, for most Leave voters the deal looks less attractive than exiting without a deal. Just like Chequers, rather than bridging the Brexit divide, the deal appears a friendless victim of the polarisation between these two very different perspectives.

A three-way choice

The first indication that this might be the case came in an instant poll that Sky Data undertook via SMS messages to a nationally representative sample of Sky customers. Invited to choose between reversing Brexit, implementing the draft deal, or leaving without a deal, 54% backed remaining in the EU, 32% preferred leaving without a deal, while just 14% wanted to pursue the deal. This finding was broadly replicated by Survation, which suggested that 43% would prefer to stay in the EU, 28% wanted to leave without a deal, while just 16% supported leaving on the basis of the draft deal.  The deal did somewhat better in Opinium’s poll, with 21% backing it, but even so it still trailed leaving without a deal (24%) as well as remaining in the EU (32%).

When presented with these questions, Remain and Leave voters give very different answers from each other. Faced with the three-way choice, Remain voters are still inclined to stick with staying in the EU. According to Opinium, 62% are of that view, while in Survation’s poll (in which many fewer voters said ‘Don’t Know’), the figure was a high as 83%. Meanwhile although a minority of Leave voters are inclined to back the deal, of the three possibilities their most popular option is to leave without a deal, with 55% expressing that view in Survation’s poll, and 45% in the exercise conducted by Opinium.

Leavers prefer No Deal to Deal

The relative unpopularity of the deal among Leave voters – whose mandate it is that the government is trying to fulfil – is underlined when respondents are given the binary choice between leaving on the basis of the deal or exiting with no deal. Survation found that in those circumstances 54% of Leave voters would prefer to exit without a deal, while 24% would want the deal. Meanwhile, when YouGov forced all their respondents to say which they would prefer, without giving them the option of saying ‘Don’t Know’, 64% of Leave voters said they would prefer no deal, and just 36% the deal. Meanwhile, Opinium report that 48% of Leave voters agree that ‘leaving without a deal would be better than leaving with the current deal’, while just 9% explicitly disagree (a quarter said they neither agreed nor disagreed).

Fall in confidence

This mood among Leave voters appears to have had two consequences. The first has been to undermine their confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit, which has fallen back towards the all-time low to which it fell in the immediate aftermath of Chequers. Opinium report that 52% of all voters now disapprove of how Mrs May is handling the process of leaving the UK, only a little below the 56% figure the company registered immediately after Chequers. But whereas among Remain voters the level of disapproval (58%) is the same as it was last month, among Leave supporters it has increased by six points (to 49%). In the case of YouGov, the picture is even more dramatic. As many as 75% of all voters now say the government has handled the Brexit negotiations badly, similar to the readings the company obtained shortly after Chequers. A lot of what is as much as a ten-point increase on YouGov’s previous reading earlier this month is the product of no less than a sixteen-point increase in the proportion of Leave voters who express that view. Indeed, according to YouGov Leave voters are now almost as critical of the government’s performance as Remain supporters.

Drop in poll rating

The second consequence appears to be a drop in the poll rating of the Conservatives much as happened after Chequers. The publication of the Chequers agreement saw a small but noticeable rise in support for UKIP, accompanied by a drop in Conservative support, a movement that has never entirely dissipated since. Now this movement has been given a further boost. According to ComRes, the overall level of support for UKIP is, at 7%, up two points on where it was in late September.  Meanwhile, Opinium also put UKIP support up two points (to 8%) on where the party was in the middle of last month, an increase that is largely accounted for by a six-point rise (to 16%) among Leave voters. Both polls suggest that the biggest source of  the latest Conservative losses has been movement to UKIP. According to ComRes the proportion of 2017 Conservative voters who would now vote UKIP is up three points on its last poll, while Opinium put the increase at four points. These findings are hardly likely to encourage those Conservative MPs who are unhappy about the Brexit deal to fall in behind the Prime Minister in the forthcoming ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal.

Remainers prefer Deal to No Deal

Still, if the Prime Minister’s argument that her deal is better than the risk of no deal cuts less ice with many Leave voters than she might hope, it is one for which, perhaps unsurprisingly, Remain voters do show some sympathy. When Survation faced their respondents with a choice between the draft deal or no deal, 44% of Remain voters indicated that they would prefer the deal, and only 18% no deal. The margin was even bigger when YouGov posed the same choice without allowing respondents to say Don’t Know; in this instance no less than 81% of Remainers said that they would prefer the deal.  Many in the business community appear minded to bat for the government’s deal because of the uncertainty and chaos that they fear its rejection will bring. Maybe their efforts might yet bear some fruit among those who would really prefer remain in the EU?

Support for another referendum?

However, what is also clear is that many Remain supporters are still hoping that Brexit will be the subject of another referendum. YouGov find that as many as 81% of Remain voters would prefer another referendum rather than pursuing the government’s deal. Three other polls that have simply asked in one way or another whether voters back some kind of second ballot (and allowed voters to say ‘Don’t Know’) report more modest but still majority support for the idea among Remainers. YouGov in a poll for the People’s Vote campaign found that 71% would like a vote on the government’s deal, and Opinium suggest the same proportion would definitely or probably like another ballot if parliament fails to back the deal, although Survation suggest the proportion backing a ‘People’s Vote’ stands at a more modest 60%.

However, most Leave voters are still resistant to this argument. Consequently, among voters at large there is still neither consistent or substantial majority support for another ballot. Thus, although YouGov’s poll for the People’s Vote campaign found 48% of all voters in favour of a second vote and 34% opposed, and while Opinium reckon 49% are in favour and 38% opposed (and a further poll by Populus for Best for Britain is reported as finding 44% in favour and 30% opposed), Survation put the balance in favour at just 42% to 38%, while (in another question that did not allow respondents to say ‘Don’t Know’) ComRes actually obtained a narrow majority (by 53% to 47%) against. In truth, the campaign for a second referendum has very much become a campaign to reverse Brexit – the very opposite of what Mrs May is trying to achieve.


John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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