Brexit Reshapes The Basis of Party Support – Again

One key feature of the 2017 election was that the Conservatives gained ground among those who voted Leave while the party lost support among those who backed Remain.  At the same time, Labour advanced more strongly among Remain voters than Leave supporters. But what happened in the 2019 election? Did those trends continue yet further or were they in any way reversed?

The first of the evidence necessary to address this question is now available, thanks to polls conducted by Lord Ashcroft and YouGov, both of whom also undertook similar exercises after the 2017 election. Lord Ashcroft interviewed online between 11 and 12 December just over 13,000 people who said they had cast a ballot. The results can be compared with those of a similar exercise from the same stable that interviewed 14,000 voters between 6 and 9 June 2017. Meanwhile, YouGov interviewed nearly 42,000 people between 13 and 16 December, the results of which can be compared with a poll of over 52,000 people conducted by the company between 9 and 13 June 2017.

The two pairs of polls report the vote choice in both 2017 and 2019 of those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave. In both cases, too, the 2017 poll also gives information on how Remain and Leave voters behaved in 2015, a year before the EU referendum. This means that in Table 1 we are able to show the trend over the last three elections in the vote choices of Remain and Leave supporters.

Both poll series show much the same pattern. Support for the Conservatives increased among Leave voters and fell among Remain voters between 2017 and 2019, and in so doing continued the trend that had already been in evidence between 2015 and 2017.  As a result, for every one Remain voter who supported the Conservatives in 2019 there were nearly four Leave supporters who did so.  In 2015, the equivalent ratio was just one to 1.5. During the last four years, the electoral base of the Conservative party has been transformed from one that, on balance, was moderately Eurosceptic to one that is now predominantly so.  As a result, the foundations of the ‘People’s Government’ the party has now formed rest very heavily on that section of the public that voted Leave.

In Labour’s case, the refashioning of the party’s vote has not been so dramatic but has still been substantial. It fell between 2017 and 2019 among both Remain and Leave voters, but much more so among those who voted Leave. In contrast, the party’s vote had increased among both groups between 2015 and 2017, but more so among Remain than Leave voters. As a result, for every one Leave voter whose support the party won in 2019 there were around three Remain supporters backing the party. In 2015, the equivalent ratio was more like one to two. One of the legacies of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader is a Labour vote that has become markedly more Europhile.

The Liberal Democrat vote has become more Europhile too. After what in 2017 was largely a repeat of the party’s performance two years previously, all of the increase in the party’s support between 2017 and 2019 was secured among those who voted Remain. As a result, what has always been Britain’s most Europhile party in terms of its policy position is now the most Europhile party in the country in respect of the electoral support it enjoys too.

The Brexit process has, then, clearly had a significant impact on the character of the support for all three of Britain’s largest political parties (in terms of votes won) at the 2019 election. That in turn means that how people voted was more likely to reflect which side they backed in the 2016 referendum.

In the case of Remain voters, the change was a marginal one. According to Lord Ashcroft, in 2019 79% of Remain voters supported a party that was in favour of holding a second referendum, up from the 75% who supported one of those parties in 2017 (though, at that point, not all of those parties were in favour of a second ballot). YouGov put the figures at 78% and 81% respectively.

However, in the case of Leave supporters, the increase in the extent to which they voted for a pro-Leave party is very marked. According to Lord Ashcroft, 77% of Leave voters supported either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party this time around, whereas just two-thirds (66%) backed either the Conservatives or UKIP in 2017. Similarly, the equivalent figures for YouGov are 69% and 78% respectively.

While not everyone’s vote was influenced by their views about Brexit, the Brexit impasse of the last two years and the circumstances under which the 2019 election was called do seem to have ensured that the issue was especially high on voters’ agendas when they decided how to mark their ballot papers.

Yet, crucially, Remain and Leave voters expressed their views very differently – and it is this difference and the impact it had on the operation of the electoral system, not the balance of opinion of Brexit, that has been decisive in ensuring that Britain now has a pro-Brexit government that should be able to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU by the end of January.

