Cracks Become a Chasm as Brexit Threatens the Conservative-Labour Duopoly

Prompted by the Newport West by-election, at the beginning of April we published an analysis of how support for both the Conservatives and Labour had slipped during the course of the Brexit impasse. The Conservatives appeared to have lost ground among those who voted Leave, while Labour had lost support among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit perhaps rather more among the former than the latter.

Much has happened since then. Not only did the UK not leave the EU on the original target date of 29 March but also did not do so on the next deadline of 11 April. The government initiated talks with Labour with a view to identifying possible amendments to Mrs May’s Brexit deal that might secure the backing of the official opposition. However, so far at least, these talks have not been productive, and the government still seems to lack the parliamentary support it needs to secure the passage of the EU withdrawal treaty. Meanwhile, as a result of the continuing impasse, the UK now finds itself about to elect new representatives to the European Parliament, a body from which it has been trying to withdraw for the last two years.

None of this has done either the Conservatives or Labour any good. The cracks in their domination of the competition for the support of voters in evidence at the beginning of last month have now become a chasm. In the last couple of days, three polls of voting intentions for Westminster (that have also asked voting intentions for the Euro-elections) have on average put the Conservatives on 22%, while Labour stand at no more than 26%. These figures represent a drop of no less than 14 points in Conservative support since the beginning of April, while Labour are down nine points. In short, since the date on which the UK was originally meant to leave the EU, both parties appear to have been haemorrhaging support, such that they now command the support of less than half of those with a current vote intention – a position not seen in the polls since the headiest days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance in late 1981.

However, European Parliament elections are different from general elections. They are often portrayed as ‘second-order’ contests in which relatively few voters bother to vote, and those that do (a) often regard it as an opportunity to protest against the current perceived inadequacies of the government, and (b) are more willing to vote for smaller parties (a pattern that perhaps is further facilitated in the UK because EP elections are held under a system of proportional representation rather than single member plurality). Small, Eurosceptic parties often do particularly well, as attested by the success of UKIP at the last Euro-election, coming first with 27% of the vote (in Great Britain). In short, if, as seems to be the case, voters are unhappy with the way in which the Conservatives and/or Labour have handled Brexit, a European election provides an environment in which voters are particularly likely to make that unhappiness clear.

That, indeed, appears to be precisely what they are minded to do. Polling of how people say they would vote in the Euro-elections puts the level of both Conservative and Labour support even lower than that for a general election.  The Conservatives stand on average at just 11%, as much as eleven points adrift of their rating for Westminster. Labour’s position is not as dire, but, at 21%, support for the party is still five points down on what it currently is for Westminster. (In both cases a further reading published today from BMG Research largely confirms these figures.)

In the case of the Conservatives the principal reason for the drop in their support for Westminster and the fact that even fewer voters are likely to vote for them in the Euro-elections is clear – in a continuation of the pattern that was already in evidence in early April, the party has lost the support of many a Leave voter.

Just 28% of those who said they voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum now say they would vote for the Conservatives in a UK general election. This represents a drop of no less than 16 points on the average poll figure in early April. Meanwhile support for the Conservatives among Leavers in the Euro-election is another 17 points lower, standing at just 11%. This level of support is no higher than the equivalent figure among those who voted Remain – among whom support for the party in a general election has also fallen somewhat since early April, but, at six points, much less so than it has among those who voted Leave. (The further drop-off in support in how people say they will vote in the Euro-elections is lower among Remainers too.)

Most of these sometime Conservative Leavers have been enticed away by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has thoroughly eclipsed UKIP. Nearly three-fifths (58%) of those who voted Conservative in 2017 say that they will vote for the Brexit Party in the Euro-elections. Indeed, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all those who voted Leave are saying they will vote for Nigel Farage’s new organisation. It is very difficult to avoid any conclusion other than that most Leave voters find voting for a party that believes the UK should have left without a deal on March 29 much more attractive than backing one that so far has been unable to facilitate the UK’s exist from the EU.

But what about the loss of support that Labour is suffering? In line with the pattern we identified at the beginning of April, the party’s lost ground has not arisen as a result of an especially heavy loss among those on one side or other of the Brexit divide. Rather, the party has lost significant ground among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit rather more so among the former than the latter. Thus, the party now finds itself standing on average at 36% for Westminster among Remainers, a drop of eight points since early April, while it has the backing of 15% of those who voted Leave, a fall of five points. Meanwhile, the party is suffering a further drop-off in voting intentions for the Euro-election of seven points among Remainers and of five points among Leavers. In short, Labour’s compromise stance on Brexit may well have enabled the party to be more or less equally appealing to both Remainers and Leavers – it has just not been very successful at keeping either group of voters on board.

This pattern of losing ground among both Remainers and Leavers is reflected in the preferences for the Euro-election now being expressed by those who voted Labour in 2017. On the one hand Labour is losing some support to the Brexit Party, albeit on nothing like the scale of the defection being endured by the Conservatives. At present 12% of Labour’s vote at the last election (or around two in five of those who voted Leave) is heading in that direction. On the other hand, the party is also losing support to two of the parties that are in favour of a second EU referendum, that is, the Liberal Democrats (16%) and the Greens (13%). Nearly three in ten of all Labour voters – and thus rather more than one in three of those who voted Remain – have moved in that direction. As a result, between them the combined tally of support for the Liberal Democrats and Greens among 2016 Remain voters (36%) is now higher than that enjoyed by Labour (31%). The dominance that Labour has hitherto enjoyed among Remain voters has, it seems, been significantly eroded.

Moreover, there are signs that both these patterns have intensified since Easter. At that point, Labour’s loss of support to the Brexit Party stood on average at 8%, compared with 12% now. Meanwhile, only around one in six (16%) of 2017 Labour voters intended to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, or little more than half the proportion now.  The one consolation for Labour is that the challenge from Change UK, formed originally by a group of defecting Labour MPs, seems to be waning. Just 4% of 2017 Labour voters now say they will vote for the new pro-Remain party compared with 9% a fortnight ago.  This is part of a wider pattern in which Change UK (average Euro-vote 5%) seems to be losing the civil war with the Liberal Democrats (14%) for the socially liberal pro-Remain vote.

Challenges to the traditional Conservative and Labour duopoly are not new.  One at least – that posed by the SNP – has already destroyed that duopoly north of the border.  Both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have previously had their days in the sun – but not at the same time. UKIP’s initial rise in 2012 occurred after the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote following the formation of the Coalition in 2010. Now, however, in the wake of the Brexit impasse, the challenge is coming from both a Eurosceptic and Europhile direction at the same time. That, alone, might be thought to mean that it should be taken seriously.

Still, the real test of the electoral fallout from the Brexit impasse will come once the Euro-elections are over. Some, at least, of the loss of Conservative and Labour support for a Westminster election in the polls may be a temporary knock-on effect of the proximity of the European election. Previous Euro-election surges for one of the smaller parties have often been accompanied by a contemporaneous increase in their support for Westminster. However, that increase has then disappeared once, a few weeks later, the Euro-election has become little more than a distant memory. But unless the Brexit impasse is resolved soon, maybe this time the memory will remain fresh in voters’ minds – in which case expect to hear very little this summer about either Labour or, perhaps, a new Conservative leader manoeuvring to try and precipitate an early Westminster ballot.

What Impact Did The Brexit Impasse Have on The Local Elections?

There was a ready acceptance among politicians and commentators as the local election results gradually emerged on Thursday night and Friday morning that the outcome reflected voters’ views about Brexit. Not that they necessarily agreed as to what message the electorate were sending. Those of a Leave disposition interpreted the decline in both Conservative and Labour support as evidence that voters wanted the House of Commons to get on with delivering Brexit. Those of a Remain persuasion noted the increase in Liberal Democrat and Green support and suggested that the outcome represented an endorsement of the call that voters should decide the fate of Brexit in a second referendum. Of course, fitting the facts to match prior preconceptions has long become a familiar feature of the Brexit debate.

But what impact, if any, did Brexit have on the outcome of the local elections? In truth, discerning motivation from aggregate election results is always a potentially hazardous exercise. The ballots themselves tell us nothing about why people voted as they did. However, geography can provide us with some clues, especially if our proposition is one that implies that voters will have changed the party they support because of Brexit. If, for example, it is the case that Leave voters are disenchanted with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit and, as a result, were less willing to vote for the party in the local elections, we would anticipate that, other things being equal, the fall in Conservative support would be greater in those areas where more people voted Leave in 2016. Even then, it is not necessarily the case that such a pattern has been occasioned by the behaviour of Leave voters – it may be that Remain voters living in Leave areas were more likely to switch from the Conservatives than were Remain voters living in more pro-Remain areas – though such an explanation obviously seems less plausible. This, perhaps, is especially so given that there is plenty of contemporaneous polling evidence that Leave voters have been defecting from the Conservatives in large numbers.

