A Brexit Election?

The election on December 12th has been occasioned by the difficulties and divisions that have arisen in the House of Commons as it has endeavoured to deal with the UK’s proposed withdrawal from the EU during the last twelve months. The Prime Minister is seeking a mandate to ‘get Brexit done’, while the opposition parties are opposed to the deal that he has struck with the EU – in many instances because they do not want Brexit to happen at all.

However, an election is never about a single issue. The parties disagree about a wide range of domestic policies also.  So, to what extent will people’s attitudes towards Brexit be reflected in the way that they vote in the election? And will how they vote be more or less of a reflection  of those views than was the case at the general election two years ago?

The simplest way of addressing this question is to examine how those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave say they will vote in December as reported by those polls conducted since the election was called. This we do in Table 1, which is based on the average of the most recent figures obtained by the eight companies who have polled voting intentions since the latter half of last week. At the same time, we also show how the pattern compares with the position in 2017, using data from the British Election Study internet panel.

Remain and Leave voters are minded to vote very differently. Around four in five (78%) of those who supported Leave are currently proposing to vote for either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. In contrast, around four in five (81%) of those who backed Remain say they support one of the parties in favour of another referendum. It looks as though the divide of three years ago will in many respects be played out again on December 12. Only a minority of voters – just one in five – are likely to opt for parties whose views on Brexit are seemingly at odds with how they voted three years ago.

However, the extent to which one party is favoured above the others differs markedly between the two sets of voters. On the Leave side, support is concentrated in the ranks of the Conservative party – nearly three in five (58%) Leave supporters say they will vote that way. In contrast, on the Remain side, support is more evenly spread across different parties, with even the most popular party, Labour, currently backed by only just over two in five (42%).

This matters. Among voters as a whole, support for the two pro-Brexit parties combined (48%), is almost exactly the same as that for the five parties that support a second referendum (47%). It is the concentration of Leave support in favour of the Conservatives that primarily accounts for the fact that the party currently enjoys an average ten-point lead.

But how does the position at the beginning of this election campaign compare with what happened in 2017? Of course, we should bear in mind that the positions of the parties were not the same then as they are now. For example, although Labour were saying that they would negotiate a Brexit deal that would be ‘softer’ than the one that Theresa May appeared to have in mind, the party was not at that point in favour of another ballot. So, perhaps we should not be surprised if people’s views on Brexit were not as strongly related to how they voted in 2017 as they appear to be now.

This, indeed, proves to be the case. True, at 76%, the proportion of Remain voters who in 2017 supported one of the parties that now favours a second referendum is only a little lower than the equivalent proportion now (81%). But, at 65%, the proportion of Leave supporters who backed either the Conservatives or UKIP was markedly lower than the 78% support for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party that pertains in the current polls.

It looks then as though how people vote at this election will reflect the division on the principle of Brexit to an even greater extent than did the 2017 contest. That this is seemingly set to be the case also becomes apparent if we examine the dynamics of party support, that is, the pattern of switching between 2017 and now. This is done in Table 2, which shows the current vote choice of both those who voted for the Conservatives and those who backed Labour in 2017 broken down by how they voted in the EU referendum.

The first point to note is that those whose views on Brexit would appear to be at odds with those of the party they backed in 2017 are less likely to be loyal to their choice of two years ago. No less than 84% of those 2017 Conservatives who backed Leave in 2016 now say that they will vote Conservative again, compared with just 63% of those 2017 Conservative voters who supported Remain. Equally, while 74% of those who voted Labour in 2017 who backed Remain state they will back the party again, only 57% of those who supported Leave are now of the same view.

Meanwhile, those who have now switched parties have for the most part moved towards a party whose views on Brexit would appear to reflect better how they voted in 2016. Over one in four (27%) of those 2017 Conservatives who voted Remain are now backing the Liberal Democrats, while one in seven (14%) of those who voted Leave are now supporters of the Brexit Party. At the same time, around one in five 2017 Labour voters (21%) who backed Remain have switched to the Liberal Democrats, while nearly two in five (37%) are now opting for either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party – in roughly equal numbers, indicating that the suggestion that Labour Leave voters are reluctant to switch to the Conservatives may in fact be wide of the mark.

Once again it looks as though Brexit is set to shape – and reshape – party loyalties.

Diverse Reactions: Initial Polling on Mr Johnson’s Brexit Deal

So far, Mr Johnson has had some difficulty getting the Commons to back the revised deal he brought back from Brussels last Thursday – though his proposal clearly has much more support in Parliament than the deal that Mrs May first unveiled eleven months ago ever managed to secure. The Prime Minister is now hoping that over the next three days this support will prove sufficient for him to secure MPs’ approval of the legislation needed to put the deal into UK law. But how well has the deal gone down with voters? And how does its reception compare with the one that Mrs May’s deal received?

Four companies have so far conducted polls of voters’ attitudes towards the deal. Many of them were conducted within hours of the announcement that an agreement had been reached, though in one case, YouGov, the company then revisited the subject over the weekend.

Three of the companies, ComRes, Panelbase and Survation, straightforwardly asked voters whether they supported or opposed the deal.

We should note first of all that many voters said they did not know. One in three told Survation they had not heard anything about the deal (or at least were not sure they had) and in this poll these voters were not asked their views about the deal itself. Meanwhile, ComRes reported that nearly three in ten (29%) voters said they did not know whether they supported or opposed the deal, while in Panelbase’s case the figure was as much as 40%. The reactions obtained by the polls therefore probably disproportionately reflect the views of those who are more likely to pay some attention to what is going on in politics.

Still, the pattern of the responses of those who do have a view is clear. First, on balance, voters are supportive of rather than opposed to the deal. Second, in this respect Mr Johnson’s deal has received a warmer reception than Mrs May’s deal ever received.  However, third, Leave and Remain voters have reacted very differently, with the consequence that opinion on the new deal is more polarised than it was on Mrs May’s deal.

Among voters as a whole, Panelbase report that 32% support the deal, while 28% are opposed. ComRes suggest that the balance is more clearly in the deal’s favour, with 40% in favour and 31% against. Meanwhile, among the two-thirds of voters who say they have heard something about the deal, Survation find that 47% support the deal while 38% are opposed.

Still, we might note that none of these polls find that as many as 50% of voters positively support the deal. The mood among voters might perhaps better be characterised as one of cautious endorsement rather than wild enthusiasm.

A similar picture is painted by two polls – from YouGov and Survation – that asked voters (either instead of or in addition to asking whether they support or oppose the deal) whether they thought MPs should accept or reject Mr Johnson’s deal. On average across two polls YouGov found that 42% think the deal should be accepted and only 27% that it should be rejected, while Survation reported (among just those who had heard something about the agreement) that 50% want Parliament to accept the deal, while 38% would like MPs to reject it.

