Has Nothing Changed?

Posted on 27 February 2019 by John Curtice

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.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

12 thoughts on “Has Nothing Changed?

  1. @Douglas

    I found your view interesting to read but I’m not sure I agree with your point about: ‘They are mistaken.’. Even the way people like the First Minister of Scotland are interpreting the numbers might suggest that Leave actually has a bigger margin, because she is now framing her Scottish result as: ‘Do you wish to stay in the EU, instead of staying in the UK?’, which clearly wasn’t on the ballot.
    That type of quasi-independent Scotland, Pro EU, anti-British (but probably more anti-English) angle probably isn’t the ‘we’ve had enough of referendums anger/turmoil, so let’s vote for no change’ result we might have been seeing in Scotland at the time.
    The polls throughout the time of the referendum were predicting a comfortable win for Remain, so if many Scots were largely voting for the non-controversial in harmony with UK option, then they might have voted in larger numbers for Leave – than remain – had the polls accurately forecast a sizeable majority(in terms of Scotland’s voting population) for Leave.

    As for your second point describing most Leave voters as malcontents (rebelling against everything because of unhappiness) and would have voted for change in an opposite scenario – of us being out of the EU voting to join – I think that is a fair conclusion to come to if the description of Leave voters was accurate. I on the other hand would classify most Leave voters as feeling very disenfranchised in the EU because its an additional tier of disenfranchisement beyond the first tier of disenfranchisement that is Westminster. Disenfranchised voters want less bureaucracy, less abstraction so that those failing to maintain/raise standards in our way of life or defend our nation’s interests, public services, etc can’t shift blame to someone else, and therefore be held to account and replaced with someone better.

    As for Leave voters not being troubled by ‘practical factors of leaving’, I find that point to be very disingenuous with regard to the North Ireland border issue, as it is well known we aren’t going to build a border – as we have no fear about single market goods undercutting WTO goods on import duties, when we are already paying an unnecessary 20%(?) extra to the EU on those (billions? Trillions? of pounds of) WT goods at present – , and the EU aren’t building a border because it would breach the Good Friday agreement – although they are very much worried about losing their competitive edge for selling EU goods into Britain and probably Northern Ireland becoming a conduit to sell non-taxed WT goods into Ireland and beyond – so for them it is a smokescreen protection for their single market economic interests. And as for all the other aspects of ‘practical factors’, the Remainer’s economic argument is being made on headline numbers about projected GDP, shrinking growth, and things like frictionless trade – something that actually is a tax break for big companies to improve their margins because friction is an additional business function/service creating more jobs meaning better wealth distribution and more tax receipts.
    Wealth distribution is most likely the one thing that Leave voters know (through instinct of what’s good for them) will improve in the UK by leaving; even without a deal. If super wealthy status quo backers are losing(and that’s from the UK economy), then that wealth has to go elsewhere.
    Wealth distribution is always a percentage from 100%. You always have the same wealth in the world and only its representations change – and I’d posit that most UK voters only worry about their percentage of wealth in UK when it goes up or down, with the overall variations in the UK’s GDP being of little concern for them.

    We have now been in the common market 40years and that hasn’t brought an end to ‘boom and bust’ or stopped things like cyclical recessions, the Black Wednesday delisting of Sterling at a cost of £3 billion, the 2006 economic downturn (Great Recession) with a banking bailout in excess of £45 billion, 100year old retailers like Woolworths going out of business costing 27,000jobs, along with a massive drop in wealth distribution for the last 40year since we joined the EU, etc, etc. So despite the possible economic risks of leaving the EU, voters have seen no protection from any of these risks while being part of the EU, either and yet they’ve still survived. So IMO whether we leave or remain in the EU isn’t going to massively change the long term fortunes of a wealthy and powerful capitalist island like UK(+Ni,etc) because you can’t stop economies going up and down, and virtually all aspects of picking the best path for the future throw up a myriad of existential questions, even when people are claiming to be making decisions to ‘save jobs’.Report

  2. The PM is only offering a very narrow firm of Brexit . It’s been rejected 3 times. Now negotiating with Labour seems to be going down a customs union theory. This is not Brexit and cannot be voted for. If they do. These MP’s face massive deselections and rejection at the next election . Why is it that what we voted for is being denied. It’s like the PM and MP’s are saying we are elite the public do not know what they are doing. My future voting is now seriously going to change away from Lab Con. finished with them. It was credible to just leave with no deal Report

  3. I voted leave not because of the numbers on a red bus which by the way said could be used by, but because i don’t want my country to become I state of Europe.Why have our elected MPs no pride or belief in this country. I truly know quite a few friends who voted remain and have changed their minds . So if we are forced to go through this again the result would be another victory for leave and democracy.

