Why is the Brexit Deal so unpopular?

Ever since the EU withdrawal deal was published in November, Mrs May has been struggling to persuade MPs to back it. On Tuesday, we should learn whether she has eventually managed to win them over or not. Her attempts to do so have not been helped by the fact that voters have also proved to be doubtful about the deal. YouGov, for example, have consistently found that only around 25% back the deal, while some 45% or so are opposed, with around 30% saying they don’t know whether they support the deal or not.

It is not immediately obvious that the content of the deal should have received such an unenthusiastic response. Research on attitudes to Brexit suggests that most people want to continue to trade freely with the EU but also want the UK to have much more control over immigration. Under the Northern Ireland backstop that has been the subject of much criticism from MPs, Britain would continue to trade with the EU under single market rules while still being able to introduce controls on EU migration. This aspect of the draft Withdrawal Treaty thus apparently meets the public’s, and especially Leave voters’, main requirements.  Meanwhile, the accompanying Political Declaration offers the prospect, at least, of a close trading relationship in years to come, while recognising that the UK does not wish to maintain freedom of movement.

So how then can we account for the unpopularity of the Brexit deal? We try to answer this question using data from a survey of 1675 adults conducted by YouGov on 18th-19thDecember 2018 for the ESRC-funded Party Members Project. In this particular exercise, 23% said that they supported the deal, 49% that they were opposed, while 28% indicated that they didn’t know.

Perhaps the most immediately obvious explanation for the deal’s unpopularity is that it is strongly opposed by those who would prefer to remain in the EU. Remain voters are, indeed, unhappy with the deal – but not much more so than Leave supporters. In our survey, only 21% of those who voted Remain in 2016 said that they support the deal, while 56% indicated that they were opposed. Equally, however, only 29% of Leave supporters stated that they supported the deal, while 48% were opposed.

Similarly, only 5% of all voters say they would be “pleased” or “delighted” if the deal passed, while a further 13% would be “relieved”. At 9% and 14% respectively, the corresponding numbers among Leave voters are only marginally better.

Perhaps it is all a question of party politics? Maybe support for the deal is so low because it is being proposed by a Conservative government, and that consequently supporters of other parties are reluctant to accept it. Indeed, as the table below shows, support for the deal stands at just 11% among those who voted Labour in 2017, and is similarly low among Liberal Democrats and voters for other parties that support Remain such as the SNP and the Greens. Yet even among Conservative voters only two-fifths (40%) say they back it. The only group of voters among whom supporters of the deal outnumber opponents (by 48% to 27%) are those Conservatives who voted Remain in 2016, almost half of whom support the deal.


Perhaps these Conservative Remainers are more willing than their Leave counterparts to regard the deal as an acceptable compromise, in line with one of the arguments the government has been deploying in an attempt to win over support. Maybe, too, they are more supportive of Theresa May and thus are willing to follow her lead. Certainly, among those Conservative voters who think Mrs May is doing “well” as Prime Minister, as many as 58% support the deal, compared with just 14% among those who think she is doing “badly”. Maybe this difference, however, arises because those who like the deal are more likely to approve of Mrs May rather than vice-versa. In any event, Conservative Remainers are not particularly likely to think that the Prime Minster is performing well and so the pattern does not explain why they are more likely than Tory Leavers to support the deal.

Apart from presenting the deal as a compromise that contains something for both Remainers and Leavers, the Prime Minister’s other key tactic has been to warn of the consequences of rejecting the deal. First, she has been telling MPs that it might result in a “damaging” no-deal Brexit. Second, she and her ministers have argued that it might mean that Brexit does not happen at all.

Neither argument seems to have much traction in persuading voters to back the deal. Only 35% of all voters believe warnings that “Britain leaving the European Union without agreeing a deal could cause severe short term disruption, such as shortages of food and medicines.” True, those warnings are widely believed by supporters of parties other than the Conservatives, but as we have already seen they are least likely to support the deal! But even among Conservative voters, those who believe the warnings are realistic are only seven points more likely to support the deal than those who think the warnings exaggerated. It is a similar story when voters are asked about the medium and long-term economic consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. Those Conservatives who think that leaving without a deal would have a negative impact on the economy are only six points more likely than those who think it will have a positive effect to support what the Prime Minister has come up with.

So far as Brexit not happening at all is concerned, naturally Remain voters would be happy if “Britain ended up having a new referendum and voting to remain in the EU after all”, while some two-thirds of Leave voters, and a larger share of Conservative Leave voters, would feel “betrayed” or “angry”. However, these particularly staunch Tory Leavers are no more likely to support the deal than those Tory Leavers who are more relaxed about the prospect of Remain winning another referendum.

Perhaps, then, the reason for the deal’s unpopularity with the public is to be found (as is the case with many MPs) in attitudes towards the Northern Ireland backstop. Indeed, only 18% think that it “makes sense and should be part of the deal”, while even fewer Conservative voters (15%) and Leave supporters (11%) think that is the case. Conservative voters are more likely instead to take the view that the backstop is “a bad idea but it’s a price worth paying to secure a deal.” However, support for the deal among this latter group (72%) is actually slightly higherthan it is among those Conservatives who believe the deal makes sense (65%). So, disapproval of the backstop per sedoes not appear to be an essential barrier to supporting the deal.

Perhaps, then, we should step back and remind ourselves that, despite the intensity of the debate at Westminster, many voters still do not know whether they support the deal or not. Maybe this is indicative of a wider problem for the Prime Minister, namely that voters for whom politics is not a passion find the debate about the deal rather too complicated – and thus take the view that perhaps the deal itself must be too complicated as well?