However, despite their apparent approval for the deal, it is far from clear that voters are necessarily convinced that Mr Johnson’s deal will be good for Britain. In their two polls conducted since the agreement YouGov have found that on average just 18% think it is a good deal for Britain, while 27% believe it is bad – though two in five voters say they do not know enough about the deal to make a judgement. Similarly, Survation found that among those who have heard about the agreement, just 34% believe it is a good deal for the UK as a whole, while 42% believe it is a bad deal. Perhaps for some voters their support for Mr Johnson’s deal represents a judgement that it is the best that could be done in the circumstances rather than necessarily representing an ideal solution.

Both Survation and YouGov asked questions about Mr Johnson’s deal that they also asked when Mrs May’s deal was first unveiled last November. At that time (again among those who heard something about her deal), just 27% said they supported Mrs May’s deal, while 48% were opposed. Those figures subsequently improved somewhat but never moved clearly in Mrs May’s favour. They contrast sharply with the figures of 47% in favour and 38% against that we have seen Survation have obtained for Mr Johnson’s deal.

Meanwhile, when YouGov first asked voters whether they thought parliament should accept or reject Mrs May’s deal, just 27% said they should accept it, while 42% indicated they should reject it. It was a first impression from which the former Prime Minister’s agreement never recovered. Now, in contrast, more voters say Mr Johnson’s agreement should be accepted than indicate it should be rejected.

Indeed, voters themselves are inclined to acknowledge that they think that Mr Johnson’s deal is better than Mrs May’s. When YouGov asked them which they would prefer, just 17% picked Mrs May’s deal while 37% opted for Mr Johnson’s deal – though approaching half (46%) said that they did not know.

Not least of the reasons why Mrs May’s deal proved unpopular is that it lacked support among Leave voters as well as, less surprisingly, their Remain counterparts. Mr Johnson’s deal, in contrast, is regarded very differently by the two groups.

Panelbase report that 48% of Leave voters support Mr Johnson’s deal, while just 15% are opposed. ComRes suggest the deal’s reception among Leave voters may be even warmer, with as many as 66% in favour and 8% opposed. Not dissimilarly, Survation find that among those who have heard about the deal, 73% of Leave voters support the deal and just 15% are opposed.

In contrast, the balance of opinion among Remain voters is clearly in the opposite direction. According to Panelbase just 20% of them support the deal while 44% are opposed. ComRes too also suggest that only around one in five (19%) support the deal, though they find that as many as 55% are opposed. Meanwhile Survation report that only 22% of Remainers who have heard about the deal are in favour while 64% are opposed.

Indeed, it looks as though those who voted Remain may be even less keen on Mr Johnson’s deal than they were on Mrs May’s. In Survation’s first poll last November of those who had heard something about Mrs May’s deal, just over half (53%) said they were opposed, compared with the near two-thirds who express that view about Mr Johnson’s deal. Meanwhile, as many as 36% of Remain voters told YouGov that they think Mr Johnson’s deal is worse than Mrs May’s, while just 13% express the contrary view.

In short, in coming up with a deal that is more acceptable to Leave voters, the Prime Minister may have emerged with one that has largely replicated the fault line of the 2016 referendum.

That said, in one sense at least, the Prime Minister’s agreement may have served to reduce the level of polarisation about Brexit. There appears to be a marked reduction in the proportion of Leave voters whose first preference is to leave without a deal.

This is clearest in a poll conducted by Kantar after Mr Johnson’s initial proposals for a deal were released but just before an agreement was reached. Hitherto, when in recent months the company had asked voters to choose between no deal, Mrs May’s deal, leaving but staying in the single market/customs union, and reversing Brexit, on average just over half (51%) of Leave voters backed no deal, making it by far the single most popular option among this group. But in their latest poll, in which the options included Mr Johnson’s proposals rather than Mrs May’s agreement, 43% of Leave voters picked the Prime Minister’s deal, while just 28% opted for no deal.

Mr Johnson’s principal aim, of course, has been to strike a Brexit deal that would implement the instruction that Leave voters gave in the referendum three years ago. In emerging with a deal that many Leave voters regard relatively favourably, the Prime Minister could be said to have had some success in meeting their expectations. However, the relatively adverse reaction of Remain supporters means that it does not obviously provide a foundation for healing the divisions about Brexit in the way that the Prime Minister appears to hope it will.

 

Have Voters Lost Patience With The Brexit Process?

The Brexit negotiations have now entered the endgame. Boris Johnson’s government has put forward proposals to replace the Northern Ireland backstop that was the principal reason why MPs rejected the withdrawal treaty that Mrs May had negotiated. The government hopes that its proposals will form the basis for a revised agreement that will enable the UK to leave the EU with a deal at the end of this month. But if not, the UK government is determined that the UK should leave the EU at that time anyway.

In adopting that stance, the government argues that voters have lost patience with a Brexit process that has failed in over three years to deliver Brexit. It is suggested that even those who voted Remain would like the saga to be brought to a swift conclusion, thereby enabling the country to unite and move on to a domestic agenda that has been badly neglected during the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, it is a theme to which the Boris Johnson returned in his party conference speech yesterday.

But how valid is this claim?

There has, in truth, been relatively little polling that addresses this issue directly. Probably the question that comes closest to doing so comes from Opinium who on a number of occasions this year have asked people to choose which of the following three options best describes their view:

I don’t care how or on what terms Britain leaves the European Union as long as we leave as soon as possible

I want to make sure that Britain get the best possible deal when it leaves the European Union, regardless of how long it takes

I am opposed to Brexit and want to see it reversed no matter what deal Britain gets

The first of these options would seem to reflect the sentiment that the government claims is widespread among voters.

The pattern of answers to this question suggests that the desire to leave the EU as soon as posible is indeed quite widely felt. On average across eight readings taken since February just over one in three (35%) have picked the first option. In contrast, slightly less than one on four (24%) say that they are willing to wait to get the best possible deal. Just under three in ten (29%) say they want to see Brexit reversed.

Still, just over a third is considerably less than a majority. It is hard on this evidence to argue that most voters are impatient to get Brexit done.

There is also little sign that voters are any more impatient now than they were last April, shortly after the UK had initially failed to leave the EU.

That said, what is true is that most Leave voters are more concerned to leave quickly rather than they are to get the best possible deal. Across the two readings of their poll question Opinium took in September, on average around two-thirds (68%)of Leave supporters said we should leave the EU as soon as possible while only one in five (20%) indicated a willingness to wait for the best possible deal.