  4. Whilst I described myself as one of the uninformed on the subject upon which we were being asked to vote I would not not have voted at all had I not decided to bone up on it first.
    Whilst most people appear to have studied only the tabloids and the sides of buses and listened only to self-interested, disingenuous and cowardly politicians. I decided to avoid this cesspit of political chicanery and turned to academics and non-partisan experts on the machinations and modus operandi of the EU and our place within it. It was an enlightening experience.

    I discovered (surprise) that the EU is not a perfect institution. It has many flaws and faults and is in need of reform. Like us, it, is run by politicians (another surprise) It is ponderous and cliquey (like our parliament), and, (this will definitely shock all brexiters) it is democratic. It is not first past the post democratic which is the preference of schoolchildren and the archaic and virtually always binary, but different and quite certainly democratic. It has to be different it involves (at the moment) 28 dfferent countries. Just think about that 28 DIFFERENT SOVEREIGN NATIONS. The very concept of that is huge and staggering in its complexity.

    The fact that it has worked as well as it has for this long is nothing short of incredible and we should be crowing to have been an important part of that, not trying desperately to become a second-world spectator. We need to be a part of it to make sure it changes to suit present circumstances and keeps changing accordingly.

    The more I learned about it I kept coming back to the same statistic that this is the longest period in history that we have not been involved in armed conflict against another European nation. That is undoubtedly because of the existence of the EU. Wikipedia – The European Union was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its efforts to maintain and actively foster peace within its borders as well as internationally through diplomatic means. WE didn’t get that prize The EU did with us as a member.
    That statistic alone was enough for me to count my blessings and wish to remain a part of it. Call me a snowflake and a dirty altruist if you like but give me a choice of indefinite peace or the permanent cold (sometimes lava hot) war outside Europe and I and my children and grandchildren will be happy to melt in the sun.
    Not to mention of course that they are our nearest neighbours, and our biggest trading partners which tells me that we are obviously going to be worse off without membership. How clever am I to have worked that out!

    I get it, brexiters are still convinced that because we came out on the winning side in the last two skirmishes we had in Europe, they (who have never been in sniffing distance of even an argument let alone a war) will weather the economic disaster we are undoubtedly heading towards by invoking the mythical ‘blitz spirit’ of our forefathers. You couldn’t make it up. They of course would never say we were on the winning side in any war only that WE won the war. Because they are incapable of accepting that we all need help at some time to achieve greater things they feel that setting their jaws against Europe yet again, this time economically, they are somehow going to be bigger and better standing alone (read your history books, the last war we fought in Blighty against Johnny foreigner, without the help of allies or mercenaries was in 1066, didn’t turn out well).

    Once more the Brits have missed the point of being inside the tent, pissing out. Unity is and always has been strength (ask Mrs May). We will have to find some strange bedfellows (Trump anyone?) to even survive in the wider world. Methinks some ****** huge birds are going to come home to roost and the UK will not get those turds off our windscreen in a hurry.

  5. Douglas. In the absence of a return of any kind, I declare game set and match to your good self. Your original post was lucid intelligent and well made. A refreshing change from much of the vitriolic and bogus ‘anti-democratic’ argument that abounds on this subject.
    This whole debacle has been embarassingly amteurish and imeasurably inept from the moment the referendum was called. The binary choice without any clear honest and informative arguments offereed by either side was humiliatingly illuminating of the lack of knowledge of our ruling elites. Vanishingly few of them have redeemed themselves since the result. Most have in fact continued to dig vigorously in an attempt to get out of their personal holes.
    This must surely go down in political history as the political generation from the very bottom of a very deep barrel, and I include 90% of both sides of both houses.
    I was surprised at the closeness of the referendum result but more surprised that an uninformed electorate (I include myself) were handed a first past the post binary vote of huge constitutional importance, that will change the face of this country radically, without a 2/3rds majority. No other mature democracy in the world would have done that.

  6. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the only thing driving the government to leave the EU is their claim that the referendum result is a true reflection of ‘the will of the people’. They are mistaken.

    Every society has there share of people who are dissatisfied with their lot, be it their job (or lack of one), their personal wealth (or lack of it), their housing, their standing in their community or their educational qualifications. Although many of the 17m people who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum did so for good and logical reasons, an analysis of the results indicate that a proportion of that 17m were from this unhappy group.

    Most of them look outside themselves for the reason for their unfortunate circumstances – and in many cases they are justified. Some blame their parents, their teachers, the NHS, local government, the unions, the bosses, immigrants, the rich elite, our political system and indeed Her Majesty’s Government whatever persuasion it happens to be.

    Then somebody comes along and tells these malcontents that it’s all the fault of the European Union and asks them if we should leave it. It’s an exciting prospect – of greener grass – and they embrace it with great passion. It’s their one chance in life to change things. They’re not troubled by the practical factors of leaving, like the effect on our economy, on our security and on our reputation throughout the world; the implications on the Good Friday Agreement, or the risks of Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK, or indeed the risks of weakened Europe. Why should they be bothered by such things? It’s up to the Government to sort them all out.