At 47%, the total vote cast for the two pro-Brexit parties was rather less than the 52% that went to parties in favour of some kind of second EU referendum – a balance in line with the small lead for Remain in our poll of polls of vote intentions for a second Brexit referendum. However, as we have seen, Leave voters mostly plumped for the Conservatives, while Remain voters scattered their favours between Labour and the Liberal Democrats – and, north of the border, the SNP. It is that difference that delivered the Conservatives a 12-point lead over Labour that, under the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system was more than enough to give Boris Johnson a handsome overall parliamentary majority. It now remains to be seen what kind of Brexit he manages to deliver.

Still A Brexit Election?

We argued at the beginning of the election campaign that Brexit seemed set to play a key role in shaping voters’ choices. At that point, the polls suggested that those who voted Leave were for the most part saying they intended to vote for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party, while those who voted Remain were inclined to support one of the parties willing to support a second EU referendum.

Since the beginning of the campaign, however, support for both the Conservatives and Labour – both of whom have been more likely to draw support from both sides of the Brexit divide than some of their rivals – has increased by five points on average, while that for both the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party has fallen away. Given that the movement has been towards parties with a less distinctive electorate on Brexit, we might wonder whether how people intend to vote is less reflective of their views about Brexit than it was at the beginning of the election. But is that really the case?

 

 

The table shows – separately for Remain and Leave voters in 2016 – how people said they intended to vote in polls conducted in the first week of the election campaign (see the columns headed ‘Beginning’) and how – on average – they have said they would vote in polls conducted in the second half of last week (see the columns labelled ‘End’).

A number of important patterns emerge. First, almost all of the progress the Conservatives have made during the course of the campaign has occurred among those who voted Leave. Among that group support for the party has increased by 58% to 70%. In contrast the party’s support has barely changed at all among those who voted Remain.

Indeed support for the Conservatives among Leave voters is ten points up on the position in 2017, while that among Remain voters is four points lower.

Meanwhile, the picture for Labour is almost the exact opposite. True, the party has made a little progress among Leave voters – up from 13% at the beginning the campaign to 16% now. However, its advance among those who voted Remain is much stronger – an increase from 42% to 49%.

That still leaves the party at a lower level of popularity than it enjoyed among Remain voters in 2017, but at four points the drop is smaller than the ten-point loss of support that the party is still suffering among Leave voters.

So, despite the fact that they began the campaign with some support from both Remain and Leave voters, both the Conservatives and Labour have largely only managed to increase their support among Leave and Remain voters respectively.

That of course means that the losers in the election have been the two parties whose support at the beginning of the campaign consisted almost entirely of those on one side or the other of the Brexit divide.  Support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen by seven points among those who voted Remain, while the Brexit Party has seen its support fall from 20% to 6% among those who voted Leave.

However, taken together these patterns mean that the alignment between how people propose to vote and how they voted in the 2016 EU referendum is still almost as strong as it was at the beginning of the campaign. The proportion of Leave voters who are backing either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party has only slipped slightly from 78% to 76%, while the proportion of Remain supporters backing one of the parties in favour of a second referendum is, at 80%, barely any different from the position at the beginning of the campaign (81%). Meanwhile, both figures are still up on the equivalent statistics for the last election.

At the same time, we should note the extent to which Brexit has shaped the dynamics of vote choice during the election. Most of the movement has consisted of voters switching between pro-Brexit parties and switching between pro-second referendum ones. That perhaps is the clearest testament that Brexit is indeed playing a key role in shaping voters’ choices at this election.

 

A Brexit Election?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Have Voters Lost Patience With The Brexit Process?

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

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

But how valid is this claim?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Voters Back the Possibility of Leaving without a Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Three Years On: Still Divided

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spill-Over Effect: Brexit and Prospects for Westminster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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