Something of a flutter was created last week by the latest reading on attitudes towards Brexit from YouGov for The Times. Ever since the EU referendum last year, the company has regularly been asking its respondents, ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?’. In the most recent poll, as many as 47% said that they thought the decision was wrong, while only 42% felt that it was right. It was quite easily the biggest lead for ‘wrong’ yet recorded by the company.
Perhaps inevitably, there have been two divergent reactions to the finding. Whilst some have leapt on it as evidence that the public are beginning to regret the decision that they made in June of last year, others have suggested that too much attention was being paid to one poll that might in the event prove to be a bit of a rogue.
The most recent YouGov reading is, in truth, neither a wholly isolated nor an utterly surprising result. Before the general election campaign got under way YouGov regularly found that slightly more people thought the decision to leave was right than reckoned it was wrong. For example, in six polls conducted in March and early April the company reported that on average 45% thought the decision to leave was right while 42.5% reckoned it was wrong. In contrast, since the election the two groups have been evenly balanced, with on average (across eight polls) 44% saying the decision was right and 44% that it was wrong. In short, the pattern of responses to the ‘In hindsight’ question have for some time suggested that the balance of opinion might have shifted a little, albeit still leaving the country split more or less down the middle on the subject.
There is also some corroboration for this apparent a slight tilt away from Leave from one other company, BMG Research. It recently released the results of regular monthly readings that it had taken since November of last year of how people would vote now in response to the question that appeared on the referendum ballot paper (readings that had not previously been published). In the three polls BMG conducted at the beginning of this year, on average 45% said they would vote for Remain, 46% for Leave. In the company’s three most recent polls, the equivalent figures have been Remain 46%, Leave 44%.
No other company, however, has asked people their current referendum vote intention with sufficient consistency to establish whether there has been something of a tilt towards Remain since the election. Survation have recently been asking people on a regular basis how they would vote now in response to the question that appeared on the ballot paper last year, but only started doing so after the general election was over. All we can do is but note is that on the six occasions they have done so, on average Remain were on 48% and Leave on 47%. Similarly, Opinium have on three recent occasions asked people how they would vote if a referendum were held now – and on average put Remain on 43% and Leave on 41%. However (as is also true of Survation) prior to these three recent readings Opinium had only asked respondents this question on one previous occasion, and that was many, many months ago. In short, all we can secure from these two companies is corroboration that the balance of opinion on the subject is still very evenly divided.
We might though look for further evidence on the issue from the responses to questions that have asked people on a consistent basis what kind of Brexit they would prefer. Two companies, Opinium and ORB International, have been doing so on a regular basis since before the general election. Opinium have asked their respondents which should be the UK government’s priority in the negotiations with the EU, ‘staying in the single market even if it means allowing free movement of labour’ or ‘ending free movement of labour even if it means we leave the single market’. In three readings taken up to and including the beginning of May, Opinium reported on average that 36% prioritised single market access, and 38% favoyred freedom of movement. In contrast, in three readings taken since the election, the equivalent figures have been 39% and 37% respectively. So here there again seems to be a slight tilt, in this case towards a softer Brexit. However, this result has not been replicated by ORB who have regularly asked their respondents whether they agree or disagree that, ‘Having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU’? In four readings taken before the election, 45% said on average that they agreed, 41% that they disagreed. In the four most recent (post-election) readings the equivalent figures have been 44% and 41% respectively.
Against this backdrop the wise commentator treads warily. There clearly is some evidence beyond that provided by the most recent YouGov reading to suggest that there might have been a slight tilt of opinion in favour or Remain and, in turn, a softer Brexit. But, equally that evidence is both limited and not entirely consistent while, such as it is, only points to the slightest of tilts. Of course, it would only take a slight shift for a second referendum to produce a different outcome from that in the ballot last year – but it is far from certain that the result would indeed be different if a second contest were to be held now. The one and only safe conclusion we can draw is that Britain is divided about Brexit – and that has been the case ever since June 23rd last year.