    They were asked a simple question – too simple – and responded emotionally with hope in their hearts with a simple answer: we don’t want to remain as we are. The tragedy is that leaving the EU will not improve their lives in the way they expect, and certainly not in the short term. They didn’t understand that there is a price to pay, and that they and their families will share that burden. They seized their chance to change their world and voted accordingly. Had we been outside the EU in 2016 and the referendum had asked a similar question, I guess many of them would have voted to join it.

    The Government have misjudged the result of the referendum for three reasons:-

    Firstly, they are ignoring the ‘grass is greener’ effect. Some Leave voters just wanted a change. They simply wanted to chuck in their hand in the hope of getting a better deal. The alternative offered just happened to be leaving the EU.

    Secondly, the Government are not taking into account the 12.9m eligible voters who did not vote. While it’s usually acceptable to assume their wishes would follow the same ratios as those who did vote, this is not necessarily the case. Many Leavers were spurred, admirably, by passion and were anxious to have their say. But for Remainers it was hard to feel passionate about voting for the status quo, especially when opinion polls said Remain was going to win anyway.

    Finally, there was a protest vote : ‘if Cameron tells me to vote Remain, I’ll vote Leave’. For those voters, it was not about the EU at all.

    One could argue that these three effects are minor and would not have affected the result. But when the majority of Leave over Remain was only 1.27m out of an electorate of 46.5m, these factors do become important.


    1. And so you would like to believe Douglas. You are a Remainer, going against our great democracy. Therefore a traitor to Great Britain, who is looking to blame someone else for your treachery! Think again Douglas, I, my family and other Leave voters, are educated enough to recognise a con when we see one. The reason we voted to Leave was to remove ourselves from an Institute, which has never balanced its books in 40 years and is lead by tyrants. After seeing the treatment handed out to Great Britain by the EU over the past 2 years, the question should be “why would anyone want to stay with them”? Sadly most MP’s in power at the moment are thinking about their future roles in the EU, when they lose their seats!

      1. Thank you, Wyn, for your reply. At least you voted to leave for good reasons. What I am and what I believe is completely irrelevant to the technical argument about how the referendum was conducted and what it showed. However, I am passionate about our democracy which is why I’m interested in sites like this which are non-partisan and – in my view – are trying to find out what we as a nation really think.

        Actually, I initially supported Leave, probably for the same reasons as you do now, but when it all got in a bit of a mess, I thought the price we would pay for leaving would outweigh the advantages. I could be wrong.

        Enough about me. Are you in the 15% of the public who support May’s deal. Or do you prefer No-Deal?Report

      2. Wyn, further to my early reply to you, I should make it clear that only 15% of the public think May’s deal is better than remaining in the EU (YouGov poll 6-7 Feb). I don’t know how much support there is for No-Deal.

        By the way, if you do answer my question – or reply to me in any other way – I will not be rude to you or call you names, or accuse you of anything. I think we both want the same for our country, but we differ on the route we should take. Report

      3. Sorry, Wyn, but you did ask me to think again. And that’s what I’m doing. Do you think all Remainers are ‘going against our great democracy’? Surely that’s the essence of democracy, that individuals can freely express their views and the majority wishes are followed. And are all Remainers traitors, or is it just me? I must say I am somewhat flattered to be accused of treachery, simply by commenting on this site!Report

  7. My text was severed by the I.T. – may I please re-post:
    (moderator delete the previous ?)

    1) (Severed section, complete:)
    May and Corbyn have both executed a certain kind of treason by cynically deciding to ignore that role and duty of Parliament – rather than openly engaging with it – by disdaining that duty since at least October (it was a horrific prior marker of that > intention intention https://tinyurl.com/ycvzckyt

  8. Constitutional complaint:
    Mrs May betrays the only institution loved and needed by us all:

    A point may have been missed by many.
    Parliament is our most valued asset.
    It is sovereign – but: it has not only power, but also duty.
    It guarantees us, and we are proud of it, perhaps more than anything else.
    Its proper running is our guarantee of continued freedom from unbalanced political rule (euphemism for chaos or tyranny).
    It thus has a duty to the citizen of faithfully reflecting the opinion of the public.
    And it is a duty of members to respect that role.

    May and Corbyn have both executed a certain kind of treason by cynically deciding to ignore that role and duty of Parliament – rather than openly engaging with it – by disdaining that duty since at least October (It was a horrific prior marker of that > intention https://tinyurl.com/ycvzckyt ) as the fair means to evaluate any deal proposed – which is perfectly logical. He is quite right: the electorate indicates an overall intention. As it becomes a real proposal, they see whether they approve the negotiation. If they don’t, the procedure fails, and the overall intention must be set aside (until a better version is negotiated, as the case may be).


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