Conversely, however, there is no evidence that anything other than a small minority of Remain supporters simply want Brexit to be done and dusted as soon as possible. Just one in ten (10%) of them picked that option. While 29% of Remainers were willing to wait for the best possible deal, rather more than half (52%) said that Britain should remain in the EU irrespective of whatever deal is negotiated.

Apart from this question from Opinium, there a number of other questions that address the issue of whether the UK should be leaving the EU at the end of October and which might also be thought to provide evidence of the public mood on the need for an early end to the Brexit impasse. Though variously worded, they all paint much the same picture. Those who voted Leave are keen for the October deadline to be met, while those who voted Remain take the opposite view. As a result, supporters and opponents of an exit by the end of the month are more or less evenly matched in the electorate as a whole.

The pattern of response to four such questions is summarised in the table. Two come from the same poll conducted by ComRes in which, first of all, voters were asked whether they agreed or disagreed that it would be better for the UK to leave without a deal than to extend beyond October 31st and, then, whether they agreed or disagreed with the opposite proposition. It did not matter which way round the question was asked. While in both cases just over seven in ten of Leave voters expressed the view that it would be better to leave without a deal than to delay, at the same time exactly seven in ten Remain voters took the opposite view.

Meanwhile, two questions (see here and here) posed on two different polls by Survation put Remain and Leave voters even further apart on the issue. While over eight in ten Leave voters said that Brexit should not be delayed and should take place on October 31st, the balance of opinion among Remain supporters was almost exactly in the opposite direction.

As a result, all four polls suggest that overall supporters and opponents are more or less evenly matched, an impression also conveyed by a further reading from Ipsos MORI for which a breakdown by how people voted in 2016 is not available.

There appears then to be a substantial body of voters who think that the UK should leave the EU at the end of October come what may. But they are – unsurprisingly perhaps – mostly those who voted Leave. There is little evidence that frustration with the Brexit impasse has persuaded many Remain voters that it is time to call time on the process. This suggests that leaving at the end of October might not provide as helpful a backdrop to the subsequent task of bringing the country together as the government appears to anticipate.

Not Whether to Vote But How To Vote – That is the Question

Often ignored and sometimes heavily criticised, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act has finally come into play. It stipulates that a General Election can only be held before the five-year term of a Parliament has concluded if either (i) the government is defeated in a vote of no confidence and no alternative administration can be formed, or (ii) if two-thirds of MPs vote in favour of a dissolution. As a result of the Act, a Prime Minister can longer call a ballot at a time of his or her choosing. Rather, he or she needs the Leader of the Opposition to acquiesce in an early election – and while Jeremy Corbyn did precisely that when Mrs May proposed an election in 2017, this time around he has so far at least refused to do so.

That has led to criticism from the government that the opposition is intent on maintaining a ‘dead’ parliament that is incapable of making a decision about Brexit  – other than to block leaving without a deal – while being reluctant to be held to account by the voters. Holding an election, the government anticipates, would pave the way for the creation of a parliament that would back it in delivering Brexit. The opposition parties, however, are disinclined to allow an election to take place until the Commons has had the opportunity to vote – and potentially block –  whatever deal – or no deal – emerges from the European Council in the middle of October.

However, holding an election is not the only possible way of consulting the public with a view to ending the Brexit impasse. An alternative would be to hold a referendum in which whatever package for leaving the EU is proposed by the government is pitted against the alternative of remaining in the EU. Holding some such ballot is now the preferred stance of all the opposition parties (albeit as a second preference in the case of the Liberal Democrats) and also seems to be backed some by some of those former Conservative MPs who backed the anti-no deal legislation passed at the beginning of September and now find themselves denied the Conservative whip. The government, however, are opposed to holding such a referendum.

So, in truth, the debate about holding a vote on Brexit is not simply about whether or not a ballot should be held. Rather, it is a debate about what form any such ballot should take. It is, perhaps, not surprising that, given it enjoys a substantial lead in polls of election vote intentions, the pro-Brexit Conservative government thinks it could well win an election held under the single-member plurality system. On the other hand, given that on average the polls put Remain ahead of Leave by six points (as well as ahead of leaving without a deal), it is equally unsurprising that the predominantly anti-Brexit opposition parties think the future of Brexit should be decided via a referendum. The two forms of ballot could produce very difficult outcomes.

However, the debate about whether to hold an election or a referendum is not simply one between government and opposition. Which of them should be held first is a source of division within the opposition. Some are happy for an election to be called once the Commons has voted on the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU – and paved the way for an extension of the Article 50 process if necessary. The SNP, well ahead in the polls and mindful of the forthcoming trial of their former leader, Alex Salmond, in the New Year, appear particularly keen for an election to be held as soon as possible and not delayed until after a referendum. In contrast, an early ballot would not seem to be in the interest of those former Conservative MPs who now face the difficult prospect of having to defend their seats as independents.

But where the debate appears to be particularly important is inside the Labour Party. Some, such as the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, have suggested that a Brexit referendum should be held before any election. In contrast, others, including most notably the Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appear minded to allow an election to be held first.  The former group are perhaps less sanguine than those in the latter camp about Labour’s prospects in an early general election.

This debate about the relative merits of holding a referendum or an election may now be beginning to be reflected in the pattern of public opinion. It has long been the case that most Leave voters, unlike their Remain counterparts, do not want the principle of Brexit to be reopened via a referendum. That stance has been confirmed by polling in the past month. For example, Deltapoll have reported that while 71% of Remain voters back ‘a second referendum on British membership of the European Union’, 75% of Leave voters oppose the idea. Similarly, while 75% of Remain voters told YouGov that they supported a public vote on Brexit, 72% of Leave supporters indicated they were opposed.

That said, polls that have asked voters during the last month whether there should be an early general election have found Remain and Leave voters, and Conservative and Labour supporters, to be largely at one in their level of support for the idea. For example, Survation found that Labour voters (64%) were just as favourable as Conservative voters (61%) to the idea of an early election, while Remain voters (66%) were only a little more supportive than backers of Leave (58%). Still, given that all parties are in favour of an election in principle, this lack of disagreement perhaps is not surprising.

Nevertheless, when the question of when an election should be held is introduced, a division does emerge. According to YouGov, 46% of Leave voters back holding a general election before October 31st, while only 23% favour one afterwards. Conversely, the equivalent figures among Remain supporters are 30% and 64% respectively. A similar pattern is found if we compare the views of Conservative and Labour voters.

However, it is not clear that Remain voters – and Labour supporters – are keen on an election at all. In a first attempt to ascertain whether voters would prefer a referendum or an election, YouGov have reported that voters as a whole were evenly divided between those who would prefer a referendum (32%) and those who would like to see a general election (31%). (In addition, 17% opted for a third option of forming a cross-party government.) However, whereas 53% of Leave voters would prefer a general election, 56% of Remain supporters favour a referendum. Similarly, while 66% of Conservative supporters prefer an election, 53% of Labour voters are keener on a referendum. In short, voters appear inclined to prefer whichever ballot the polls suggest would be more likely to produce a favourable outcome from their point of view.