As we might expect, people who pay more attention to politics are, indeed, far more likely to have an opinion on the deal. Only 8% of this group do not have a view compared with 53% of those who pay relatively little attention. However, sadly for Theresa May, they are also more likely to oppose the deal than they are to support it. True, among her own voters the balance of support and opposition is much the same among those who pay more attention to politics as it is among those who pay less attention. But among Labour voters, those who pay more attention to politics are on balance much more likely to oppose the government’s deal, perhaps because they are more aware that their party is against the deal and take their cue accordingly. In any event, to know the deal is not necessarily to love it.

This analysis makes rather grim reading for the government. The overall level of support for the deal is relatively low, and there is little sign that the main arguments the government has deployed have proved persuasive with many voters, not least among those who voted Leave. Moreover, in so far as those who have not yet formed an opinion might eventually do so, there is no reason to believe that they will necessarily swing in behind the deal – indeed, in the case of Labour voters the opposite would seem more likely. Meanwhile, given that two-thirds of Labour voters are already opposed to the deal, there is seemingly little immediate incentive for Labour MPs to respond to attempts by the government to try to win them over. It looks as though Mrs May has to hope that MPs are not taking too much notice of the polls when they vote on the deal on Tuesday.

This blog is co-authored by Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University, London, and Co-Director of the Party Members Project. Both authors are grateful to Alan Renwick for helpful comments on a previous version.

Tory MPs Decide: But what do Tory voters think about Brexit?

Theresa May might have been able to put off a vote on her Brexit deal in the House of Commons yesterday, but that decision has simply precipitated a confidence vote this evening in her leadership of her party.  The argument that attempting to change the Prime Minister would upset the Brexit timetable lost much of its force when that timetable was put on hold anyway. Now, doubtless central to the considerations in many Conservative MPs’ minds as they decide how to vote on Mrs May’s future will be both what they think of the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister has secured so far and whether they think Mrs May is the best person to lead the negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU on which the government is due to embark after the UK leaves on 29 March next year.

One piece of evidence that Tory MPs might think relevant to their deliberations is what Conservative voters make of the Brexit process so far. If those who support the party are critical of what Theresa May has achieved then MPs might think that is one reason to vote against her. On the other hand, if the party’s supporters are largely content with her achievements to date, MPs might think she deserves to stay as their leader.

What is relatively clear is that Conservative supporters comprise a predominantly a pro-Brexit group of voters. When YouGov most recently asked people whether they thought in hindsight the Brexit vote had been right or wrong, two-thirds (67%) of those who currently say they would vote Conservative said that the vote had been right, while only around a quarter (26%) felt that it had been wrong. Similarly, in the most recent poll to break down how people would vote in a second referendum by how they would vote in an immediate general election, two-thirds (67%) of Conservatives told ComRes that they would vote to Leave, while just 28% stated they would back Remain. Most Conservative voters are then asking whether May is delivering Brexit well rather than questioning whether she should be pursuing it in the first place.

Moreover, those who currently say they would vote Conservative comprise one group who, on balance at least, are inclined to back Mrs May’s Brexit deal. For example, in a recent poll that BMG conducted for the pro-Brexit organisation, Change Britain, 44% of current Conservative supporters say they approve of the deal, while just 29% stated they disapprove. Similarly, when YouGov most recently asked their respondents whether they thought MPs should accept or reject the deal, as many as 52% of Conservatives said they should accept it, while only 33% rejected it.

Even so, these might well be thought to be rather modest levels of support amongst Conservative supporters for a major policy being promoted by a Conservative leader. Much of it might perhaps also be relatively reluctant support. For example, when YouGov asked the very same respondents who answered the question about what MPs should do whether they themselves supported or opposed the deal, the 44% of current Conservative supporters who said that they supported the deal was nearly matched by 41% who said that they opposed it. Meanwhile, when Ipsos MORI asked whether it would be a good or a bad thing for the UK to leave the EU on the proposed terms, rather more Conservatives (47%) said that it would be a bad thing than reckoned it would be a good thing (40%).

Moreover, even current Conservative supporters are far from enamoured of how well the government has been negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. In their most recent reading on this subject, YouGov found that no less than a half of Conservatives (50%) said that the government had been handling the negotiations badly, while only 42% felt that it had been doing so well.  There is evidently some unease among those who back the party about how well the Brexit process has been handled so far.

But perhaps Mrs May’s biggest difficulty is that when Conservative supporters are faced with a choice between accepting her deal and pursuing an alternative course of action, many of them say they would prefer a harder Brexit than the one that she seems to have in mind. For example, when YouGov most recently asked their respondents to choose between leaving the EU on the basis of the Prime Minister’s deal, leaving without a deal, or remaining in the EU, the 41% of Conservatives who said their first preference was to accept the deal was almost matched by the 39% who stated that their first choice would be to leave without a deal. A second YouGov poll found that, although, when faced with a range of options, 41% of Conservatives felt that Britain should leave the EU on the basis of the deal, as many as 36% either said that Britain should reject the deal and either leave without one or else seek a new one.

The inclination of many (but far from all) Conservative voters to pursue a harder Brexit was also in evidence when BMG presented voters with a very wide range of alternative courses of action, ranging from leaving without a deal at one end through to having a second referendum on whether to leave or not at the other. In this instance, as many as 53% of Conservatives chose either leaving ‘the EU and trading on WTO rules’ or pursuing in one way or the other a ‘Canada plus style free trade deal’. Just 14% picked out the government’s deal. Similarly, when faced with a straight choice between accepting the withdrawal agreement on the one hand and ‘leaving the EU and trading on WTO rules’ on the other, slightly more Conservatives (52%) backed the latter course of action than supported the former.

In short, much like the party itself, Conservative voters appear to be roughly evenly divided between those who are willing to back Mrs May’s deal and her approach to the Brexit negotiations, and those who are more critical and would prefer a harder Brexit. That reality will not make the decision that Tory MPs now face any easier.