Mind you, even this approach – looking at geography supplemented with evidence from opinion polls – has its limitations. What if both Remain and Leave voters have defected from a party in roughly equal proportions – as recent polls have suggested has been the position so far as Labour is concerned? Geographically, that should mean that there is little difference between Remain and Leave voting areas in the scale of that party’s losses. And maybe in turn that might mean that its loss of support has in fact nothing to do with Brexit. On the other hand, it could mean that the party’s stance on Brexit has led to a loss of support among both Remain and Leave supporters – perhaps because it backs a compromise that satisfies neither – and therefore has everything to do with Brexit. Distinguishing between these alternative interpretations might be thought near impossible – at least in the absence of polling information that might cast some further light on the issue.

To these considerations, one other has to be brought to bear – time. If we think that a party has lost ground among a body of voters we need to be clear ‘since when’ that is thought to have happened. In so far as we are interested in the impact of the ‘Brexit impasse’, that is, the failure of the House of Commons to progress the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we should be examining how party support has changed since the EU withdrawal treaty was unveiled in mid-November. There were, of course, no local elections at that time. However, there are local elections in England every spring, and, as a result, it is in many places possible to compare the performances of the party this year with what happened last year. That is still not ideal, but it is potentially more informative than simply comparing the outcome this year with what happened four years ago, in 2015, when local elections were held on the same day as a general election (and enjoyed much higher turnout as a result), even though that happened to be the occasion on which most (though not all) of the seats up for grabs last week had previously been contested. A lot of Brexit and non-Brexit water has passed under many bridges during the last four years, thereby potentially muddying our understanding of the impact of the Brexit impasse. This observation proves to be particularly important in understanding the performance of the Conservative party.

Given these observations, it should be apparent that the most straightforward way of trying to discern the impact of Brexit is to examine whether the change in a party’s share of the vote varied systematically between those areas that voted Remain and those that backed Leave. The following table is based on the detailed results in 720 wards located in 40 local authority areas as collected by the BBC. It shows the average change in the level of support for the three main parties in England since both 2015 and 2018, broken down by the level of support for Leave in 2016 in the council area in which the ward is located. Note that the table is also confined to those wards that each of Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats fought on both occasions – otherwise our figures might be distorted by changes in the pattern of candidature.

 

If, first of all, we focus on the left-hand-side of the table, on the changes in party support since 2015, we see some very clear patterns, albeit, perhaps, not always ones that we might have anticipated. In the case of the Liberal Democrats it seems quite clear that the party advanced more strongly in places where less than half voted Leave than in places where more than half did so. That would suggest the party’s anti-Brexit stance might have been successful in winning over Remain voters. Conversely, there is an indication that Labour might have performed worse in those places that voted most strongly to Leave, though beyond that there is little systematic difference. Here is a hint – though no more than that – that in the most pro-Brexit parts of the country Labour may have particularly lost ground among Leave voters.

However, the figures in the Conservative column do not support the claim that disenchanted Leave voters in particular have defected from the Conservative party in droves.  The party appears to have lost ground more heavily in pro-Remain areas than in those that voted most heavily for Leave. If this means anything at all, it would seem to imply that Remain voters have defected from the Conservative party because they are unhappy that the party is pursuing Brexit at all.

But then, we already know that that is indeed what has happened previously. It was a feature of the 2017 general election. Equally, last year’s local elections witnessed a tendency for the party to perform better in Leave voting areas than in Remain supporting ones. So, in comparing the results in 2019 with those in 2015 we may simply be picking up a movement that occurred some time ago, well before the Brexit impasse came into view.

That this is the case becomes apparent if we compare the Conservative performance last Thursday with what happened twelve months ago (see the right-hand side of the table). Then we see a very different, if less dramatic pattern. The party performed worse in places with a strong Leave vote, while its vote tended to fall less in more pro-Remain areas, altough the pattern is not an entirely straightforward one. Here is some sign that during the last twelve months the party has particularly lost ground among more Leave–inclined England, thereby partially – but only partially – reversing a previous tendency for the party to advance more strongly in such areas since the EU referendum.

In Labour’s case the link in last year’s local elections between the change in the party’s share of the vote and the outcome of the EU referendum was much weaker than was evident in the performance of the Conservatives. Consequently, when we look at the change in its share of the vote since 2018, the pattern is not dissimilar to that we saw when we examined the change in support since 2015 – again the party looks as though it performed least well in the most pro-Leave parts of the country. It seems then that rather than simply expressing frustration with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit, voters in Leave-inclined England seem to have withdrawn support from both main parties. Here, it seems is some evidence to support the claim that both parties were being punished for the Brexit impasse, albeit, perhaps, more especially by those of a pro-Leave disposition rather than by voters in general.

That said, what the comparison with last year’s local elections also makes clear is that both the Conservatives and Labour have lost ground heavily in both pro-Remain and pro-Leave England. As we noted above, how far such a pattern is a consequence of voters’ reaction to how they have handled Brexit is impossible to tell for sure. What, however, we do know is that both parties have seen their average standing in the opinion polls fall since mid-November, the Conservatives by no less than 11 points and Labour by six. We can therefore say that the results of the local elections are consistent with (and help to confirm) other evidence that both parties have struggled to maintain their support during the course of the Brexit impasse – albeit with the additional twist that perhaps Labour have in fact fallen back just as much as the Conservatives.

But what of the rise in support for the Liberal Democrats? Does this still appear to have been stronger in Remain voting areas when measured across the last twelve months rather than the last four years? To a degree, yes, but the difference is not as sharp as that over the longer time period. As in the case of the Conservatives and Labour what stands out most of all is a relatively poor performance in the most strongly pro-Leave parts of England. Otherwise, however, it is difficult to argue that the results suggest that the Liberal Democrats’ advocacy of a second referendum has brought the party a particular boost in Remain-inclined England in recent months – much, indeed, as the opinion polls have been suggesting.

Much the same has to be said of the Greens, who registered their best local election performance for a decade. Across all the wards where the party stood this time it won an average of 12%, while its vote increased by five points on last year in those wards it fought in both 2018 and 2019. But that increase was just as high in the most pro-Leave areas as it was in the most pro-Remain ones. Most likely the party’s success had more to do with the recent debate about climate change than the party’s stance against Brexit.

Still, at this point, there might be thought to be a bit of a puzzle. If the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were all performing less well in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year (and the Greens no better), then who was performing better?

Part of the answer, at least, is UKIP. The party only fought this year’s local elections on a limited scale, contesting just one in six of the seats.  But where it did stand – which was disproportionately in places that voted heavily to Leave (and seemingly more so than last year) – the party’s vote was up markedly on the nadir to which it had fallen a year ago. In those wards that it fought both this year and last year the party’s vote was up by as much as eight points, a figure that rose to 13 points in the most strongly pro-Leave areas.  This was enough to push the party’s average share of the vote across all the wards in which it stood this year up to 15%. Although this performance was still not as strong as in the local elections held in 2015 and 2016 (on both of which the party’s vote was down on average by four points), it represents clear evidence that the Brexit impasse has instigated a marked revival in support for a Eurosceptic party, even though that party is according to the polls now overshadowed by a newcomer, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. That gives every reason to anticipate that the challenge from that quarter will be greater in the Euro-elections when the new Eurosceptic party will be on the ballot.

Between them UKIP’s advance (missing though it was from the media headlines) and the especially poor performance by the Conservatives and Labour in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year represents the strongest evidence provided by the local elections that the Brexit impasse has had an impact on party support. It suggests that some more Leave-inclined voters at least did take the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with how Brexit has been handled, and that this cost both main parties support – including in the Conservatives’ case some of the gains that the party had previously made among this group in the immediate wake of the referendum. In contrast, caution certainly needs to be exercised in assuming that the rise in Liberal Democrat and Green support represents a markedly greater willingness by Remain voters in particular to switch to a pro-second referendum party in the wake of the Brexit impasse. More difficult to discern, however, are the implications of perhaps the most dramatic feature of the elections, that is, the sharp drop in both Conservative and Labour support on last year irrespective of how an area voted in the referendum. It might represent a cri de coeur from voters about the state of the Brexit process – but whether these voters agree about what they want done about it might be another thing.

A shorter version of this blog is available on the ukandeu.ac.uk website.

The Brexit Impasse: Is the Party System Fracturing Once More?

Today regular domestic politics will provide a small interruption to the increasingly frantic attempts being made both by the government and by parliament to seek a way out of the Brexit impasse. A parliamentary by-election is being held in Newport West, following the death of Paul Flynn, a widely-respected MP on the left of the Labour party.