The aim of Brexit is meant to be to implement the will of the people. Trouble is, there is seemingly little agreement about how their will should now be ascertained.

Do Voters Back the Possibility of Leaving without a Deal?

The arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing St has resulted in a marked change of tone in the debate about Brexit. The new administration has signalled that, if it is unable to secure a new Brexit deal by the scheduled date for the UK’s departure of 31 October, it will leave the EU without a deal. It hopes this stance will persuade the EU to change its mind about reopening the agreement that the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, had reached with the EU but for which she had been unable to secure the support of MPs. However, some MPs are hoping that they can stop the government from pursuing a no deal Brexit should it be unable to reach an accommodation with the EU.

But what do voters think about the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal? Is this an option that has widespread public support? And might, as the Prime Minister hopes, such a step bring an end to the divisions created by the Brexit impasse? These key questions are addressed by a new analysis paper published by The UK in a Changing Europe.

Drawing on data from a wide variety of published polls, the paper reports three main findings:

  1. There is widespread support for a no deal Brexit among those who voted Leave. At least half would probably prefer such an outcome come what may, while another quarter would probably regard it as acceptable – and especially so if the alternative is further delay or if the EU were thought responsible for failure to reach an agreement.
  2. However, at least three-quarters of Remain voters are opposed to leaving without a deal, whatever the circumstances, and many appear to be antipathetic to the idea. At the same time, those who did not vote in the EU referendum are more likely to oppose than support a no deal Brexit.
  3. As a result, most polling suggests that the balance of opinion among voters as a whole is tilted somewhat against leaving without a deal. Meanwhile, so far at least, there is no evidence that the new government’s backing for leaving without a deal has resulted in an increase in support for taking such a step.

Given these findings, the paper concludes that the government’s stance is largely in tune with the mood of those whose instructions it is seeking to implement, that is those who voted Leave in 2016. However, leaving without a deal could serve to perpetuate the division over Brexit rather than provide a foundation for uniting the country.

What Has Been The Long-Term Legacy of May’s European Election?

As we noted shortly after the event, not only did the European election produce a dramatic result, but also it had an impact on voters’ preferences for Westminster. Both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a substantial boost in their standing for a general election, the former gathering its support from those who voted Leave and the latter attracting the backing of those who voted Remain. The joint strength in the polls of the two parties that have traditionally dominated post-war British politics, the Conservatives and Labour, was as low as it has ever been.

However, given the experience of previous European elections, we could not be sure how long the boost in the fortunes of the smaller parties would last. Would it, like some previous post-European election surges, be a temporary development that would melt away in the heat of the summer sun – and the advent of a new Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson? Or, did it reflect a fundamental shift in the party system that had been occasioned by the Brexit impasse and which, with Brexit still dominating the news, would likely be more permanent?

As MPs return to Westminster this week, the answers to these questions have become pressing. The stand-off over Brexit between the government and opposition MPs means there is much talk of an early election – either because Boris Johnson tries to precipitate one himself or because his government is brought down in a vote of no confidence.  But to what extent and how is any immediate electoral contest likely to be shaped by the fall-out from the European election?

 

 

Table 1 summarises the trend in the level of support registered for the parties in the polls since the European election. The figures for May represent the position in polls conducted in the run up to European election day. The figures for July show the standing of the parties a couple of months later as the Conservative leadership election was drawing to a close. The equivalent figures for the end of August are shown in the final column.

Three key points emerge. First, the rise in Liberal Democrat support has proven to be highly durable. The party has remained on average at just below a fifth of the vote throughout the summer. As a result, the party is now in a stronger position in the polls than at any time since it entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

Second, the increase in Brexit Party support has proven less durable. Although the party maintained its level of support in the weeks immediately after the European election, it has fallen by six points since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Even so, that means the party’s standing is still more or less on a par with the 13% UKIP achieved in the 2015 general election.

Third, the beneficiaries of the fall in Brexit Party support have been the Conservatives, whose average level of support has risen by eight points during the last month or so. Whereas in the middle of July on average 26% of those who said they had voted Conservative in 2017 indicated that they would now vote for the Brexit Party, now the figure stands at just 16%.

 

 

As a result, as Table 2 shows, whereas just a few weeks ago the Brexit Party was the single most popular party among Leave voters, now the Tories are ahead among this group by at least two to one. Indeed, the level of support for the Conservatives among those who voted Leave is almost back to the 55% level that the party was enjoying is mid-November last year, that is, at the point when Mrs May unveiled the draft Brexit agreement that she had negotiated with the EU.

In contrast, there is no sign of any revival in support for the Conservatives among those who voted Remain. At 18% the level of support for the party among this group is still much as it was during the course of the European Parliament election, and is still noticeably below the 26% level at which it stood in mid-November. As a result, whereas in mid-November for every Remain voter who was backing the Conservatives there were two who had voted Leave, now there are three Leave voters for every Remain voter within Conservative ranks. The fall and rise in Conservative support during the course of the Brexit impasse has left the party with an electoral base that is even more Eurosceptic than the coalition that was backing Mrs May.

Thus, on the Leave side of the Brexit divide much of the division in the level of party support that emerged in the wake of the European elections has been reversed, though the Brexit Party is still a more substantial force than UKIP were in advance of that ballot. (Support for Labour among Leave voters is, in contrast, some twelve points down on where it stood in mid-November.) The same, however, cannot be said of those who voted Remain. The revival in Liberal Democrat fortunes during the European election occurred wholly among Remain voters and, as Table 2 makes clear, that position has not changed. As a result, the party is still challenging the dominance of those on the Remain side of the Brexit debate that the Labour party once enjoyed. On average, almost one in five (19%) of those who voted Labour in 2017 are now saying that they would back the Liberal Democrats, a figure that has not changed significantly during the course of the last three months. It is, of course, the division of the Remain vote between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that creates the possibility that the Conservatives might be able to win an overall majority despite enjoying no more than a third of the popular vote.

So, the fallout from the European election has not proven to be a seven-day wonder. People’s views on Brexit still have a greater impact on their party preference for Westminster than hitherto. The Liberal Democrats, who have become a party that appeals almost exclusively to Remain voters, have retained their advance. Although the Brexit Party, whose appeal is confined to Leave voters, has lost some of the support it gained during the European contest, it still appeals – exclusively – to a substantial body of Leave voters.  Meanwhile, in so far as some Leave voters have switched (back) to the Conservatives they have helped ensure that the Tory vote has become more decidedly Eurosceptic than before.