MPs Decide? Four Key Messages From The Polls

At the time of writing at least, the House of Commons is scheduled to vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday evening. But is there any evidence that she has had any success in winning over the country? And what do voters want to happen if, as widely expected, the deal does go down to defeat whenever the Commons does get the chance to vote on it? Here are four observations based on the polling that has been published in the last week.

The deal remains relatively unpopular.

After having apparently registered a modest shift in favour of the deal last week, YouGov reported in its most recent poll that, if anything, public support had slipped back a bit. In fact, it now looks as though, according to the company’s polling, the pattern of responses has not changed significantly since the weekend after the draft Brexit deal was unveiled. In the five readings the company has taken since that weekend on average 24% have said they supported the deal, while 44% have indicated that they were opposed. Leave voters are somewhat less critical of the deal than Remain supporters, but on balance they are still opposed to the deal. On average 28% of Leave voters have said they support the deal, while 42% have stated that they are opposed. The equivalent figures among Remain supporters are 23% and 49%.

The relative unpopularity of the deal has been confirmed by the pattern of responses to questions asked by both Opinium and Ipsos MORI. Indeed, if anything their readings have painted an even bleaker picture for the government. The former found that only 11% think the deal is good for Britain, while 50% reckoned it was bad, while the latter reported that while 25% thought it would be a good thing for Britain as a whole, as many as 62% thought it would be a bad thing.

Whatever the terms, leaving the EU could raise questions about future levels of public support for maintaining the Union

Polling undertaken by Panelbase in Scotland and by Lucid Talk in Northern Ireland suggests that even leaving the EU on the basis of Mrs May’s deal could test the sinews of support for t.he Union in both these pro-Remain parts of the UK. After excluding the Don’t Knows Panelbase’s poll reported that 47% of Scottish voters say that at present they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum, while 53% indicate that they would vote No.  But rather more people (43%) say they would prefer Scottish independence to being part of a UK that had left the EU on the basis of Mrs May’s deal (39%). The gap is even bigger when voters are presented with a choice between Scottish independence (44%) and leaving without a deal (30%).The main reason for the decline in support for the Union in these circumstances appears to be that relatively large numbers (just over a fifth in the first instance and as many as a third in the second) of those who voted No to independence say they do not know which of the two that they would prefer.

In Northern Ireland 60% state that in the event of a border poll they would definitely or probably vote to stay in the UK if Brexit were to be reversed, while just 29% indicated that they would vote for a united Ireland. But should the UK leave the EU on the basis of the proposed deal, the 48% who say they would definitely or probably back staying in the UK are equally matched by 48% who state that they would vote for a united Ireland. Again, the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal shifts opinion yet further, with just 42% stating they would vote to stay in the UK, and 55% indicating backing for a united Ireland. Key to these results is the fact that only 64% of nationalists say they would vote for a united Ireland if Brexit is reversed, whereas the figure jumps to 92% should the UK leave the EU on the basis of the Prime Minister’s deal.

There is little agreement about what should happen if the deal is defeated

Like many previous attempts at addressing the issue, Ipsos MORI found little consensus when voters were asked what they thought should happen if the government’s deal is defeated, with both leaving without a deal at one end of the spectrum and holding a second referendum at the other marginally the most popular courses of action, each with 20% support. Meanwhile, the level of support for holding a second referendum continues to depend on how the question is asked. On the one hand, when YouGov asked whether there should be a ‘public vote’ on whether to accept or reject the deal – without making it clear what rejecting the deal would mean – 45% said they were in favour and just 36% that they were opposed, albeit with supporters of Remain (63% in favour) and Leave (55% opposed) expressing very different views. But when ComRes asked whether there should be a ‘referendum’ in which it was made clear that the choices would be remaining in the EU or leaving the EU, the 40% who said they were in favour were outnumbered by the 50% who were against.

The outcome of any second referendum is highly uncertain

Two polls by YouGov in the last week suggested that public opinion had swung further away from Brexit. One poll found that as many as 49% now think that the decision to leave was wrong, while only 38% stated that it was right – a record gap between the two. The result appeared to be the product of the fact that – unusually – distinctly more Leave voters (11%) said that the decision was wrong than Remain voters (3%) stated that it was right. Meanwhile, in a poll that the company conducted for the People’s Vote campaign, 55% said (after excluding Don’t Knows) that in a second referendum they would vote for Remain, while 45% stated that they would back Leave, a record lead for Remain in the company’s polls, a result that represented a record high for Remain in YouGov’s polls.

However, the apparent swing in favour of Remain was not replicated by Kantar, whose latest poll puts support for Remain at 52%, down a point on last month, with Leave on 48%, up one point. We therefore need more evidence that there has been a further shift to Remain before we can safely conclude that any such development has occurred. Our EURef2 poll of polls is unchanged on where it has been since the beginning of November, that is, with Remain on 53% and Leave on 47%.

Of course, much might depend not only on the circumstances in which any referendum was called, but also on the options that were on the ballot paper. Both YouGov and Opinium have suggested that, if voters are asked to choose between leaving on the basis of the government’s deal and remaining in the EU, Remain would win quite comfortably with some 57-58% of the vote. However, YouGov also reported the results of a mega poll that invited over 20,000 respondents to place the three options, of leaving on the basis of Mrs May’s deal, leaving without a deal, and remaining in the EU in order of preference – and this exercise (which also estimated the position in every constituency) suggested that, under the Alternative Vote system, the outcome of such a ballot could be very close indeed. With 27% of first preferences, leaving the EU on the basis of the deal was marginally more popular than leaving without a deal. And when the preferences of those who backed leaving without a deal were redistributed in accordance with their second preferences, Remain (which was backed by 46% of first preferences) was ahead by only 50.1% to 49.9%! According to YouGov at least, Leave voters’ apparent distaste for Mrs May’s deal does not necessarily extend to preferring no Brexit at all.


