Have Attitudes Towards a Second Referendum Reached a ‘Turning Point’?

Posted on 16 April 2018 by John Curtice

There has recently been increased talk about the possibility of holding another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU once the Brexit negotiations have come to some kind of conclusion. A few weeks ago, two former Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Sir John Major, voiced their support for the idea. More recently, much of the speculation was sparked by a poll conducted by YouGov for the pro-EU campaign, Best for Britain. This was reported by the (also pro-EU) web-based newspaper, The Independent, as showing that ‘support is growing for a fresh referendum on the final Brexit deal’, while Eloise Todd, the Chief Executive of Best for Britain, was quoted as saying, ‘This poll is a turning-point moment’. Meanwhile, on Sunday, a campaign in favour of holding a second referendum, called ‘‘The People’s Vote’’, was launched at a rally in London addressed by a number of well-known critics of Brexit.

But is there any reason to believe that there has been a decisive shift in public attitudes towards holding a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal? When we last wrote about this subject at the end of January it was suggested that there was little consistent evidence that attitudes had changed. Is there any reason now to revise that judgement?

Let us start by looking a little more closely at the poll undertaken by Best for Britain. The report of this poll in The Independent focused on the responses to a question that read:


 Once the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over a Brexit deal have been completed, do you think the public should or should not have a final say on whether Britain accepts the deal or remains in the EU after all? 


While 36% replied that there ‘should not’ be such a ballot, rather more, 44%, thought that there should. The remaining 19% said that they were ‘not sure’.

This was the first time that this particular question had been asked in a poll. So, by definition, it cannot be regarded as capable of providing a robust basis for claiming that support for a fresh referendum has risen or fallen since some previous point in time. But even if we were to be generous and suggest that the finding might be compared with the results of other, differently worded polls on the subject, the poll still failed to provide any basis to suggest that its finding represented some kind of ‘turning point’. For, as we noted in January, there have been a number of previous polls, most notably from ICM and Survation, that have reported a majority in favour of holding another ballot.  In December Survation said that 50% were in favour of a second referendum and 34% against, while in a much publicised poll for The Guardian in January, 47% backed the idea while, again, 34% were opposed. In short, rather than representing a ‘turning point’ the level of support for another ballot in the Best for Britain poll was lower than in some previous polls.

Meanwhile the question that was the subject of The Independent’s coverage was, in fact, not the only one about a second referendum that was included on the Best for Britain poll. That question was asked of just a random half of the YouGov sample. Meanwhile, the other half was asked a different question, which, curiously, was omitted from the details of the poll that was provided in Best for Britain’s press release on the poll, but which came to light when YouGov posted full details of the poll as it was required to do by the British Polling Council’s rules on transparency. This question read as follows:


 Once the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over a Brexit deal have been completed, do you think there should or should not be a public vote on whether Britain accepts the deal or remains in the EU after all? 


It obtained a somewhat different result. While in response to this question 39% said that there ‘should’ be a public vote, 45% replied that there ‘should not’. (Seventeen per cent said they were not sure.) In short, while one question in the poll found a plurality in favour of a second ballot, another reported that a plurality were opposed.

What, in truth, was really of interest in the Best for Britain poll was that it provided the best evidence we have had yet that voters’ attitudes towards a second ballot depend on how the issue is addressed. Giving the public ‘a final say’ sounds more attractive to some voters than does ‘a public vote’ – and (as the details of the Best for Britain poll show) especially to those who voted Leave.  This finding reflects the attempt we made in January to explain why Survation and ICM had produced results that were much more favourable to the idea of a second referendum than those that had been published by Opinium and YouGov –  we suggested that it was because the description of a second ballot used by the former pair of companies adopted a more ‘populist’ tone that emphasised the role of voters as the final arbiters in the Brexit process. Those campaigning for a second referendum have evidently taken this lesson on board in calling their proposed ballot, ‘The People’s Vote’.

But that still leaves us with the question as to whether attitudes towards a second referendum, however described, have actually changed in recent weeks. Fortunately, last week YouGov also ran once again the question they have periodically asked about the subject during the course of the last twelve months. This latest reading showed that 38% felt that there should be a second referendum to accept or reject the terms of the Brexit deal, while 45% were opposed. The seven-point lead for ‘should not’ was almost exactly in line with the results of the three previous readings this year, all of which recorded either a six- or seven-point opposition lead. There is, in short, no sign here of any recent change in the balance of opinion on holding a second referendum.