The contest is one that Labour would be expected to win quite comfortably. Nevertheless, the outcome is likely to be examined closely for any clues it may provide as to the impact of the Brexit impasse on the standing of the parties.  It is thus an opportune moment to examine the evidence of the polls on that score – not least because we may yet find that the Brexit impasse eventually precipitates a snap general election.

At first glance, it would seem that the debate about Mrs May’s Brexit deal has had remarkably little impact on the fortunes of the country’s two largest parties. When the deal was first unveiled in mid-November the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck with each other. Now, nearly five months later, the two parties are still neck and neck.

But this does not mean that ‘nothing has changed’. Back in mid-November both parties on average stood at 39% apiece. Now, both are well below that level. The Conservatives are three points down on 36%, while Labour have slipped by four points to 35%. It would seem the Brexit debate has served to erode public confidence in both of the country’s two principal parties of government.

Even more dramatic is the difference between the position in the polls now, and the outcome of the 2017 election, when the two parties’ combined tally of 84.5% of the vote (in Great Britain) was the highest it has been at any election since 1970. Now, the figure stands at just 71%. Britain’s party system is showing signs of fracturing once again.

But, of course, the fact that both Conservatives and Labour have lost ground during the course of the debate about Mrs May’s deal does not necessarily mean that the trend has been occasioned by Brexit. In Labour’s case, in particular, the party has been hit during this period by yet another storm over its handling of anti-semitism, a storm that played a significant role in persuading eight of the party’s MPs to leave and create a new party that is now known as ‘Change UK’. Maybe it is a case of coincidence rather than causation.

One way of trying to establish whether the Brexit impasse has been responsible for the parties’ loss of support is to compare the trend in party support among those who voted Remain with that among those who backed Leave. In the case of the Conservatives, at least, one might anticipate that the party’s difficulty in delivering Brexit would be of greater concern to those who voted Leave, and that the party might have lost ground more heavily among this group than it has among those who backed Remain.

This is, indeed, precisely what we find. On average support for the Conservatives has fallen by six points since mid-November among Leave supporters, while it is unchanged among those who backed Remain. Much of this loss of ground appears to have been to UKIP and/or Nigel Farage’s Brexit party who between them are now registering as much as 7% in the polls. The squeeze on UKIP that occurred in the immediate wake of Mrs May’s decision to call the 2017 general election seems largely to have unravelled in the wake of the Brexit impasse.

In Labour’s case, however, our expectations are not so clear cut. On the one hand, the party’s Leave supporters might be disappointed with the party’s decision to oppose Mrs May’s deal, while, on the other, perhaps Remain supporters are unhappy about the party’s continued relative reluctance to back a second referendum. In practice, it seems as though the party may have lost a little more ground since mid-November among Remain supporters (among whom the party’s support is down on average by five points since mid-November) than it has among Leave voters (down three points). Maybe the party’s attempts to keep both groups on board have failed to satisfy either of them?

That said, there are signs that Labour’s relative success in the 2017 election at winning over Remain voters may be unravelling over the longer-term. At 44%, the average level of support for the party among those who voted Remain is some ten points down on what it was, according to an average of the polls, at the time of the 2017 election. In contrast, the 21% support the party now enjoys among those who backed Leave is just three points down on the position two years ago. If the Conservatives have good reason to be concerned about losing the gains they made among Leave supporters in 2017, it seems as though the Labour party cannot afford to be complacent about the Remain-inclined voters that it won over when the country last went to the polls.

Could A Soft Brexit Provide A Soft Landing?

Today, the House of Commons will be making a second attempt at identifying whether there is a proposal for Brexit that is capable of securing the backing of a majority of MPs. In an initial attempt last week, none of the eight options on which MPs were invited to vote secured an overall majority. However, today the options will be narrowed down somewhat, while there will be an opportunity for MPs to revise their views now that they have some idea of the mood of the House. If, as has repeatedly been claimed, there is a potential majority in the Commons for some form of ‘soft’ Brexit then it would seem most likely to realise itself through a majority for one or other of these options in the vote that takes place this evening.

Two possible favourites have emerged. One, a proposal that the UK should form a customs union with the EU, was defeated last week by just eight votes. Another that was much more heavily defeated was a proposal that has been dubbed ‘Common Market 2.0’ and was backed by a cross-party alliance formed by Nick Boles MP (Conservative) and Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour). This envisaged that the UK should be part of the single market as well as a customs union. In this case there was a high level of abstentions, a product in part of the fact that the idea was not backed officially by either Labour or the SNP, and it is possible that both might back it this time around. After all, the Boles and Kinnock proposal would seem relatively close to the policy stance that Labour has been promoting for much of the last two years.

But how much support is there among the public for options such as these? Might one or other yet form the basis for a compromise around which both Remainers and Leavers might be willing to coalesce? Or are they, in truth, at risk of failing to satisfy either camp in what has become a highly polarised political environment?

Proposals for a soft Brexit, such as Common Market 2.0, are often presented as potentially placing the UK in a future relationship with the EU not dissimilar to that of Norway. Although not a member of the EU or indeed of its customs union, Norway is a member of the single market. (The idea that the UK should be in both the single market and a customs union is sometimes dubbed ‘Norway Plus’.) Variants of this particular idea have been addressed by a number of polls.

Among voters as a whole, a Norway-style Brexit certainly appears to be more attractive than the government’s Brexit deal has been. For example, when in December BMG required its respondents to choose one or the other, 60% backed the Norway option while only 40% preferred the government’s deal. A similar picture was obtained by Survation in March in response to a question that did allow people to say ‘Don’t Know’ (an answer given by no less than a quarter). While 30% backed the deal that had been negotiated with the EU, 45% supported a deal that would keep Britain in the single market and the customs union.

However, given how unpopular the government’s deal has proven to be, this might be thought a rather easy test for a Norway-style Brexit to pass. Is there any evidence that it is popular when voters are simply asked whether or not they like it? In four polls the company conducted between July and November last year, YouGov found on average that 34% thought that a Norway-style Brexit (the meaning of which was spelt out in some detail) would be ‘good’ for Britain, while 40% reckoned it would be bad. Meanwhile, when in September the same company asked whether it would be acceptable for the UK to remain in the single market and the customs union, the 38% who said that it would be acceptable were balanced by 38% who indicated that it would not.

A similar picture of a roughly even division emerged from attempts made by two polling companies, Deltapoll and Opinium, at the weekend to canvass the public’s view of all of the various options that MPs have been considering. This inevitably required some quite lengthy explanations, the exact detail of which might well move voters in one direction or the other. In the case of ‘Common Market 2.0’, however, both polls found slightly more people in favour than against (by 40% to 35% in the case of Deltapoll, while Opinium reported the balance as 39% to 34%), even though in both cases the description included reference to the fact that such an outcome would imply retaining freedom of movement.  Both readings were slightly more favourable to staying in the single market and the customs union than were the figures obtained last week by Sky Data, which found that 37% thought that MPs should reject such a prospect, while just 32% thought they should accept it.

None of these numbers represent a ringing endorsement. Perhaps of greater encouragement to the advocates of ‘Common Market 2.0’ are the responses that YouGov have obtained when, on a number of occasions, they have asked people whether a deal that involved membership of the single market and the customs union would be a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ outcome, while also offering the response that it was an ‘acceptable compromise’. On average slightly more said that it would be a bad outcome (29%) than a good one (26%). However, another 23% indicated that it would be ‘an acceptable compromise’. In other words, almost half of voters say that single market and customs union membership would be at least an acceptable compromise.

However, it is a compromise that is more acceptable to some than to others. For Remainers it has some appeal. On average, YouGov have found that as many as 38% of those who voted Remain think that being in the single market and the customs union would be a good outcome, while another 30% state that it would be an acceptable compromise. Just 16% view the prospect negatively. However, Leave supporters regard the idea very differently. Only one in three of them think it would either be a good outcome (15%) or an acceptable compromise (19%), while almost half (48%) feel it would be a bad outcome.

A similar picture emerges from the weekend’s polling on the subject. Deltapoll found that those who voted Remain backed a Common Market 2.0 approach by 49% to 30%, whereas Leave supporters rejected it by 32% to 46%. Opinium reported an even sharper divide, with Remain supporters in favour by 52% to 20%, and Leave voters against by 28% to 49%. It seems that for many on the Leave side, Common Market 2.0 looks too much like Remain 2.0.

Moreover, even among those voters who express some support for the idea, it is very much a second choice. This is evident when voters are invited to choose from among a range of possible Brexit outcomes, including a relationship that looks something like Norway’s. For example, in September last year, BMG pitted a Norway-style Brexit against four other options: leaving the EU without a deal, a Canada-style free trade agreement, the proposals that Mrs May had unveiled at Chequers in July, and remaining in the EU. Only just over one in ten (11%) of voters said that a Norway-style Brexit was their preference, leaving it equal bottom with the Chequers proposals.