Gaining Popularity? Latest Polling on Mrs May’s Deal

The last ten days have been marked by the publication of the political agreement on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, the acceptance of the whole Brexit deal at a special European Council on 25 November, and further attempts by the Prime Minister to persuade both MPs and the general public about the merits of the agreement that she has struck. None of this has engendered the intense flurry of polling that graced the original publication of the draft withdrawal agreement, but there has been enough undertaken to gain some sense of whether, after originally largely giving it the thumbs down, the public have warmed to the deal at all.

The short answer appears to be that they have – but the extent to which they have done so is less clear. The most dramatic movement was reported in a snap poll undertaken by Survation for the Daily Mail on the Monday afternoon after the EU council. Previously the company had found that, among the three-fifths of their respondents who said that they had heard about the deal, only 27% supported it and 49% were opposed. Now,among the just under three-quarters who by now had heard about the deal, slightly more (37%) said they supported the deal than said they were opposed (35%). That together with the finding that among all respondents slightly more (41%) wanted MPs to vote for the deal than to oppose it (38%) enabled the Daily Mail, which under its new editor is backing the Brexit deal, to suggest that the public was moving strongly in favour of its own view.

Less movement, however, was reported by YouGov, which has published in the last week as many as three readings of the level of support for the deal. Here there is more than one baseline reading with which we can compare the latest results, as the company conducted two polls of attitudes towards the deal within 24 hours of its original publication, one of which found rather more opposition than the other. On average those two polls found just 17% were in favour of the deal while 47% were opposed. In contrast, an aggregation published by YouGov of all three of its most recent polls puts support for the deal at 25% and opposition at 44%. That represents a net swing of  5.5% in favour of accepting the deal as compared with the average of the two earliest polls (less than half the 12% swing uncovered by Survation) – though there was no indication that the balance of opinion on the deal was any more favourable at the end of last week than it had been at the beginning. We therefore should not assume that the swing in the polls is necessarily indicative of a continuous movement that will necessarily see opinion shift further in favour of the deal between now and next Tuesday’s meaningful vote in the Commons.

There are some potentially important differences between how YouGov and Survation have undertaken their polling. First, as we have already noted, Survation only ask their question of those who say they have heard something about the deal, whereas YouGov ask all their respondents. Second, while Survation allow respondents to say that they neither support nor oppose the deal, YouGov do not offer such a ‘mid-point’ option. Yet it is clear from the data provided by both companies that there are plenty of people who either have not thought much about the issue or who have not come down firmly on one side or the other. In Survation’s case their approach means that only just over half of their sample (52%) express either support for or opposition to the deal, while YouGov report that still as many as 30% of their respondents prefer to say Don’t Know. One possibility is that some of those who in response to Survation’s approach either say they do not know anything about the deal or else that they are neither supportive nor opposed end up in YouGov’s polling being disproportionately inclined to express opposition. Be that as it may, it is perhaps important to remember that, at present, all the polling to date shows that neither support nor opposition represents the view of a majority of the British public.

That, however, is not especially helpful to the government, which, if they are to be of assistance to the Prime Minister in her efforts to persuade MPs to back the deal, will need the polls to suggest that backing the deal is clearly the public’s wish by the time the meaningful vote is held next week. In particular, Mrs May needs to be able to demonstrate to the Brexiter-inclined MPs on her side of the Commons that the deal has the backing of Leave voters. But at present it is still not clear that is the case.  Survation found that while 41% of Leave voters support the deal, equally, 41% are opposed – Remain supporters in contrast were marginally in favour by 40% to 34%. Meanwhile, although YouGov have, in contrast, found that Leave voters are a little more likely than Remain supporters to be in favour of the deal, at 31% the level of support among Leave voters is still well below the 43% who are opposed.

The government’s difficulty is that, at the end of the day, Leave voters are still inclined to prefer leaving without a deal over leaving on the terms agreed between the UK and the EU. Survation found that, when faced with a straight choice, 60% of Leave voters would prefer exiting without a deal, while only 33% prefer leaving on the terms the UK government has negotiated. Equally, in their most recent poll YouGov find that only 35% of Leave voters would like MPs to back the deal even if doing so were to mean leaving without a deal, while 49% say that they should still reject the deal. Meanwhile, many Remain supporters still prefer abandoning Brexit to accepting Mrs May’s deal. According to Survation nearly three-quarters of Remain supporters (74%) hold that view, while nearly two-thirds (64%) would like MPs to reject the deal if the consequence would be to remain in the EU.

True, Leave voters are inclined to prefer the deal to no Brexit and Remain supporters the deal to leaving without a deal. But being told that Mrs May’s deal is many voters’ second preference seems unlikely to be the most persuasive argument in the eyes of those MPs who, like many a voter, have rather firm views about their own first preference.

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

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

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

Many voters yet to decide

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

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

An unpopular deal

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

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

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

A three-way choice

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

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

Leavers prefer No Deal to Deal

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

Fall in confidence

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

Drop in poll rating

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

Remainers prefer Deal to No Deal

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

Support for another referendum?

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

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


Lessons from the ‘Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks’ Poll

Last night saw the publication of the biggest poll yet on attitudes towards Brexit to come from a non-partisan source. Survation interviewed just over 20,000 voters between 20 October and 2 November for a Channel 4 programme, Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks, made by Renegade Productions in which voters were asked their views on some of the key issues in the Brexit process and on where they now stood on the merits of Britain leaving the EU. The large sample size makes it possible to drill down further than usual into which sections of society hold which views and why – while the data have also been subjected to multi-level regression and post-stratification modelling in order to ascertain how people in each local authority might vote if there were to be another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Two headlines stand out. First, many voters are very unsure what to make of the negotiations that are taking place in Brussels. Second, as more or less every other recent poll has ascertained, the country now appears to be narrowly in favour of remaining in the EU rather than leaving, but the reasons for this switch do not simply lie in Leave voters being more likely to have switched to Remain than vice-versa.

