How Voters Have Viewed the Article 50 Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Time Lucky – Perhaps?

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

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

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

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

Attitudes to the Deal

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

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

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

Holding Another Referendum

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

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

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

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

Delaying Brexit

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

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

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

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

Are Voters Ready To Leave With No Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Nothing Changed?

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

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

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

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

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

But not everything is unaltered.

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

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

Has There Been a Shift in Support for Brexit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching in Vain? The Hunt for a Brexit Compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.