Meanwhile more recently, in March YouGov invited people to choose between four options: leaving without a deal, the deal negotiated by the government, staying in the customs union and the single market, and holding a referendum with a view to staying in the EU. Only 15% picked staying in the single market and the customs union. This was just enough to put the idea one point ahead of the government’s deal, but left it well behind the other two options.

The problem facing those who have been arguing for a Common Market 2.0 Brexit is that what most Remain voters want above all is for the Brexit decision to be reversed, while for many Leave supporters staunch in the single market and a customs union looks all too much like still being part of the EU. As a result, a Norway-style Brexit could find itself in much the same position as Mrs May’s deal has proven to be – with few friends who are willing to take it to heart.

But what of the idea that was closest to securing majority support last week, that is, the UK should be part of a customs union with the EU but not be part of the single market? This is an idea that has only risen to prominence in the public debate relatively recently, and thus there has been limited polling on it until now. Meanwhile, how far voters have considered the relative merits of this form of a soft Brexit as compared with Common Market 2.0 is, perhaps, open to question. However, such evidence as has now been gathered suggests that this too is a subject on which, among those at least who do express a view, opinion is probably relatively evenly divided.

Back in February Hanbury Research had found that 37% thought that parliament should approve a deal that contained a permanent customs union while 30% reckoned it should not. Sky Data, in contrast, last week reported that while 34% reckoned that parliament should accept a deal involving a customs union, 35% were against. Meanwhile, in the polling released at the weekend, Deltapoll indicated that 36% were in favour and only 29% were against a customs union, whereas Opinium – after providing a description that made it clear that under the proposal the UK would not be able to strike its own trade deals – found just 34% in favour and 42% opposed.

Here too, those who voted Remain seem keener on the idea than those who backed Leave. Hanbury found that Remain supporters back a customs union by 51% to 23%, whereas Leave voters are opposed by 44% to 29%. Opinium reported even higher levels of opposition – by 62% to 19% – among those who backed Leave, while Remain supporters were in favour by 51% to 25%. Only Deltapoll have obtained a different picture; they found both groups apparently on balance marginally in favour of the idea – but with as many as 35% not expressing a view at all. At the moment, though, Deltapoll’s finding seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In truth, finding a proposal that might bridge the divide between Remainers and Leavers appears to be very hard to do.

How Voters Have Viewed the Article 50 Process

The UK was due to leave the EU on March 29, exactly two years after it gave notice to the EU that it wished to leave, and over two and a half years since voters voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU. During that time, the UK government has been negotiating a treaty that set out the terms and conditions of the country’s withdrawal and an outline agreement on its future relationship with the EU. The conclusion of those negotiations – albeit, as yet at least, one not accepted by the House of Commons –  thus marks an important milestone in the Brexit process.

Today we publish two papers that examine how public opinion has evolved during the Brexit process. The first, based on data collected in January and February by NatCen’s random probability mixed mode panel focuses on the post-referendum negotiations. The survey was the latest in a series conducted on an occasional basis since September 2016. It asks how voters’ expectations of what Brexit should contain have evolved during the last two years, how their view of the consequences of leaving has changed, how well they think the Brexit negotiations have been handled, and what they think of the ‘deal’ that was agreed between the UK government and the EU. We use these data to assess whether the Brexit process appears to have been a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ in the eyes of voters.

The second paper, which is co-authored by Ian Montagu and is based on data collected by the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) between July and October last year, is an early release of a chapter that will form part of the next British Social Attitudes report, due to be released in the summer. It assesses the claim that not only did the EU referendum itself serve to polarise public attitudes towards Brexit, but also whether the subsequent Brexit process has served to maintain the divisions exposed by the referendum.  Thus, here we are not only interested in how the structure of public attitudes towards the EU has evolved since the referendum, but also in comparing the position now with what it was before the EU referendum took place.

One of the challenges facing the Brexit process from the beginning was that the kind of deal that many voters wanted to emerge was never going to be on offer. In September 2016 nine in ten voters were willing to retain free trade with the EU. However, at the same time, nearly three-quarters felt that EU migrants who wanted to come to Britain to live and work should have to apply to be able to do so, implying that they wanted to see an end to freedom of movement. However, so far as the EU are concerned freedom of movement is an integral part of its single market.

Two years on voters have still not fully accommodated their expectations to this constraint. True, the proportion who think EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain has fallen to around three in five. Nevertheless, just over a half (53%) of voters still say that they would like to be able to control EU migration but are happy to keep free trade. That is not a backdrop against which it was ever going to be easy for the politicians to emerge with a deal that would satisfy Britain’s voters.

And so it has proved. The longer the Brexit process has gone on, the more critical and pessimistic voters have become. This trend is in evidence, above all, among those who voted in June 2016 to Leave the EU. Indeed, Leave voters have emerged from the process almost as critical of its handling and of the outcome as those who voted to Remain.

Many voters lacked confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit from the beginning. Back in February 2017, shortly after the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in which she set out her vision of how Brexit should proceed and not long before the UK gave formal notice of its intention to leave the EU, only 29% felt that the UK government was handling Brexit well, while as many as 41% reckoned it was doing so badly. However, much of the criticism came from those who voted Remain. Among those who actually voted to leave the EU, rather more felt the government was handling Brexit well (42%) than believed it was doing so badly (27%).

But now, two years later, there is almost a consensus that the government has been handling Brexit badly. Among voters as whole, just 7% believe that the government has handled Brexit well, while 81% reckon it has done so badly. The 85% of Remain voters who now think Brexit has been handled badly are joined in that view by 80% of Leave supporters. Indeed, just how profound the loss of confidence among Leave voters has been is indicated by the fact that they are now as critical of the UK government’s handling of Brexit as they are of the EU’s role in the negotiations.

As confidence in the UK government’s handling of Brexit has fallen away, so also have evaluations of the outcome of the negotiations. Two years ago, almost as many people thought that Britain would secure a good deal from the negotiations (33%) as reckoned it would obtain a bad one (37%). Leave voters in particular were relatively optimistic, with half (50%) expecting the government to deliver a good deal, and only one in five (20%) anticipating a bad one.

These initial hopes did not survive long. As early as autumn 2017, the proportion of voters expecting a bad deal had already increased to over a half (52%). Eventual publication of the proposed deal in November 2018 did nothing to reverse that trend. In our latest survey, nearly two-thirds of all voters (63%) think that Britain has acquired a bad deal.  And Leave voters (66% of whom think it is a bad deal) are just as likely as Remain supporters (64%) to express that view.

Not that all expectations of what Brexit might bring have diminished during the negotiations. In the autumn of 2016, 38% said that they thought immigration would fall as a result of leaving the EU, and that figure has more or less held steady ever since, with 39% expressing that view in our latest survey. However, a public that was relatively pessimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit has become more so. The proportion who think the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit has increased from 45% in the autumn of 2016 to 58% now. Conversely, the proportion who think it will be better off has fallen from 30% to 19%.  The trend has occurred primarily among Leave voters, though at 41% the proportion who think that the economy will be better off still outnumbers the proportion who anticipate that it will be worse off – and on this topic at least the views of Leave supporters and their Remain counterparts are very different from each other.

So also, in truth, are the reasons why Remain voters and Leave supporters dislike the deal that has been negotiated. Most of those who voted Remain (70%) feel that the deal would mean that Britain had too distant a relationship with the EU. In contrast, Leave voters are more inclined to feel that the deal would result in a relationship that was too close (39%) than believe it would lead to one that was too distant (26%), though evidently the deal has been at risk of being criticised from both ends of the spectrum so far as Leave voters are concerned. But then turning support for the principle of Brexit into backing for its implementation was never necessarily going to be easy.

The BSA chapter examines two possible meanings of ‘polarisation’. The first is that the pattern of support for leaving the EU not only became more distinctive during the referendum (as we might anticipate), but that it has continued to be so during the subsequent post-referendum debate about what Brexit should mean (when we might have expected the impact of the referendum to have dissipated). The second is that many voters have become strongly attached to either the Remain or the Leave side, and that these voters have especially different outlooks and identities.  Moreover, this pattern might have emerged even though very few voters feel very strongly attached to any of the political parties, suggesting that Brexit has created a new set of political loyalties that could potentially disrupt the existing party system.

Polarisation appears to have occurred in both senses, and helps explain why relatively few voters have changed their minds about the principle of Brexit. For example, the difference between younger (aged less than 35) and older voters (aged 55 and over) in the level of support for leaving the EU increased from 17 points before the referendum in 2017, to 26 points in 2017, and now stands at 30 points. Similarly, whereas in 2015 there was a 21-point difference between those with a strong European identity and those with a weak one in their level of support for leaving the EU, by 2017 that difference had increased to 37 points and now still stands at 36 points. A similar picture emerges if we compare the attitudes of Remain and Leave voters towards the impact of immigration on Britain’s cultural life.