Clearly, Brexit continues to shape and reshape British politics – and it is a process that seems unlikely to end any time soon.

Three Years On: Still Divided

Today marks the third anniversary of the EU referendum in which the country voted narrowly (by 52% to 48%) in favour of leaving the EU. Since then, the country has spent much of the last three years debating how the process of leaving has and should be handled, the terms on which we should aim to leave, and even the merits of the original decision itself.  The debate has precipitated a general election and resulted in the downfall of a Prime Minister. The one thing that has not happened is Britain making its exit from the EU – thanks to the repeated refusal of the House of Commons to accept the terms of the withdrawal treaty that was negotiated with the EU by the UK government. Instead the country is awaiting the arrival of a new Prime Minister who will be charged with the task of solving in three months a Brexit riddle that Theresa May was unable to solve in three years.

One might imagine that the difficulties that have beset the withdrawal process would have had an impact on support for the principle of remaining or leaving the EU in the first place. But of that there is remarkably little evidence. Our poll of polls of how people would vote in another referendum continues to report that the country is more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave, much as it was three years ago.

True, as has been the position ever since our poll of polls series began at the beginning of 2018, the balance of support is now tilted in favour of Remain rather than, as in the referendum, in favour of Leave.  Indeed, the current average of Remain 52%, Leave 48% is the exact mirror image of what emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016.

However, this does not mean that there is a discernible, key group of Leave voters who have changed their minds about Brexit. That much becomes clear if, as in the table below, we examine separately the current vote intentions of those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave. In both cases over 85% say they would vote exactly the same way as they did in 2016. The sound and fury of the last three years has left the vast majority of voters unmoved. And although 8% of those who backed Leave say that they would now vote Remain, they are counterbalanced by 8% of Remain supporters who indicate that they would now support Leave.

The principal reason why public opinion is now tilted towards Remain is because, as we have noted before, those who did not vote three years ago prefer Remain to Leave by around two to one (if they express a view at all). In part, at least, this reflects the fact that this group of abstainers consists disproportionately of younger voters who in general are more likely to back Remain. However, it also suggests that, far from being certain to produce a majority for Remain, the outcome of a second referendum could turn on the ability or otherwise of the Remain side to mobilise the support of a group of voters who cannot necessarily be relied upon to vote at all.

Meanwhile, we should note that, in so far as there has been any change in recent weeks, it consists of a slight narrowing of the lead for Remain. The latest figures of Remain 52%, Leave 48%, contrast with ones of Remain 54%, Leave 46%, that had hitherto pertained for most of the time since the beginning of this year. Still, this movement could be the product of chance variation or the possibility that more recent polls have been undertaken disproportionately by companies that tend to produce relatively narrow leads for Remain anyway.

However, this seems to be an inadequate explanation. Of the four companies that have polled vote intentions in a second referendum since the beginning of May and who also did so in January this year, three (BMG, Survation and YouGov) have registered clear drops in support for Remain, on average by three points, while only one (Kantar) has not.

The principal explanation for this change appears to be that there has been some ‘hardening’ of the Leave vote in recent weeks. At the beginning of the year we reported that while 89% of those who voted Remain said that they would vote the same way again, the equivalent figure among Leave supporters, 83%, had become somewhat lower. Now the two figures are almost identical. Recent events have, it seems, simply reinforced Leave voters in their original views rather than encouraged them to think again.

The Spill-Over Effect: Brexit and Prospects for Westminster

Today’s Westminster by-election in Peterborough is taking place in the immediate wake of a Euro-election in which voters left both the Conservatives and Labour in droves, switching instead to parties that were backing clearer if more polarising options on Brexit. The timing of the by-election thus switches our attention rather rapidly towards what might be the fallout from the Euro-election for the parties’ Westminster prospects.

Three polls of Westminster vote intention have been conducted and published since the Euro-election results were unveiled. With one poll putting the Brexit party ahead, and another suggesting the Liberal Democrats are in front, they hardly suggest that the Euro-contest has left the regular rhythms of Westminster politics undisturbed. Indeed, rather than looking like a two-party system, they suggest that British politics now resembles more of a four-party one, with, on average, the Brexit Party on 25% narrowly ahead of Labour on 22%, while both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are not far behind on 19% apiece. Meanwhile, the Greens have also registered a respectable 8%.

These figures are not simply a flash in the pan. That the Euro-election was having a knock-on effect on voting intentions for Westminster was evident well before the ballot boxes were opened ten days ago. At the beginning of April, when the prospect of the Euro-election first came into view, Labour were on average on 34% in the polls, four points ahead of the Conservatives on 30%, while UKIP and the (yet to be formerly launched) Brexit Party enjoyed 11% support between them, and the Liberal Democrats just 9%. However, by the time we had reached the week before Euro-election polling day, polls of Westminster vote intention were putting Labour down at 30% and the Conservatives on 25%. Conversely, they reckoned the Brexit Party was now on 18%, while the Liberal Democrats’ support had risen to 13%.

In short, the standing of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats in the latest Westminster polls does not simply represent a reaction to the outcome of the Euro-election. There was already clear evidence before the result was known that the Euro-election was having a spill-over effect.

That said, the success of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats (and indeed the Greens) in that election has evidently pushed yet more voters in their direction than was the case immediately before polling day. Some of the support that they are registering in the latest Westminster polls may therefore represent little more than a reaction to favourable publicity

We might note too, that even the latest polls of Westminster vote intention do not put any of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens in as strong a position as they achieved in the Euro-election. The spill-over effect evidently has its limits, and not all those who voted for these parties a fortnight ago would do the same thing in a general election, when the ties of traditional party loyalty are likely to prove stronger than they did in the Euro-poll.

Meanwhile, this year’s Euro-election is far from being the first to have had a spill-over effect. The Greens’ success in winning 15% of the vote in the Euro-election in 1989 saw the party rise from not being identified separately in the polls to registering 9% in Westminster vote intentions. UKIP’s success in coming second in the 2009 Euro-election was accompanied by a doubling in the combined tally for Others (a tally that includes UKIP) from 10% at the end of March to 20% in the fortnight or so after the election. Interestingly, UKIP’s subsequent success in coming first five years later had less of an effect, though the party’s average support still edged up from 12% in the last week of March 2014 to 16% at the time of the Euro-election.

Past experience suggests that much of the sudden boost that a party secures on the back of a strong Euro-election performance can disappear within a matter of months. By the end of 1989 support for the Greens had fallen back to 4%. The combined tally for Others was back down to 12% by mid-October 2009. Even the relatively modest growth in support for UKIP in 2014 had eased somewhat by the end of July that year, with the party by that point running at 14%.