To ascertain whether voters might back the deal that Theresa May is hoping to bring back from Brussels the poll asked, ‘From what you have seen or heard so far, if there was a vote tomorrow on the type of Brexit deal that the UK Government is aiming to achieve from the EU, how would you be likely to vote?’. Among those willing to offer a response, only 43% say that they would vote in favour of the deal, while 57% would vote against. So, on balance the country appears to be opposed to what it thinks will emerge from the talks.

However, these figures leave aside the 34% said they did not know how they would vote on the deal. At the same time, both Remain and Leave voters are quite evenly divided on the issue, albeit with Remain voters slightly more likely than Leave supporters to be opposed. (Just 25% of Remain voters would vote in favour, while 38% are against. In contrast, 30% of Leave voters would vote in favour and 33% against). This is seemingly an issue where many Remain and Leave voters do not find it possible to come to a judgement by simply relying on their prior predispositions. This, coupled with the high level of Don’t Knows, suggests that there is still plenty of room for attitudes to change once the details of the deal are known and politicians on both sides of the argument attempt to persuade voters as to whether the deal is a good one or not.

This becomes even clearer when the poll attempted to identify what might be voters’ red lines in deciding whether they would support or oppose any deal that may emerge from the negotiations. Voters were asked whether the UK should or should not agree to various provisions if to do so were the only way to secure a deal. They gave a decided thumbs down (by 67% to 16%) to accepting ‘limitations on the UK’s ability to make trade deals’ and a more muted one (by 45% to 31%) on the issue that is reportedly still proving difficult to resolve in the negotiations, that is, ‘new checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK’. Moreover, these are issues on which both Remain and Leave voters are of much the same mind.

So far then, it would seem that the UK government have read the public mood correctly. However, in what is perhaps the most surprising finding of the poll, no less than 62% said the UK should, if necessary, accept a provision that meant that ‘After Brexit, UK and EU citizens, who wished to do so could live and work in each other’s countries’, while only 21% were opposed. Even as many as 55% of Leave voters said the UK should be willing to sign up to such a provision. The wording was, of course, intended to refer to ‘freedom of movement’, yet another of the UK government’s red lines, and central to the debate about immigration during the referendum campaign.

The lesson seems to be that whether or not something is a red line for the public depends on how it is described. ‘Checks’ and ‘limitations’ are seemingly unpopular, especially when they appear to represent a curb on the UK’s sovereignty. In contrast, giving people individual choice apparently is not. If that is the case then much may depend when a deal is unveiled on how the various key issues come to be framed in the public mind, which in turn could hinge on the relative ability of the government and its opponents to sell their side of the argument to voters.

This, of course, still leaves the issue of whether the UK should be leaving the EU at all. Here the findings were broadly in line with those of other recent polling, with a headline figure of 54% Remain, 46% Leave. This, incidentally, is the figure that was reached after the data had been analysed by Chris Hanretty using multilevel regression and post-stratification to estimate how each local authority area would have voted, and the results for the 380 counting units aggregated back up to produce a Britain-wide figure. This analysis, which suggested that the swing away from Leave was greater in areas that had voted most heavily for Leave in 2016 and especially so in ones where Labour were relatively strong, added a point to the estimated swing to Leave as compared with the conventional weighting applied to the data by Survation.

However, relatively little of the net movement away from Leave was generated by direct switching from Leave to Remain. While 10% of those who voted Leave in 2016 said that they would now vote Remain, this movement was almost counterbalanced by the 7% of Remain voters who indicated that they would now vote Leave. The difference between these two figures generates an overall swing of 1% from Leave to Remain, too little on its own to overturn the result of the 2016 ballot.

By far the biggest single source of the swing – worth some 2% – came from the preferences expressed by those who did not vote in 2016 but who now state a voting intention. Roughly twice as many of this group (41%) say that they would vote Remain as state that they would back Leave (20%) – a finding that echoes many another poll. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the movement arises because those who voted Leave in 2016 are much more likely than Remain voters to state that they definitely would not vote again and because Leave voters are also a little more likely to say that they are undecided how they would vote a second time around. In short, the central message of the poll is that, if there were to be another referendum, much would depend on who did and who did not make it to the polls. A second referendum is still far from guaranteed to produce the pro-Remain majority for which most of those campaigning for such a vote are apparently hoping.

What perhaps is more important than the overall swing to Remain in the poll suggested by the poll is the evidence that it provides of further demographic and political division. No less than 57% of those in the poll who said that they did not vote were aged under 35. Thus, given what we have said so far about the current preferences of those who did not vote in 2016, it should come as little surprise that the poll suggests that the swing to Remain is highest among younger voters, and that the age difference in attitudes towards Brexit is even bigger now than it was two years ago. The poll puts the swing to Remain at between eight and nine points among those aged between 18 and 45, whereas there is no swing at all among those aged 65 to 74 and there is actually a slight (two -point) swing to Leave among those aged 75 and over.  No less than 64% of those in the oldest age group would now vote Leave, compared with just 23% of those aged 18 to 24.

But what is also clear is the extent to which Brexit has become a fault line between Labour and Conservative supporters. No less than 71% of those who say they would now vote Conservative in a general election also say that they would now vote Leave, while 73% of current Labour supporters would back Remain. Both figures are well up on those that pertained at the time of the EU referendum, when, on average, the polls suggest that 60% of those who voted Conservative in 2015 backed Leave, while 64% of those who voted Labour at that election voted for Remain. Part of the reason for this growing divergence is, of course, the fact that the Conservatives lost ground among Remain supporters in last year’s general election while they made advances among Leave voters, and that Labour was more successful at gaining ground among Remain voters than Leave supporters. But today’s poll also suggests that the divergence has been increased further by the fact that Labour Leave voters (75% of whom would vote Leave again) are less likely than Conservative Leave voters (91%) to say that they would vote Leave again, while Conservative Remain voters (78% would vote Remain again) are less loyal to Remain than Labour Remain voters (94%). It appears that the different messages emanating from the parties about the consequences of Brexit are having an impact on some of their supporters.