Meanwhile, the BSA survey confirms the finding that we reported last autumn using the NatCen panel that around two in five voters (40%) regard themselves as either a very strong ‘Remainer’ or as a ‘very strong’ Leaver. In contrast, fewer than one in ten (8%), describe themselves as a ‘very strong’ supporter of any of the political parties. Moreover, the views of ‘very strong’ Remainers and ‘very strong’ Leavers are often very distinctive. For example, ‘very strong’ Remainers are the only group among whom those with a strong European identity (63%) outnumber those with a weak identity (23%). They are also the only group where more people disagree (58%) than agree (22%) that being a member of the EU limits Britain’s ability to make its own laws. Meanwhile ‘very strong’ Leavers are the only voters among whom more than half think that leaving the EU will help make Britain’s economy better off (71%) and will ensure that Britain has more influence in the world (57%). Ardent Remainers and Leavers, including those willing to march for their respective causes (see here and here), may well be commonplace, but they are often out of tune with their fellow citizens, while crafting a deal that might satisfy them both would seem well nigh impossible.

Third Time Lucky – Perhaps?

In a variation of the now regular ritual in MPs’ consideration of Brexit, this week we face the prospect that perhaps there will be another votebut perhaps not. It seems the government has decided that there is little point in holding another vote on Mrs May’s deal this week unless it is clear that this time MPs would vote in favour. But if the government does not hold a vote, the Prime Minister will find herself at the European Council later this week seeking an extension to the Article 50 process of uncertain length and purpose.

So, with the possibility at least of another ‘meaningful’ vote this week – or maybe next (?) – has the deal become more popular among voters?  Or are there signs that some Leave voters at least have come around to the view that MPs should back the deal because that might be the only way of ensuring that Brexit happens? Meanwhile, if there is another vote it is possible that the proposal from two Labour MPs that Mrs May’s deal should be passed but then subjected to a referendum will finally be put forward as an amendment. However, is there any evidence that the public are warming more strongly to the prospect of another vote?

Finally, amidst the uncertainty one thing does seem to be clear – some kind of decision will have to be made about the extension of the Article 50 process this week. But how do voters view that prospect?

We consider what light the polls that have been released in the last week or so can cast on the answer to these three questions.

Attitudes to the Deal

There is little sign that the deal has become more popular.  In two polls it conducted last week, YouGov found both times that just 13% think the deal would represent a good outcome, while 40% feel its passage would be a bad outcome.  Both figures are very similar to what they had been on four previous occasions. Equally, when Opinium asked voters whether they preferred Mrs May’s deal or remaining in the EU, 36% said they preferred the deal and 46% remaining in the EU – exactly the same figures as a fortnight ago.

However, there are signs that some Leave voters are now inclined to feel, however reluctantly, that the deal should now be accepted. Although still only around 15% of Leave supporters think that the deal is a good outcome, according to YouGov a third now say that it would be an acceptable compromise, whereas hitherto only around a quarter or so had expressed that view.

At the same time, Leave voters have become more inclined to the view that MPs should vote for the deal anyway. In two polls last week, YouGov found that around a third of all voters now say that MPs should vote for the deal, whereas previously only just over a quarter had expressed that view. The increase in the proportion who say that MPs should vote for the deal has occurred almost entirely among those who voted Leave, 45% of whom now say that MPs should accept the deal. Hitherto only around one in three were of that view. Indeed, Leave voters are now more inclined to say that the deal should be accepted than they are to feel it should be rejected, a finding that was replicated by Survation in a poll for the Daily Mail.

Holding Another Referendum

This continues to be an issue where the balance of opinion depends on how the question is asked.  Polls that refer to a public vote and which do not specify that Remain would be an option on the ballot paper secure more support for the idea than those which refer to another referendum and make it clear that remaining in the EU would be an option.

This was illustrated perfectly by YouGov over the weekend, when the results of two polls that it conducted at exactly the same time were released. The first was conducted by YouGov for The People’s Vote campaign. It referred to a public vote and did not state that remain would be an option. Nearly half (48%) said they were in favour while just 36% indicated that they were opposed. The second was conducted by the company for The Times. The question asked whether there should be a referendum on remaining or leaving. While 38% said that there should be such a referendum, 52% stated that there should not.

The one feature that these polls had in common was that the figures were very similar to what they had been in January, suggesting that the Brexit impasse has so far at least not served to persuade voters that holding another ballot is the only way of resolving the issue. True, the People’s Vote campaign itself suggested their poll indicated that there had been a ‘surge’ in support for another referendum. This was based on a comparison with a poll conducted by YouGov on 31 January to 1 February (that was seemingly unreported at the time) that had found only 42% in favour and 41% against. In truth, the latest finding simply appears to represent a return to the status quo ante after having dipped to an unusually low level.

That said, one other poll at the weekend did suggest there had been an increase in support for holding a second ballot. Undertaken by Opinium, it reported that as many as 50% now feel that ‘there should be some form of public vote’ given that parliament had voted down Mrs May’s deal, while only 39% disagreed. This represented a much larger lead in favour than had hitherto been in evidence in the responses to this question. Perhaps the wording of the question captured some of the exasperation that voters feel about MPs’ apparent failure to make a decision. We should, of course, note that this is another question of the ‘public vote’, remain not specified, variety.

Delaying Brexit

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this is a subject on which Remain voters and Leave supporters disagree, leaving voters as a whole relatively evenly divided about the merits of extending the Article 50 process.

Immediately before the parliamentary vote on the subject on Thursday, YouGov found that among voters as a whole, slightly more (43%) were against than in favour (38%). But the more important finding was that while 65% of Remain voters were in favour, 75% of Leave supporters were opposed. Conversely, Hanbury Research reported that among voters as a whole, 44% believed that MPs should vote for an extension, while 40% felt they should not. Again, however, Remain voters (67% were in favour) and leave supporters (60% opposed) were of a very different view.

This picture has been replicated in polls taken since the parliamentary vote that have asked voters whether they would prefer a delay to Brexit to either leaving with or without a deal. For example, YouGov found that 45% of all voters would prefer delay (and as many as 76% of Remain voters), while 41% opted for leaving without a deal (an outcome backed by 73% of Leave voters). Meanwhile, Survation reported that 41% of all voters (and 63% of Remain supporters) thought that Article 50 should be extended, while 34% (but 51% of Leave voters) preferred to leave on the basis of the government’s deal. The opposition of Tory Brexiteer MPs to the extension of the Article 50 evidently reflects the predominant view among those who would like to leave the EU.

Remainers and Leavers also have very different views about how long an extension would be acceptable. While, according to Hanbury Research, 53% of Leave voters would find it acceptable to delay Brexit by a month, relatively few are willing to accept anything much longer. Just 37% would tolerate a three-month delay, while only 20% would consider a six-month one. In contrast, as many as 52% of Remain supporters would accept a six-month delay, while slightly more regard as much as a two-year delay as acceptable (48%) than as unacceptable (44%). Once again it seems that a debate about process is, for many voters, a surrogate for the argument about the merits of Brexit in the first place.

Are Voters Ready To Leave With No Deal?

Another week, another (supposedly) round of votes in the Commons on Brexit. But with just three weeks to go until the UK’s scheduled day of departure, maybe not another week in which nothing changes. Perhaps by Friday the immediate future of Brexit at least will be a little clearer.

The Prime Minister has promised MPs up to three votes this week. On Tuesday, there should be another ‘meaningful vote’ on her deal, however amended in the wake of the negotiations that have been taking place ever since the deal was first voted down by MPs in January. The government has to win such a vote at some point before it can present the EU withdrawal treaty to Parliament for ratification.

But if, as is currently widely anticipated, the meaningful vote is lost, then MPs have been promised another vote on Wednesday on whether or not the UK should be prepared to leave the EU without a deal. And if the Commons rejects the idea of leaving without a deal (as it has already done once before), then on Thursday the Commons has been promised it will get the chance to say whether or not it thinks that the UK should seek an extension of the Article 50 process, that is, to delay the scheduled departure date.

To complicate matters further, one or more of these days may also see votes on amendments that propose some of the widely-canvassed alternatives to the government’s current Brexit strategy, including forging a future relationship with the EU not dissimilar to that enjoyed by Norway and putting the issue to a second referendum in which voters are invited to choose between Mrs May’s deal and remaining in the EU.