So, should we expect the spill-over effect of the European election to melt away in the heat of summer, as memory of the outcome begins to fade? Not necessarily. For there is a vital difference between the most recent Euro-election and its predecessors. The principal reason for the success of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens and the collapse of the Conservatives and Labour in this year’s contest – the Brexit debate – is not going to disappear from the political agenda any time soon. Rather, voters are going to be reminded continuously of the arguments that impelled them to vote in the record-breaking way they did in the Euro-election.

Indeed, the role that Brexit has played in reshaping voters’ Westminster preferences, and not just those that were expressed in the Euro-ballot boxes, is quite clear in the latest polls. Nearly all the support for the Brexit Party in Westminster vote intentions comes from those who voted Leave, nearly half of whom (on average, 47%) say they would vote for Nigel Farage’s party in an immediate general election. Equally, nearly all the support for the Liberal Democrats (and all of the increase in their support since early April) comes from those who voted Remain. Indeed, following upon the Liberal Democrats’ success in coming first in the Euro-election among those who voted Remain, it appears that the party is now also challenging Labour for the title of the most popular party for Westminster among Remainers, with (on average) 33% of them currently supporting the Liberal Democrats and 31% backing Labour’.

In short, support for the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats has none of the hallmarks of an inchoate protest vote against the traditional two-party system. Rather, it appears to reflect the very distinctive views of voters on opposite sides of the Brexit debate, a debate that seems set to dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. In contrast, both Labour and the Conservatives, more comfortable as they are with the politics of left and right than the debate between social liberals and social conservatives that underpins Brexit, find themselves trying to straddle the Brexit divide. Though the Conservatives are more popular among Leave (25%) than Remain voters (13%), a pattern that does contrast with the position in the Euro-election, it is still among this group that the party has lost most ground since Mrs May first unveiled her deal last November. In the case of Labour, which enjoys just 12% support among those who voted Leave, the balance of support for the party is (as in the Euro-elections) in the opposite direction.

As a result, the difficulties the Conservatives and Labour faced a fortnight ago in trying to hold their electoral coalitions together are also clearly in evidence in the battle for power at Westminster. The Conservatives’ principal problem, by far, is that as many as 40% of those who voted for the party in 2017 now say they would vote for the Brexit Party in a Westminster contest. Labour, which has lost 11% of its support in that direction, is not immune to the challenge from that quarter either, but the party’s losses in that direction are heavily outweighed by the 19% of the party’s vote that has switched to the Liberal Democrats and 11% that has moved to the Greens. How these parties resolve the internal debate about Brexit currently raging within them could well play a vital role in determining whether the challenge they now face as a result of Brexit does eventually melt away or not.

 

 

Fracture and Polarisation? Lessons from the Euro-Election

The outcome of the European election in Britain was truly remarkable. Record after record was broken. The Conservatives secured their worst result ever. Labour suffered its biggest reverse since it first started fighting elections as a wholly independent party in 1918. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP enjoyed their highest share of the vote in any Euro-election, while the Greens’ performance was second only to their remarkable result in 1989 when they won 15% of the vote. There must surely be some important lessons to learn from such a dramatic outcome?

Indeed, there are – though only if the results are examined with care and circumspection. Alas, this sometimes seemed in rather short supply in the immediate wake of the declaration of the results as those on all sides of the Brexit debate attempted to argue that the results showed that most voters supported their outlook on Brexit. They could not, of course, possibly all be right.

Indeed, perhaps one question to address straight away is whether any such claims could conceivably be supported given that, as in previous European elections, most voters did not vote at all. While, at 36.7%, the turnout in Great Britain was a little higher than at most European elections (indeed it was second only to that in 2004 when turnout was boosted by holding the election in some regions using an all postal ballot), it still only registered the views of a minority. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that those who did vote were not entirely representative. The two-point increase in turnout on the last Euro-election in 2014 was far from uniform across the country. Rather, the higher the Remain vote in a council area in 2016, the more that turnout rose as compared with five year ago. As a result, the increase in turnout averaged as much as five points in those areas where more than 58% voted Remain, while it actually fell back a point on average in those areas where less than 38% supported Remain. Much the same pattern is also in evidence if the comparison is made with the 2009 Euro-election.

As a result, what had previously been no more than a four-point difference between the most pro-Remain and the least pro-Remain areas grew into as much as a ten-point difference. Meanwhile, polling undertaken by Lord Ashcroft on polling day and the day after suggests that the Remain side had been ahead in 2016 by 53% to 47% among those who voted in the Euro-elections, whereas, of course, only 48% backed Remain in the referendum itself. This, perhaps, tells us something about the strength of feeling about Brexit among those who voted Remain in particular, but serves as an initial warning about trying to use the results to argue that they showed that the balance of opinion about Brexit among voters has tilted in one direction or the other.

Not that this stopped people from trying. On the one hand, it was argued that the Brexit party’s success in coming a clear first (with 32% of the vote) demonstrated that the public were determined that the UK should leave the EU on October 31st come what may, deal or no deal. To that it was countered that whereas a total of 35% had voted for a party (that is, the Brexit Party or UKIP) that was willing to leave the EU without a deal, as many as 40% had supported one of the parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists) that were campaigning for a second EU referendum – and thus it was clear that was the direction in which voters wished to go. Both arguments blithely ignored the fact that neither tally approached anything like 50%, and that there was more than one way of adding the Conservative (pro-Leave, anti-second referendum) and Labour (pro-Leave but not necessarily opposed to another ballot) tallies to these totals to argue either that most voters still back leaving the EU or that most would contemplate a second referendum.

Even leaving aside questions about differential turnout between Remain and Leave supporters, the difficulty with such arguments, of course, is that they assume that those who voted for a particular party were necessarily expressing support for that party’s stance on Brexit. In truth, many were. Just before the election, Number Cruncher Politics reported that as many as 49% said that they would be voting in order to express their view about Brexit, while Kantar published a similar finding in its pre-election poll. Equally, Lord Ashcroft’s post-polling day poll ascertained that around a half of voters (51%) gave as their principal reason for voting the way they did either that the party for which they voted had the best policy on Brexit or that they wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the UK government’s stance on Brexit.

However, a half is not everyone, and while some parties were drawing their support almost entirely from either Remainers or from Leavers, others were not. So far as the Eurosceptic parties are concerned, there is little doubt about the orientation of the vast bulk of their voters. Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that the Brexit Party enjoyed the support of 64% of those who voted Leave, but only 4% of those who backed Remain, while the equivalent figures among those who backed UKIP were 6% and 1% respectively. Equally, no less than 90% of Brexit Party voters either want to leave the EU without a deal (67%) or on the basis of a different deal than the one negotiated by Mrs May (23%), while the equivalent combined tally among UKIP supporters was 70%.