Not that Remain and Leave voters agree on what those consequences would be. No less than 76% of those who voted Remain reckon that Brexit will be bad for the economy, while 57% of those who backed Leave think it would be good. Meanwhile as many as two-thirds (66%) of Leave voters believe that Brexit will be good for immigration, while only 19% of Remain voters hold that view. These are, of course, familiar patterns. What, perhaps, is more interesting is that the poll seems to confirm our previous suggestion that it is attitudes towards the economic consequences of Brexit that are especially important when it comes to whether or not voters have changed their minds about Brexit. Just 48% of those 2016 Leave voters who now think that Brexit would be bad for the economy say that they would vote Leave again, while, similarly, only 58% of 2016 Remain voters who now believe that Brexit will be good for the economy would vote Remain again. None of the other perceived consequences asked about in the poll (which included the impact of Brexit on the NHS and on people’s household finances as well as immigration) were as strongly related  to voters’ propensity to change their minds.

Still, even if some voters have changed their minds about Brexit – and many are far from certain about how they might vote in a ballot about whatever deal that is brought back from Brussels – do they think there should be a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations? As previous polling has suggested, much depends on the kind of ballot that is proposed. Slightly more voters support (43%) than oppose (37%) a referendum in which the alternative was to Remain in the EU, as advocated by the People’s Vote campaign, but the lead is hardly decisive. Meanwhile voters are more or less evenly divided on the prospect of a ballot where the alternative to the deal would be to reopen the negotiations (39% support this idea while 37% oppose it), and on a vote where the choice would be between deal and no deal (38% support, 39% oppose). But as might be imagined, whereas a choice between accepting the deal and remaining in the EU is relatively popular among Remain voters, a ballot where voters were choosing between accepting the deal and leaving with no deal is slightly more popular with Leave voters. Just 15% of all voters oppose all three referendums, and just 16% support all three. Most (55%) support at least one but not all three. It appears that for most voters the question of whether another referendum should be held is not so much a question of constitutional principle but one of perceived political advantage. But perhaps that is only to be expected from an issue that continues to polarise the British electorate so strongly?


A Nation of Remainers and Leavers? How Brexit Has Forged a New Sense of Identity

It has now become commonplace to say that attitudes towards Brexit are polarised. One reason is that the country remains more or less evenly divided between the merits of Remain and Leave, as our recently launched EURef2 Poll of Polls shows. Another is that different kinds of voters typically have very different views. Most younger people and university graduates would prefer to stay in the EU, while most older people and those with few, if any, educational qualifications back leaving.

But perhaps there is also a third reason. This is that many voters are very strongly committed to their side of the argument. Indeed, so strong is this commitment that these voters now think of themselves as a ‘Remainer’ or ‘Leaver’, in much the same way that somebody might think of themselves as, say, a ‘Manchester United fan’ or a ‘Manchester City supporter’. Being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has become part of their self-identity, and a label to which they feel an emotional bond and which serves to underpin and reinforce their support for staying in or leaving the EU irrespective of the arguments and counter-arguments about what Brexit will or will not bring.

Such an idea is not new to the study of politics. The idea that somebody might say ‘I’m a Conservative’ or ‘I’m Labour’ has been recognised by academics ever since the advent of the scientific study of voting in the immediate post-war period – and doubtless it was part of everyday discourse long before that. However, ever since the 1970s one of the key findings of academic surveys of voting behaviour has been a gradual but persistent decline in the proportion who say that they identify with a party, and an especially marked drop in the proportion who say that they do so strongly.

So, it might be thought something of a surprise if an electorate that has become increasingly disengaged from our political parties should now demonstrate a strong emotional commitment to being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’. On the other hand, it has often been remarked that the debate about Brexit in Britain is part of a wider resurgence of the ‘politics of identity’ as manifested in everything from the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties in a number of European countries to the (tonally very different) demands for independence in, for example, Scotland and Catalonia. Perhaps, then, many a voter does feel a strong emotional attachment to their side of the Brexit debate, thereby adding another dimension to the polarisation engendered by Brexit.

That, at least, is what Professor Sara Hobolt and her colleagues have argued on the basis of their work on voters’ attitudes towards Brexit as part of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme.  Today we publish an analysis paper that reports on our efforts to test and assess their claim, and in particular to compare how many people feel a strong Brexit identity with how many say nowadays that they identify strongly with a party. The paper is based on data collected during the summer as part of the most recent wave of questions on attitudes towards Brexit to be asked on NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel.

There is one clear headline. Our research strongly supports the claims of Professor Hobolt and her colleagues. Nearly nine in ten members of our panel said that they were either a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’, whereas less than two-thirds of them claim to identify with a political party. Meanwhile, no less than 44% say they are a ‘very strong Remainer’ or a ‘very strong Leaver’, whereas only 9% claim to be a very strong supporter of a political party.

Strong identifiers are to be found on both sides of the Brexit debate. They are, though, a little more prevalent on the Remain side. While 45% of Leavers say they are a very strong Leaver, no less than 53% of Remainers report a very strong identity. It is sometimes suggested that, given the importance of immigration and sovereignty to many voters on the Leave side, their views are rooted above all in emotion and identity. However, the large proportion of very strong identifiers on the Remain side suggests that in practice emotion and identity underpin the views of many a Remainer too.

These who identify strongly with one side or the other have some distinctive views. Very strong Remainers are more likely to oppose than support the idea that prospective EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain in the same way as non-EU migrants do – no other group of voters takes that view. Meanwhile very strong Leavers are especially likely to be critical of how the EU has been handling the Brexit talks. The two groups are clearly looking at the Brexit process through very different and partisan lenses.