We have written previously (see here, here and here) about the popularity of many of these options with voters – and for the most part there is little sign that attitudes have changed in the meantime. Mrs May’s deal still seems to be decidedly unpopular. A Norway style Brexit has yet to capture the public imagination and is relatively unpopular among Leavers. Meanwhile, rather more people are opposed than are in favour of another ballot if it is described as a referendum in which Remain is one of the options on the ballot paper.

To date, however, we have paid less attention to public attitudes towards leaving without a deal. Given that this is one of the decisions potentially facing MPs this week, it is whether or not voters back such a step on which we will focus here.

Two principal strategies have been adopted by the polls in attempting to assess the popularity or otherwise of leaving without a deal. The first is to pit the idea against one or more alternatives, and ask voters which would be their first preference. Inevitably, exactly how popular no deal appears to be depends in such polls on which other options are included. Even so, there is one conclusion at least that it would seem safe to draw – among Leave voters leaving without a deal is the single most popular course of action.

The relative popularity of leaving without a deal has been repeatedly demonstrated by Opinium. It has now asked its respondents on no less than nine occasions to choose between five different possible ways forward given the rejection of Mrs May’s deal by Parliament. Each time leaving without a deal has been the single most popular option, on average securing the backing of 26%. That support comes almost entirely from those who voted Leave, as many as 47% of whom have on average identified it as their first choice.

Still, it might be objected that in practice the choice facing MPs is not so wide-raging as that canvassed by Opinium. Rather, as the Prime Minister would put it, it is in reality between deal, no deal or no Brexit.  When polls have presented voters with that choice, it is no Brexit that has emerged as the single most popular choice. However, at the same time, no deal has usually emerged as more popular than Mrs May’s deal (or indeed anything similar thereto). The figures are remarkably similar to those obtained in response to Opinium’s more complex question. The half dozen most recent readings have put support for leaving without a deal among all voters at 28% on average. Again, most of it comes from those who voted Leave, 54% of whom on average state that it is their first choice.

Support for no deal proves to be a little higher if it is simply pitted against Mrs May’s deal. Now it stands at around a third (as it more or less does in this slightly different approach from Opinium), and is clearly the more popular option among those who voted Leave, nearly three-fifths of whom prefer it. But because most Remain voters prefer Mrs May’s deal to no deal, this still means it is the less popular option among voters as a whole.

The second strategy used by the polls to ascertain the popularity of no deal has been simply to ask people in one way or another whether they support or oppose leaving without a deal. In practice this approach confirms the relative popularity of leaving without a deal among those who voted Leave. However, it also confirms that there is a substantial minority of Leave voters are opposed to the idea, while there is little evidence that those who voted Remain might be willing to accept it. As a result, among voters as a whole opponents outnumber supporters.

YouGov, for example, have asked people on three occasions whether leaving without a deal would be a good outcome, a bad outcome or an acceptable compromise. The results have been similar each time. Only around a third have said that such an outcome would either be good or an acceptable compromise, while around a half feel it would be a bad outcome. Three-fifths of Leave voters say that it would either be good or an acceptable compromise, but a quarter or so reckon it would be a bad outcome. Meanwhile, YouGov’s data suggest that, at most, only one in ten Remain voters are willing to contemplate such a prospect.

This picture is largely confirmed by further polls from Sky Data and from BMG Research that simply asked voters whether they support or oppose leaving without a deal. They found 71% and 66% of Leave voters respectively in favour of no deal. However, in both cases 18% of Leave voters were opposed, while just 15-17% of Remain supporters backed the idea. As a result, these polls also suggest that, among voters as a whole, opponents of no deal outnumber supporters.

True, rather more support for leaving without a deal is recorded if voters are asked what should happen if, as Survation have asked, ‘the EU does not change its position on the Brexit deal’, or, as ComRes have done in two slightly different ways (see here and here) ‘if the EU refuses to make any more concessions’. When the issue is addressed in this way around two in five voters or so express their support, and they may even outnumber opponents. Trouble is, asking such a question invites respondents to express their views about how the EU have handled the negotiations (about which many voters are critical) rather than simply their view of the merits of no deal.

So, it looks as though leaving without a deal is the first preference around half or so of Leave voters and is certainly more popular among them than Mrs May’s deal. It might be acceptable to at least as many as two-thirds of Leave voters. That figure is, in fact, strikingly similar to the two-thirds of Remain voters who support holding a second referendum (while few of them are willing to consider leaving without a deal). We thus, perhaps, should not be surprised that when voters are asked to choose between leaving without a deal and holding another ballot the two options prove to be more or less equally popular. And it is the fact that the public are so evenly divided – and indeed polarised – between the two ‘extreme’ (and perhaps equally divisive) options in the Brexit debate that helps explain why the choice MPs are expected to have to make this week is likely to prove a difficult one.

Has Nothing Changed?

In what is by now becoming a familiar ritual, today MPs will once again vote on various proposals for how Brexit should be handled, while the government endeavours to secure itself more time to negotiate an amended deal with the EU.

However, the backdrop against which today’s voting will take place is different from that on previous such occasions, thanks to two decisions made in the last 48 hours. The first is the government’s concession that, if its deal is defeated a second time, it will give MPs a vote on whether (i) the UK should leave the EU without a deal, and (ii) on extending the Article 50 process. The second is Labour’s announcement that, should its own proposals for Brexit be voted down today, the party will then back a referendum on Mrs May’s deal (though only if it does eventually secure Commons approval), with remaining in the EU as the alternative. Meanwhile of course, differences over Brexit (among other things) has led eight Labour and three Conservative MPs to leave their parties and form a new Independent Group of MPs.

But does this drama at Westminster find an echo in the polls? Is there evidence that the intense debate about Mrs May’s deal since it was first unveiled in November has resulted in any marked change in attitudes towards Brexit and how it is being handled? Or, so far as public opinion at least is concerned, would it be more accurate to conclude that ‘nothing has changed’? Here we identify six pointers.

In many respects, evidence that public opinion has been swayed by three months of debate about what to do with Mrs May’s deal is difficult to come by.

  1. Mrs May’s deal remains unpopular. The most recent reading, taken by Opinium in the middle of this month, found that just 12% think the deal would be good for the UK, while 48% reckon it will be bad, figures little different from what the company obtained when it first asked the question at the beginning of December. Even among those who say they would currently vote Conservative, only 23% think the deal will be good for the UK, while 31% believe it will be bad. Backbench Conservatives who dislike Mrs May’s deal are not under any great pressure from voters to change their minds.
  2. If Mrs May cannot secure support for her deal, many Leave voters would still prefer to leave without a deal. When presented with a list of five options as to what the UK should do next, 51% of Leave voters say we should exit without a deal – very similar to the 48% who expressed that view as long ago as last September. Only 16% of Leave voters (and 16% of Conservatives) think leaving the EU should be delayed until we have a better idea of what kind of deal would get most support. The fact that Mrs May has had to concede the alternative to her deal may be a request to extend Article 50 rather than ‘no deal’ potentially puts her further at odds with the views of many in her party.
  3. There is little sign of any recent increase in support for a second referendum. In their most recent poll, Deltapoll reported that 43% are in favour of a second ballot and 45% opposed, almost identical to figures of 43% and 46% respectively the company found in response to a similar question in December. Meanwhile, Opinium find that 43% are now in favour of ‘some form of public vote’, while 42% are opposed. If anything, these latter figures are perhaps even a little less favourable to the idea of a second referendum than those the company obtained back in November. However, both polls find that still around two in three Remain voters – and three in five Labour supporters – are in favour of the idea. Labour’s announcement this week reflects a sentiment that has long been in evidence among many – though by no means all – of the party’s supporters.
  4. Remain continues to have a narrow lead in polls of how people would vote in a second referendum – but no more than that. Immediately before the publication of Mrs May’s draft deal in mid-November, our EURef2 poll of polls put Remain on 53%, Leave 47%. Although it edged up to Remain 54%, Leave 46% for a while, our poll of polls once again now stands at 53-47. With so narrow a Remain lead that is heavily dependent on the views of those who did not vote in June 2016, nobody can be sure what would happen if the issue were to be put back to the people.

But not everything is unaltered.

  1. Perceptions of how well Jeremy Corbyn has been handling Brexit have become increasingly negative. In Opinium’s most recent poll, conducted after the formation of The Independent Group, as many as 63% say that he has responded badly to the government’s handling of Brexit, compared with 50% just before the publication of Mrs May’s draft deal. The decline in his evaluations since then has been on much the same scale among both Labour Remainers and Labour Leavers. Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt (to date at least) to bridge the divide between the two camps has increasingly seemed at risk of satisfying neither side – something that was always a danger given how polarised their attitudes are.
  2. The formation of the Independent Group has attracted the support of some voters – though to what extent is still very uncertain. Estimates of the level of the party’s strength range between 6% (Opinium) and 18% (YouGov). The higher estimates have come from polls that have reminded people of the existence of the new group before asking how they would vote – a prompt that may be thought to run the risk of exaggerating the group’s support. Equally, however, not drawing voters’ attention to the new group may mean that respondents fail to take the possibility of backing the group into account. But irrespective of how they ascertain support for the group, most polls find that it is – unsurprisingly – higher among Remainers than Leavers and among former Labour voters than their Conservative counterparts. Little wonder then that Labour seems to have lost its enthusiasm for holding an early general election should Mrs May’s deal fall – an option that never seemed a very popular with voters in the first place.