Meanwhile, those voting for the Liberal Democrats were firmly on the other side of the Brexit debate. The party won the support of 36% of those who voted Remain, thereby displacing Labour as the single most popular party among this group, but just 4% of those who had voted Leave. No less than 90% of those who voted for the party affirmed to Lord Ashcroft that their current preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave on the basis of any possible deal, let alone none at all. With 19% support among 2016 Remainers and 4% among Leavers, the character of the vote for the Greens was not dissimilar, though at 72% the proportion now backing Remain over some form of leaving was somewhat lower. Meanwhile, 78% of Change UK voters indicated a preference for remaining versus leaving, though the ratio of the party’s support among those who voted Remain (5%) to that among those who backed Leave (2%) is not as high as the equivalent ratio for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

However, the vote for other parties was much more heterogeneous in character. This was most obviously true in the case of the Conservatives, who proved to be equally (un-)popular among both those who voted Remain (9%) and those who backed Leave 9%). There was no consensus at all amongst those who voted Conservative about whether they wanted to Remain (28%), leave on the basis of Mrs May’s deal (36%), leave on the basis of an alternative deal (17%) or leave without a deal (14%). Labour was more popular among Remain voters (19%) than Leave supporters (8%), and 63% indicated that their preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave in one way or another, but, even so, the party was still bridging the Remain-Leave divide to some degree. Meanwhile, polling undertaken in Scotland by Panelbase shortly before the election (which accurately anticipated the 38% won by the SNP north of the border) found that while the party was winning the support of no less than 49% of Remain supporters, it was also backed by 20% of Leavers.

There are then very clear dangers in trying to infer the balance of attitudes towards Brexit among voters from the results of the election. Remain voters may well have been more likely to have voted, while not everyone’s choice reflected their stance on Brexit. However, that does not mean we cannot learn any lessons from the election about attitudes towards Brexit. Above all, the election underlines not only the polarisation of attitudes towards Brexit but also the intensity with which those attitudes are held by some voters.

We have written previously about how attitudes towards Brexit have seemingly become polarised between those who would be willing to leave the EU without a deal and those who would like another referendum – or would simply like to revoke Article 50 – and that as a result there is relatively little public support for any of the compromise positions that have been proposed – including Mrs May’s deal and any softer Norway-style Brexit as envisaged by Labour. This pattern is replicated in Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll in which the two most popular options among all voters are either to remain in the EU (40%) or to leave without a deal (27%). Thus, in promoting their respective compromise positions on Brexit both the Conservatives and Labour found themselves at this election attempting to occupy a centre ground on Brexit that has long seemed relatively poorly populated – and was certainly little understood by voters (see, for example, here and here). Given that Euro-elections are often regarded as ‘second-order’ contests in which voters are more likely to vote for smaller parties and to express their views about the EU, this was always a potentially risky position to be occupying.

So, although not all voters used the Euro-election to express their views about Brexit, the fact that many did so laid the foundations for the collapse in Conservative and Labour support. According to Lord Ashcroft no less than 81% of those who voted for the Brexit Party and 68% of those who backed the Liberal Democrats gave Brexit as their principal reason for doing so. Conversely, only 13% of Labour voters and 8% of Conservative supporters indicated that they were making their choice on the basis of Brexit. They were much more likely to be voting on the basis of party loyalty – as many as 36% of Labour voters and 34% of Conservatives gave this as their principal reason for voting the way that they did. The trouble for both of those parties is that for many voters the pull of party loyalty was weaker than the attraction of expressing their views about Brexit. In other words, the election revealed that not only is the electorate polarised between leaving without a deal and remaining in the EU, but also that many on both sides of the argument hold those views sufficiently intently that, in a second-order election at least, they prefer to express those views rather than adhere to their traditional party loyalty.

As a result, the fragility of the electoral coalitions that both the Conservatives and Labour had put together in the 2017 election, when between them they won over 80% of the vote, was cruelly exposed. Although the Conservatives had garnered support most successfully from among those who voted Leave, around a third of the party’s voters had voted Remain. Conversely, although Labour had proven more popular among those who had voted Remain, around a third had backed Leave. Neither party had much success in retaining the support of either part of their coalition.

The Conservatives’ biggest problem was undoubtedly maintaining the support of those of their supporters who had voted Leave. Many of these after all had backed UKIP before the 2017 election and had only switched to the Conservatives in the belief that they were best placed actually to deliver Brexit. Given the failure of the government to deliver Brexit on the original target date of March 29, the return of Nigel Farage to the electoral scene served to make switching to the Brexit Party seem like an attractive option.  Over a half (53%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and voted in the Euro-election voted for the Brexit Party – a figure that equates to around four in five of all those Conservatives who had voted Leave. It is this movement that explains why, in contrast to the position in 2017, at this election the Conservatives were no more popular among Leave voters than they were among Remain supporters.

However, the party was also losing ground among its minority of voters who had backed Remain. According to Lord Ashcroft, 20% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 switched to either the Liberal Democrats (especially), the Greens, or Change UK, most of them people who had voted Remain in 2016. This represented the equivalent of losing around 60% of the party’s Remain supporters. The Conservatives were struggling to retain the support of both parts of their 2017 electoral coalition.

Labour found itself in a similar position. On the one hand, the party lost 22% of its vote to the Liberal Democrats, 17% to the Greens and 4% to Change UK, the vast majority of them people who had voted Remain. These figures mean that Labour lost the support of around three in five of those that voted Remain, much the same proportion as the Conservatives though it represents a much larger share of its total vote. However, at the same time Labour also lost 13% of its vote to the Brexit Party, or around two in five of the party’s Leave supporters. Labour’s Leave support may not have been as willing to switch to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party as the much larger body of Leave voters in the Conservatives’ ranks, but even so the party was also clearly losing ground at both ends of the Brexit spectrum.

None of this seems set to make the Brexit impasse any easier to resolve. The Euro-election has underlined the polarisation of public attitudes towards Brexit. It has strengthened and given momentum both to the ranks of those advocating no deal and of those supporting a second referendum. Meanwhile, the country’s two largest parties at Westminster, already deeply divided on the subject, now seem embarked on serious internal arguments about how they could handle Brexit in such a way that they might rescue themselves from the deep electoral hole in which they now find themselves. Neither would seem to have an easy task. Whoever said that these elections would not matter?