That said, there is one reason for a measure of optimism in the pro-second referendum camp. Taken collectively the four readings that YouGov have published this year have all showed somewhat lower levels of opposition to the idea than before. In the company’s four previous readings, taken between September and December last year, there was on average as much as a 12-point lead for ‘should not’, almost twice the lead recorded in this year’s four readings. It would be good to see some updated evidence from other polling companies on this issue, but those arguing for a second referendum may have made some progress in the court of public opinion, even if there is no sign, as yet at least, that attitudes have reached a ‘turning point’.

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.

7 thoughts on “Have Attitudes Towards a Second Referendum Reached a ‘Turning Point’?

  1. I agree with the “Remainers” in that there should be a second referendum – but not until 2057. 41 years after the previous one. Can’t say fairer than that now can I?Report

  2. I firmly believe that the Remainers have no idea about the life that many people live in this country. They ordinary person is being betrayed by the House of Lords and are about to be betrayed by the House of Commons. All these people who know better.
    I am starting to believe another vote of some kind will take place. If the clever people manage to frame the question to distort the result there will be civic trouble. We need another in/out referendum: the self proclaimed ‘anywheres’ will once again be shocked by the ‘somewheres’.

  3. “the question as to whether attitudes towards a second referendum, however described, have … changed ..” There is here no such question as can be called “the question”.
    It is clear that attitudes are sensitive to very exactly what question is put (and this is more than a matter of ‘description’). Meanwhile it is contentious to speak of “a second referendum” (strongly suggestive of a repeat of the 2016 question) as soon as one allows that a variety of questions might be put.
    Myself, I favour what I’d want to call ‘a vote on the deal, and I should like the question not to contain the word ‘Remain’ (which for some will make it seem merely a means of giving so-called Remoaners another chance).
    Those in the House of Commons who want The Commons empowered to introduce a vote on the deal need to get clear exactly what they want at the same time as telling us why they want it. I don’t find it obvious that the choice would need to be binary. Indeed the fact that the UK will have more than one way to go when the negotiations are concluded is something that might be explained in explaining why the electorate should vote.Report

  4. Having the Brexit referendum was a unique event due to unique causes. An important policy choice – Brexit or not – cut across party lines in such a way that no party would run in a GE except in favour of staying in the EU. To give the voters a choice, therefore, required a referendum that offered that choice independent of party platforms.

    But the supposed case for a second referendum has nothing unique about it. We told the Government to get on with Brexit, they engaged in technical negotiations with the EU, they will or will not be able to achieve an exit agreement.

    What is different to *any* Government activity? If the Government handling the technical details of Brexit requires a follow-up referendum, then what does not? What is the argument for a second referendum to confirm, or not, what the Government manages to achieve not also an argument for a follow-up referendum on every FTA they negotiate, on a new immigration system, on membership of NATO, membership of CERN, etc., or on any bilateral agreement with any country in the future?

    The first referendum was required because Brexit did not fit neatly into our current system of representative democracy, but a second referendum would begin the process of demolishing representative democracy by introducing the principle that the actions of an elected Government need to be confirmed by referendum.

    If we want to abolish representative democracy, we should debate *that* and not try to sneak the abolition of representative democracy in by the back door of a second referendum.Report

  5. But such a Ref would need at least 4 options. To make sense Refs need to be binary choices. C’mon John Curtice, you’re the polls guru, can you tell people (and particularly Best for Britain) such a Ref does not make sense.

    4 Options –
    1 Accept the deal whatever it is
    2 Reject the deal because don’t want any deal and think we should just walk away
    3 Reject the deal and continue negotiating (presumably with different negotiators) in the hope (forlorn as it might be) of securing a better one.
    4 Reject the deal because want to stay a member and reverse Article 50 or reapply to join (depending on time of Ref).

    Now that would have to be an advisory poll, would be even more difficult to interpret than the original one and would not resolve any arguements at all.

    1. What’s wrong with different options? In what sense do they “not make sense”. In the Scottish vote on devolution they could vote on: “against” , “for” without tax raising powers or “for” with tax raising power. That worked well enough. One way to allow people to vote on a range of options would be an alternative vote system, where they put them in order of preference.

      While an awful lot of people claim they know “the will of the people” on the basis of a yes/no answer to a single question, only through asking the electorate a range of questions will there be any chance of realistically assessing “the will of the people”. Indeed such an assessment would probably arrive at the conclusion that sensible people already know: there is no such thing as “the will of the people”.Report

  6. Best for Britain complain that Leave won the 2016 referendum through lies and misinformation, yet they have no qualms about misrepresenting the results of their opinion poll …Report

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