It seems that, for the most part, the continued impasse at Westminster reflects a continued stasis among voters. Even so, how politicians are seen to respond to this state of affairs can still make a difference.

Has There Been a Shift in Support for Brexit?

Unsurprisingly, protagonists on all sides in the Brexit debate are keen to claim that their views reflect the will of a majority of voters. After all, the decision to leave the EU was made by the public in the first place, so being able to argue that what should happen now is backed by voters is a potentially valuable currency in the political debate. Thus, the Prime Minister, for example, insists that in pursuing Brexit she is delivering ‘the Brexit people voted for‘, a vote that, she argues, should not be questioned by asking voters their view a second time. Opponents of Brexit, in contrast, often take the view that voters were misinformed – even misled –  during the EU referendum, and now that they are more aware of the supposed downsides of leaving the EU they should be given the chance to register their second thoughts in a second ballot.

The intensity of this argument reflects, in part at least, the narrowness of the outcome of the referendum in June 2016. Against the backdrop of a 52% vote for Leave and 48% for Remain, not many voters would have to change their minds for the balance of opinion to be tilted in the opposite direction. So, with March 29 – the date when the UK is currently scheduled to leave the EU –  rapidly approaching, where does the balance of opinion now lie on the principle of leaving the EU?

Regular users of our site will be aware that polls that have asked people how they would vote in another EU referendum have for some time been pointing to a small lead for Remain. For much of last year our poll of polls, a running average of the last half dozen readings of second referendum vote intentions, put Remain on 52% and Leave 48%, the mirror image of the outcome in 2016. However, given all the potential pitfalls of polling, such a lead was too narrow for anyone to be sure what the outcome would be if a second ballot were to be held.

In recent months, though, the Remain lead has grown somewhat in our poll of polls. By the beginning of October, it had crept up to Remain 53%, Leave 47%. Now, since the turn of the year it has increased further to Remain 54%, Leave 46%. This movement has also been replicated in the pattern of responses to the question that YouGov regularly ask, ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’. Until the 2017 general election typically more people said that the decision to leave the EU was right than stated it was wrong. Since then, however, the oppose has been the case. Even so, by the spring of 2018, on average the proportion who said that the decision was wrong (45%) was still only three points higher than the proportion who said it was right (42%). However, in the readings that YouGov has taken in the last three months, that lead has grown on average to as much as eight points, with as many as 48% saying the decision was wrong, and only 40% that it was right.

So, what has happened? Why does it seem that opinion has swung against Brexit, albeit to no more than a modest (indeed, very modest) degree? In particular, does it signal that some Leave voters at least have changed their minds and that the much-anticipated phenomenon (on the Remain side at least) of ‘BreGret’ is finally making an appearance?

To establish whether or not this is the case, we need to examine the flow of opinion since June 2016. Table 1 provides such an analysis for polls undertaken in the spring of last year. Based on the average of six polls conducted in April/May 2018, it shows separately for those who in 2016 voted Remain and those who backed Leave – together with those who did not vote – how at that point they said they would vote in another EU referendum.

One point immediately stands out. The responses given by Remain and Leave voters were almost an exact mirror image of each other. In both cases, no less than 88% said that they would vote the same way again. And while 7% of those who voted Leave said that they would now vote Remain, they were matched by the 8% of Remain voters who stated that they would now back Leave. In short, at this point movement in and out of the Remain and Leave camps had had more or less no impact on the overall balance of support for the two options. It appeared that if only those who voted in 2016 were to vote again, the outcome would be very much the same as that in the first referendum.

How, then, was it the case that, on average, these polls were putting Remain slightly ahead, by 52% to 48%? The answer lies in the responses given by those who did not vote in 2016. While around one in three of them did not express a preference, among the remaining two-thirds that did, those who said they would now vote Remain outnumbered those who indicated they would back Leave by more than 2.5 to 1. The reason why the balance of opinion had shifted in favour of Remain, even though very few Leave voters had changed their minds, was because those who had not voted before (in some cases because they had been too young to do so) were now decisively in favour of Remain.

How does this picture compare with the one that is obtained if we undertake the same analysis for the most recent polls that have asked people how they would vote a second time around? Where things stand now is shown in Table 2.

This table suggests that very little has changed among those who did not vote in 2016. The figures for this group of voters are almost identical to those in Table 1, again with Remain preferred to Leave by more than 2.5:1. Much the same is true of those who voted Remain. At 89% the proportion who say that they would vote the same way again is almost identical to the 88% figure in Table 1.

However, among Leave supporters the figures are now a little different. True, by far and away their most common response is still to say they would vote the same way again. But, at 83%, the proportion who would do so is five points lower than it was in the spring of 2018, and six points lower than the current equivalent figure among Remain voters.

It looks then as though the modest but perceptible increase in the lead of Remain over Leave in the last nine months has been occasioned by a small rise in the proportion of Leave voters who now have doubts or, in some cases, second thoughts about their original choice. A not dissimilar pattern is found in the responses to YouGov’s ‘In hindsight’ question. On average, just 82% of Leave voters now say that the decision to Leave was right, down three points on the equivalent figure for April/May last year, while, at 89%, the proportion of Remain supporters who say that it was wrong is much the same as the 88% who did so last spring.

Of course, this analysis but begs another question –  why do some Leave voters appear to have changed their minds in recent months? That, of course, is a much more difficult question to answer, not least because the data needed to analyse the various possibilities systematically are not available. However, we can start from the observation that the single best predictor of how people voted in the EU referendum was whether they thought leaving the EU would be good or bad for Britain’s economy, and the fact that, subsequently, we have shown that such economic perceptions appear to be a relatively good predictor of whether or not people have changed their minds about Brexit.

Unfortunately, and rather surprisingly, polling of voters’ evaluations of the economic consequences of Brexit has become relatively scarce in recent months. However, among what there is there is some evidence that voters have become somewhat more pessimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit.  The longest and most regular time series on this subject comes from ORB. Since July 2018 their monthly polls have consistently found that more people disagree with the statement that ‘Britain will be economically better-off post Brexit’ than agree with it, in contrast to the position prior to that date when the opposite was usually the case.  However, what of course matters to us here is whether Leave voters in particular have become more pessimistic about the economic consequences (after all, any increase in pessimism among Remain supporters should simply reinforce their existing views rather than change their minds) and, unfortunately, ORB’s polls do not tell us how their respondents voted in 2016.

But there is another, albeit much more occasional, time series from Opinium which also suggests that there has been an increase in economic pessimism – and where we can look separately at the trend among Leave voters. This is shown in Table 3. This table demonstrates that in May and June last year, those Leave voters who thought that the economy would be better after Brexit clearly outnumbered those who thought it would be worse. Now, however, the two groups appear to be of roughly equal size. It seems not unlikely that this trend has helped diminish the loyalty of some Leave voters to the choice they made in 2016.

Nobody should assert on the basis of the analysis in this blog that it is now clear that the outcome of a second referendum would be different from that of the first. Given the potential difficulties that faces all polling, the Remain lead is both too narrow and too reliant on the views of those who did not vote in June 2016 (who might or might not vote in another ballot) for anything other than caution to be the order of the day. Even if the polls are entirely accurate, such a narrow lead might still be overturned if Leave were to fight the better campaign – as they are widely adjudged to have done in 2016.

That said, it looks though there has been a modest but discernible softening of the Leave vote. As a result, those who wish to question whether Brexit does still represent ‘the will of the people’ do now have rather more evidence with which to back their argument. In the meantime, it might at least be thought somewhat ironic that doubts about Brexit appear to have grown in the minds of some Leave voters just as the scheduled date for the UK’s departure is coming into sight.

Searching in Vain? The Hunt for a Brexit Compromise

For all the apparent differences between them, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have shared one objective in common as they have developed and advocated their respective positions on Brexit. Both have been pursuing a compromise.

The Prime Minister has been explicit about this. Throughout the debate on the deal she negotiated with the EU, she has repeatedly admitted that what she brought back was a compromise between what London wanted and what Brussels was prepared to offer, and between respecting the result of the referendum (in deference to the views of Leave voters) and protecting the nation’s economy and security (thereby addressing some of the concerns of Remain supporters).