But nowhere is this more clearly the case than in respect of the perceived economic consequences of Brexit. Very strong Remainers are almost unanimous in believing that Brexit will make Britain’s economy worse off. In contrast, the vast majority of very strong Leavers believe that the economy will be better off. It is, then, little wonder that after more than two years of debate about what Brexit should and could mean, relatively few voters on either side have changed their minds about the relative merits of Remain or Leave. For even if the head is uncertain, the heart remains sure.

‘Perhaps It’ll All be OK in the End?’ The Contrast in Perceptions of the Short-Term and Long-Term Economic Consequences of Brexit

One of the persistent findings of the polling on attitudes towards Brexit – both before and since the referendum itself – has been that voters are more likely to think that Brexit will be bad for Britain’s economy than anticipate that it will be beneficial. However, there has also been some evidence that voters’ views on the economic consequences of Brexit depend on the time frame that they are invited to consider. Both YouGov and Ipsos MORI have reported evidence that on balance voters are rather more optimistic about the consequences of Brexit in the long-term than they are about what it might mean in the short-term.

But why might this be the case? Given that the country was more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave supporters at the time of the referendum and continues to be so now, perhaps it is an indication that Leave voters in particular are of the view that, although there might be pain in the short-term, ultimately Brexit will prove economically beneficial. After all, those who advocate Brexit have long argued that it will present Britain with new opportunities that, if successfully grasped, will enable the country to prosper. If this suggestion proves to be correct, it would imply that polls and surveys that have only asked voters about the more immediate consequences of Brexit have missed a key part of the explanation as to why the Leave campaign was able to win the 2016 referendum.

There is, however, another possible explanation – that the pattern represents the triumph of hope over expectation. Perhaps Remain supporters who anticipate that Brexit will be damaging economically in the short-term reckon that, in the long-term at least, things might turn out OK after all. They reason that whatever losses occur in the short term may eventually be reversed. If this perspective is correct, the tendency in polling to focus on people’s perceptions of the short-term consequences of Brexit would seem justified, as it implies that is these perceptions that are more likely to be reflected in whether people back Remain or Leave.

The latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey provides a unique opportunity to assess whether and why voters take a different view of the short-term and long-term economic consequences of Brexit. Included on the survey is an extensive suite of questions on attitudes towards Brexit funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the results of which are released today in a report published by the Foundation. Included among those questions are a set that ask people what they think the consequences of Brexit will be in ten years’ time, one of which asked whether ‘as a result of leaving the EU Britain’s economy will be better off in ten years’ time, worse off, or won’t it make much difference?’. At the same time, thanks to funding provided by the ESRC as part of its ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ programme, respondents were also asked whether ‘as a result of leaving the EU, Britain’s economy will be better off, worse off, or won’t it make much difference?’, that is, without specifying a time frame. The results of this question were previously reported as part of the most recent annual British Social Attitudes report.

Comparison of the responses to the two questions reveals that they did obtain a rather different pattern of results (see Table 1). When respondents were not invited to consider a particular time horizon, they were nearly twenty points more likely to say they thought the economy would be worse off than to say it would be better off, a result that was not dissimilar to what was secured when the question was asked on the 2015 survey. In contrast, when people were asked what they thought the economic consequences of Brexit would be in ten years’ time, almost as many said that the economy will be better off as stated that it would be worse off. True, there may not be widespread optimism about the long-term economic consequences of Brexit, but, in contrast to the position when voters are not invited to focus on the long term, voters are at least not decidedly pessimistic about the prospects.

But is it Leave supporters or those who back Remain who are more optimistic about the long-term consequences of Brexit than they are about its more immediate implications? Table 2 reveals that Leave voters are somewhat more optimistic about the long-term. As many as 63% say that the economy will be better off in ten years’ time, compared with 56% who say it will be better off if no time frame is specified. However, at the same time Remain supporters are markedly less pessimistic about what Brexit will mean economically in the long term than they are when no time frame is specified. Whereas as many as 69% say that the economy will be worse off in the absence of a time frame, the figure falls to just 55% when asked to consider the position in ten years’ time. This shift of outlook among Remain supporters is more marked than the one we have identified among Leave supporters.

So, both of the possible reasons as to why voters are less pessimistic about the economic consequences are in evidence. Perhaps some of those who back Leave despite seemingly not being convinced that Brexit will be economically advantageous are indeed doing so because they anticipate that it will be beneficial in the long-term. However, it also seems that there is a not inconsiderable body of Remain supporters who are doubtful about the economic consequences of Brexit but are willing to accept – or hope – that maybe in the end things will be OK after all. As a result, attitudes towards the long-term economic consequences of Brexit are no more strongly linked to current Brexit preference than are attitudes to the more immediate consequences. But we will, of course, have to wait a long time before we find out whether voters’ relative optimism about the long-term economic consequences of Brexit proves to be justified.


Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit Dilemma

Doubtless the question that delegates gathering at the SNP conference in Glasgow this weekend will have uppermost in their minds is whether Nicola Sturgeon will fire the starting gun for a second independence referendum. When in June of last year she announced that she was putting on hold the Scottish Parliament’s request to Westminster that it be granted the authority to hold another ballot, she indicated that she would provide an update this autumn. SNP activists might well, therefore, be hoping that during the next few days she will at least provide something of a clue about what she is now thinking.

But, in truth, there may be a more pressing referendum decision facing Ms Sturgeon in the coming weeks. This is what the SNP’s stance should be on holding a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Prime Minister may bring back from Brussels. There is clearly a possibility at least that Mrs May’s deal (assuming she secures one) will be voted down by the House of Commons when it holds its so-called ‘meaningful vote’ on the outcome of the EU negotiations. If that should happen, then all of the opposition parties will face pressure to indicate what they think should happen next  – with one option being to put the issue to the public. They might just even find themselves fighting a general election in which the future of the Brexit process is the central issue.