Two Very Different Battles? Pointers from the Final Polls of Euro-Election Vote Intention

A plethora of polls published in the last hours of the campaign have affirmed the likely outcome of one of the key political battles in the Euro-election  – but have left us rather uncertain about the outcome of another. That said, it is clear that Sunday is set to be an uncomfortable night for both the Conservatives and Labour, and will likely raise important questions about the future of Britain’s traditional two-party system.

The battle whose outcome is clear is that between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party for the support of those who voted Leave. That is a contest that Nigel Farage is set to win hands down.  Where the message of the polls is much less certain is in the fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the support of Remain voters.

On average, the seven ‘final’ polls of voting intention for the Euro-elections, all of which conducted at least some of their interviewing during the last week of the campaign, suggest that the Brexit Party is set to win the support of nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who voted Leave in 2016. Although, as one might anticipate, only a handful of Remain supporters are willing to vote for a party whose principal message is that the UK should leave the EU without a deal, that proportion is enough to put the party on 34% among voters as a whole – putting it in first place and suggesting that the party will exceed the 27% of the vote that UKIP won (also under Nigel Farage’s leadership) in 2014.

As a result, support for the Conservatives, the party in whom most Leave voters invested their trust in 2017, has been decimated. The party’s average standing is just 11%. Well over half (55%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and indicate they will participate in the Euro-election say they will vote for the Brexit Party – a figure that rises  to around three-quarters among those 2017 Conservative voters who backed Leave. Instead of being a party that primarily represents Leave voters, the Conservatives find themselves no more popular among supporters of Brexit (11%) than they are among those who voted Remain (13%).

The reasons for this tsunami of switching from the Conservatives to the Brexit Party among Leave voters are not hard discern. Polling has consistently found that at least a half of those who voted Leave think the UK should leave the EU without a deal. They thus have little sympathy for a party that has failed to deliver Brexit because it has been unable to secure the assent of the Commons to the deal that has been negotiated. After all, in many cases they only switched from voting UKIP in 2014 or 2015 because they thought the Conservatives were best able to implement the decision to leave. Meanwhile, as both Opinium and YouGov have shown, voters are far from clear about where the Conservatives stand on Brexit, while (according to YouGov) as many as 40% of Leave voters have come to the conclusion that the Conservative party is actually opposed to Brexit. In contrast, most voters have little difficulty in understanding where the Brexit Party stands (see also here), thanks not least to Nigel Farage’s high-profile campaigning in favour of the Eurosceptic cause.

Polls conducted at the beginning of the Euro-election campaigned confirmed the by now familiar picture that the Labour was the single most popular choice among those who voted Remain in 2017. On average, as many as 43% expressed that view, while only 14% opted for the Liberal Democrats. Although the latest polls disagree about how far this pattern has changed, they all agree that Labour’s grip on the Remain vote has been eroded. Indeed, on average the latest polls put the two parties neck and neck among Remain voters, with 29% opting for the Liberal Democrats and 28% for the Labour party. Only the fact that the Liberal Democrat vote is almost wholly a Remain vote (and almost all the eight-point increase in the party’s support has come from that quarter, including from among some Conservatives who voted Remain) whereas Labour does have some support among Leave voters (10%) ensures that, on average, Labour is still reckoned to be narrowly ahead among voters as a whole, albeit by only 19% to 17%.

This itself is sufficient grounds to come to the view that we cannot be sure which of those two parties will emerge ahead in the ballot boxes and claim second place. But the uncertainty is even greater thanks to the fact that the polls differ dramatically in their estimate of Labour support. At one end of the spectrum YouGov put the party on just 13%, while at the other end Panelbase put the party on 25%. As a result, while three polls put Labour at least three points ahead of the Liberal Democrats, two reckon that the Liberal Democrats are ahead by at least that amount, and two others put the two parties almost neck and neck. Who will come second has come to be the most intriguing question of the election.

But even if Labour do fend off the Liberal Democrat challenge, unless the party does so convincingly questions are bound to be raised about whether the party should come out more firmly in favour of a second referendum. Certainly, as in the case of the Conservatives, voters are far from clear as to where Labour stand on Brexit, while they are rather clearer about the Liberal Democrats’ position. And in an election where around half of voters say that they are voting on the basis of their views about Brexit rather than because of traditional party loyalty or other issues (see also here), it seems that this contrast matters. On average, nearly one in five (18%) of those who voted Labour in 2017 (and around one in four of those who voted Remain) say they are voting Liberal Democrat in the Euro-election.

Not that the Liberal Democrats are the only one of the pro-Remain parties taking votes off Labour. The Greens have also added to Labour’s difficulties, with some 14% of the 2017 Labour vote heading in that direction, a movement that is helping the Greens on average to match the 8% tally that it secured in the last Euro-election in 2014. In combination, Labour’s losses to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amount to one in three of those who voted for the party two years ago.

However, losses of support to more avowedly pro-Remain parties is not the only source of Labour’s difficulties. During the campaign, the party has lost ground – some six points – among Leave voters too.  Much of that loss has been inflicted by the Brexit Party, to which as many as 14% of 2017 Labour voters have switched, representing at least one in three of those Labour voters who voted Leave. Nigel Farage may not have done anything like as much damage on Labour as he has on the Conservatives, but he may inflict enough to convince those Labour MPs who do not want another second referendum that they should continue to oppose any such move. Trouble is, what does seem to be the case is that Labour’s attempt to retain the support of both sides in the Brexit debate by pursuing a compromise position runs the risk of losing the backing of both Remainers and Leavers.

Still, whatever the travails being suffered by both Labour and the Conservatives, there are two other contenders for whom the prospects look even worse. With an average level of support of just 4%, the Change UK group of former Labour and Conservative MPs look set to lose the civil war with the Liberal Democrats for the pro-Remain vote, an outcome that will doubtless raise questions about what the group’s future relationship with the Liberal Democrats should be. Equally, UKIP have comprehensively lost the battle with the Brexit Party for the Eurosceptic vote. Some of the challengers to the Conservative-Labour duopoly at least look as though they will emerge from this election significantly weakened.

Of course, as soon as the votes are counted on Sunday, the question will be raised as to what might be the implications of the result for the future of British politics. The outcome will not tell us what would happen in an immediate general election. Many voters will vote differently at the Euro-election from how they would in such a ballot. Indeed, recent polls of voting intentions for Westminster put the Conservatives (on 24%) and Labour (on 29%) in a somewhat better (but very far from healthy) position than it is anticipated will emerge from the ballot boxes on Sunday. Moreover, past experience suggests that some of those voters who in the midst of a Euro-election campaign say that they would vote for a smaller party in a Westminster contest often change their minds once the Euro-votes have been counted and the election forgotten. Except, of course, Brexit – the principal source of the difficulties being faced by Labour and the Conservatives in this year’s Euro-election – is unlikely to disappear from the political agenda any time soon.