In Jeremy Corbyn’s case, the compromise is implicit but still apparent. The Labour leader has argued that his party’s policy of accepting Brexit but seeking a customs union and a close relationship with the single market would ‘bring the country together’ because it would give both the 17.4 million who voted Leave and the 16.1 million who backed Remain at least some of what they want. So, in practice he too has been trying to appeal across the Brexit divide.

Following the rejection of the Prime Minister’s deal last week by the House of Commons, the government has been engaged in talks with MPs on all sides of the Brexit debate with a view to finding a possible compromise that would secure majority support in the Commons. Later today Mrs May will unveil the fruits of her discussions and propose a motion on her next steps that is due to be debated and voted upon next week.

Others too have also been in search of common ground in the wake of an apparent parliamentary impasse. The most notable effort has come from a group of MPs led by the Conservative MP, Nick Boles, who have suggested that the way out of the apparent deadlock would be for the UK to seek a future relationship with the EU similar to that currently enjoyed by Norway. This group have suggested they might attempt to amend the government’s motion so that  MPs could, as one possibility, pass legislation that paved the way to a softer Brexit (and ruled out leaving without a deal) even if the government remained opposed to the idea.

However, the fate of Theresa May’s deal, not only in the House of Commons last week but also in the court of public opinion, should give those engaged in this search for a compromise pause for thought. The decision by MPs to reject the deal reflected the mood of the public, amongst whom, according to YouGov, opponents of the deal outnumbered supporters by two to one. Moreover, both Remainers and Leavers were largely of one mind in rejecting the deal. On average, those who voted Remain in 2016 did so by 54% to 22%, while those who backed Leave also did so by 48% to 30%. Rather than generating a consensus, Mrs May’s deal ended up looking friendless.

Could a different compromise avoid a similar fate? During the last couple of months there have been various attempts made by the pollsters, including in polls commissioned by organisations advocating on one side or other of the Brexit debate, to test the popularity of the various options that have been suggested during the course of the debate. However, asking voters to give a verdict on maybe as many as half a dozen different options, some of which may not be familiar to them and may therefore require some explanation, is by no means an easy task.   Meanwhile the range and the detail of the options presented to respondents have inevitably varied from one poll to another, as has the way in which they have been invited to express their views.

Nevertheless, a clear theme emerges from these exercises – finding a Brexit compromise that is popular with voters and bridges the Brexit divide is at serious risk of proving a fruitless exercise.

Consider, first of all, the pattern of responses to a question fielded by Opinium, as detailed in Table 1. This focuses on the procedural steps that might be taken in the wake of the parliamentary rejection of the government’s Brexit deal  ranging from leaving without a deal at one end of the spectrum, to holding a second referendum (a ‘public vote’) in which staying in the EU was an option at the other. The figures quoted here are for the most recent reading obtained shortly after the defeat of the deal, but previous readings towards a similar question about what should happen if the Commons were to vote against the deal that was fielded from September onwards uncovered much the same results.

One key pattern emerges straight away. Remain voters and Leave supporters have very different views about what should be happening in the wake of the defeat of the deal. As many as 45% of Leave supporters said they thought the next step should be for the UK to leave without a deal. In contrast, the most popular option among Remain supporters, backed by 40%, was to hold a referendum in which remaining in the EU was an option.

Thanks to this very different pattern of preferences among Remain and Leave supporters, none of the options emerge as particularly popular overall – including what might be regarded as the more intermediate position of the government attempting to secure a better deal. That possibility was backed by just one in five.

The polarisation of opinion is even more apparent in the responses to a question posed by YouGov shortly before the meaningful vote. This question was not based on the premise that the deal had been voted down, while its wording focused more on the substance of what should happen. This latter feature meant that stopping or reversing Brexit was one of the answer options – and it was backed by as many as 55% of Remain voters. As a result, support for another referendum was much lower than in Opinium’s poll. Nevertheless, the further 12% of Remain supporters who did select it meant that no less than two-thirds of Remain supporters either backed a reversal of Brexit or a procedure that might lead to the same outcome. There was little sign here of potential interest in a Brexit compromise.

At 44%, support among Leave voters for leaving without a deal, was rather less in this poll than in the poll conducted by Opinium (see Table 1). This probably reflected the fact that, with accepting Mrs May’s deal included as one of the options, nearly one in five Leave supporters were willing to indicate a preference for that possibility. Even so, just 15% of all voters chose Mrs May’s compromise, while less than one in ten of all respondents (9%) backed seeking a different deal (which might or might not have been a compromise).

Still, neither of these questions tell us much about attitudes to some of the specific substantive alternatives to Mrs May’s deal, including those that have been canvassed in the wake of its rejection. Table 3, which comes from a poll conducted at the beginning of December by BMG Research, gives us some indication of where voters stand on the spectrum of substantive possibilities, including above all the suggestion that a softer Brexit than that envisaged by the Prime Minister might prove a more popular compromise than Mrs May’s deal proved to be.

Despite the inclusion of such possibilities as having a similar relationship with the EU as Norway or remaining in the EU customs union, the apparent reluctance of many Remain voters to embrace any form of Brexit is repeated. Almost a half of Remain voters (49%) say that the UK should remain a full member of the EU.  Meanwhile, among those who supported Leave, as many as 72% either pick leaving without a deal (and trading under WTO rules) or a Canada-style free trade agreement – a proposal popular with pro-Brexit Conservative MPs but not with many on the Remain side of the argument, or, as the Table shows, with Remain voters.

As a result, only around a third of Remain voters (32%) and a quarter of Leave supporters (26%) pick the two soft Brexit ‘compromise’ options of either having a similar relationship with the EU as Norway, or (unlike Norway) being part of the customs union.  These two options also have a degree of popularity among those who did not vote in June 2016, but even so, they still only command the support of around one in three of all respondents. In contrast, as many as 45% back the Leave-inspired positions of either leaving without a deal or trading under WTO rules – while, once again, no single option has widespread public support.

The relative lack of support for some of the softer Brexit options that have been proposed as a compromise has been confirmed when voters have been presented with a much simpler choice of leaving without a deal, staying in the EU, or pursuing one or other ‘compromise’ option. Each time the soft Brexit option has been the third most popular choice.

For example, earlier this month Survation reported that just 24% would prefer a Norway-style relationship with the EU, whereas 32% backed leaving without a deal and 35% favoured staying in the EU.. Meanwhile, when last week YouGov asked voters to choose between a Norway-plus arrangement, and, again, leaving without a deal and remaining in the EU, just 8% selected the Norway option. In the same poll, just 7% picked staying in the customs union when this option was pitted against leaving without a deal and remaining.

These results are, in truth, remarkably redolent of what happened when voters were asked to choose between Mrs May’s deal and the two more straightforward options or leaving forthwith or remaining – and indeed too when they were asked in a similar vein about the Chequers agreement.

Still, it might be felt that looking at how many people pick a compromise option as their first choice underestimates the potential ability of any such solution to bring Remain and Leave voters together. It might be thought better to look at what happens when voters are simply asked whether they support or oppose each option in turn. Although a compromise option may not be many people’s first choice, perhaps many might at least find it acceptable.

Two recent polls have asked people about some of the possible options in that way. However, they provide little support for idea that any of them is likely to be capable of crossing the Brexit divide.

Earlier this month BMG asked voters whether they supported a number of options, including – as a stop-gap measure at least – a Norway-style relationship. This proved relatively popular among Remain voters, 60% of whom said they supported the idea, with just 23% opposed. However, Leave supporters were on balance strongly opposed to the idea, with just 28% in favour and 55% opposed.

Meanwhile, YouGov have asked whether staying in the single market and the customs union would be a ‘good outcome’ a ‘bad outcome’, or an ‘acceptable compromise’. Among Remain voters 36% said that it would be a good outcome, while another 32% indicated that it would be an acceptable compromise. However, among Leave voters the equivalent figures were just 15% and 19% respectively.

We will see in the next week or so, whether anyone has found a compromise that can command the support of a majority of MPs, including perhaps an amended version of Mrs May’s deal. But anyone who hopes that such a compromise might serve to heal the divisions between Remainers and Leavers in the Brexit debate would be unwise to set their expectations too high. Voters’ reactions to previous attempts to find a compromise suggests that any such proposal is at risk of being rejected by both sides in the Brexit debate – and on the evidence so far it appears that the same fate could well befall any of the softer Brexit compromises that have been canvassed to date.

Politicians are used to seeking out the ‘centre ground’ of British politics because that is where they believe (or are told) most voters are to be found. However, in the case of the Brexit debate that ground appears to be quite thinly populated.  Perhaps the piece of political folk wisdom that it would be more appropriate to bear in mind in the next few weeks is that ‘to govern is to choose’?