At first glance it might be thought rather surprising that Ms Sturgeon has so far opted to sit on the fence on the question of a second EU referendum. After all, most SNP supporters are opposed to Brexit; in a recent YouGov poll for the pro-EU referendum People’s Vote campaign, those 2017 SNP voters who said that they would vote Remain in a second EU ballot outnumbered those who stated they would back Leave by nearly four (79%) to one (21%). Equally nearly two-thirds (65%) said that they backed holding a ‘public vote on the outcome’ while only 20% were opposed. Indeed, SNP supporters were at least as keen on the idea as Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. It would seem that backing a second EU referendum should be an easy choice for Ms Sturgeon to make.

Yet in practice things are rather more complicated. First of all, there is the nationalist fear that dare not speak its name, namely that any second referendum on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU might be regarded as a precedent for what should happen if Scotland were ever to vote in favour of the principle of independence. The idea that there would need to be a second referendum on the terms of Scotland’s departure from the UK has been one against which the party has long since set its face.

Meanwhile, backing a second referendum with a view to securing a Remain vote has rather more risks than immediately meets the eye. The coalition of supporters that gathered behind Yes to independence in 2014 is not as pro-European as those who backed the SNP in last year’s UK general election.  According to the YouGov/People’s Vote poll, only 69% of 2014 Yes voters back Remain in a second referendum, while 31% support Leave, figures that are not dissimilar to how Yes voters were recorded as having voted in the 2016 referendum.

Two points follow. First, backing a EU referendum runs the risk of exacerbating the division over Brexit that exists in the wider Yes movement – and with the polls still showing Yes to be behind, if Ms Sturgeon is ever to lead her country down the path of independence that is a prospect that she needs to avoid. Second, the fact that support for Remain is so high amongst those who voted SNP in 2017 is in part at least a reflection of the fact that, as we showed in the most recent British Social Attitudes report, the party lost ground particularly heavily among those who voted Leave the previous year. In short, there is already evidence that backing Remain can cost the nationalist movement the support of Leave voters.

At the same time, Ms Sturgeon faces a Brexit paradox. She and most of her party may be firmly committed to remaining part of the EU, but in truth she probably regards her shortest route to holding and winning a second independence referendum to be for the UK to leave the EU, only for the endeavour then to come to be regarded as something of a disaster by voters. Indeed, much excitement was created towards the end of the summer when a poll by Deltapoll for the pro-EU Best for Britain campaign reported that 47% said that they would vote for independence should the UK leave the EU, while only 43% stated that they would vote to stay part of the UK.  In truth, the results of such hypothetical questions should always be taken with a pinch of salt, while the swing from how the same group of respondents said that they would vote in an independence referendum held now was, at 3%, decidedly small. But still, Ms Sturgeon must be wondering how much effort she should put into rescuing the UK from what she at least doubtless regards as its Brexit folly.

This post is also published on the whatscotlandthinks.org website.

Has There Been Any Kind of Swing Between Remain and Leave?

Have our attitudes towards remaining in or leaving the EU changed at all? In publishing today a ‘EURef2 Poll of Polls’ and backdating it to the beginning of this year, we are now able to provide a simple summary of the evidence that the polls are providing on this question.

The first thing to note is just how extraordinarily stable the picture has been during the last nine months. We started the year with Remain on 52% and Leave on 48% – and our latest poll of polls also shows Remain on 52% and Leave on 48%.

Moreover, the picture has barely changed at all during the intervening months. Support for Remain did fall slightly in March when a couple of polls put Leave ahead. Momentarily the two sides were neck and neck in the poll of polls. However, by the end of April the figures had returned to where they had been at the beginning of the year. More recently, it appeared as though there might have been a bit of a swing in the opposite direction, with Remain edging up to 53% and Leave down to 47% in the wake of the publication of the Chequers Agreement. But that movement too has subsequently looked to be short-lived.

In short, neither side in the Brexit debate has secured any ‘momentum’ so far as the balance of public opinion is concerned – and any claims to the contrary made by protagonists on either side of the debate should be regarded with considerable scepticism. But, of course, what our ‘poll of polls’ does show is that the balance of opinion is now tilted slightly in the opposite direction from that which emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016. Indeed, this has not only been the position throughout last year, but also in most polls ever since last year’s general election.

However, this does not necessarily mean that many a Leave voter has changed their mind. This becomes clear if we look underneath the bonnet of the headline figures and examine separately how those who voted Remain, those who backed Leave, and those who did not vote at all, now say they would vote in another referendum. This information is shown in the table below, which is based on the average of the most recent poll conducted by each of the five companies that have polled within the last month or so.

There is some evidence that those who voted Leave are a little less likely than those who voted Remain to say that they would vote the same way again. Such a pattern is found in some though not all polls – and indeed was also found in the most recent wave of NatCen’s panel survey. Thus, when we average the figures out across a number of polls, we find that 87% of Leave voters say that they would vote the same way again, a little below the 90% of Remain voters who say that they would do so.

What, however, is to be seen in every poll is a marked tendency for those who did not vote in 2016 to be more likely to say that they would vote Remain rather than Leave – though note that many do not indicate a preference at all. Some of these will be voters who were too young to vote two years ago, while others will be those who for whatever reason chose not to do so.

This suggests that in practice the outcome of any second referendum might well depend on the extent to which those who did not or could not vote first time around actually make it to the polls. Disproportionately younger voters as they are, past experience suggests that there is certainly no guarantee that they will do so in large numbers. Equally, identifying who will and (especially) who will not vote is one of the more challenging tasks that faces pollsters. At this juncture at least, and bearing in mind too that polls are not always perfect, the only safe conclusion that can probably be drawn is that that the outcome of any second ballot would most likely be close – just, of course, as the first one was.