The Mail on Sunday today had a new Survation poll on Brexit, YouGov had a longer Brexit poll in the week. After a general election that was supposed to be a “Brexit election” but didn’t really contain much debate about Brexit, the agenda is now moving back onto the subject.

Public opinion on Brexit tends to be a bit unclear and nebulous. It’s one of those subjects where the impression created by a poll depends an awful lot on the questions asked and the wording used. With complex issues where people’s opinions are fairly uncertain it does makes an awful lot of difference how you ask the question. As ever, the best way of understanding it is to look at all the polling, not to jump on bits that appear to tell you want to want to hear. So in the spirit of that, what can we tell?

What sort of Brexit people want

Questions about the sort of Brexit people want come down to a couple of different patterns. One is asking if we should stay in the single market and/or the customs union. Other questions frame it as a trade off between immigration control and free trade. My preference is generally for questions that ask about Brexit packages are a deal, but there are even countless different ways of doing that (most notable degree to which they are described using terms like “soft” and “hard Brexit”).

There is also a question of what criteria you measure Brexit preferences by. It’s not just whether the sort of Brexit that the government delivers is seen as being good for Britain, it’s also a matter of whether it is seen as democratic. Are the government honouring the referendum result? This is most evident in questions about what the government should do now. 48% voted for Britain to remain a member of the EU in June 2016 and if you ask if that result was the right or wrong thing to do, or how people would vote if the referendum was repeated, you tend to find not much has changed: about half the country would vote to stay. However, questions asking what the government should do NOW generally paint a very different picture. YouGov consistently find around half of Remain voters now say that while they don’t support Brexit, they think they government is duty bound to go ahead with it. A new question on their poll this week asked what the government should now do on Brexit following the general election – 66% wanted to proceed with Brexit (43% on current plans, 23% for a softer Brexit), 17% wanted a fresh referendum, just 7% wanted to stop Brexit completely.

That’s not because only 7% of people would, ultimately, like to remain in the European Union (later in the same poll YouGov asked people to put their favoured outcomes in rank order and 35% of people would still, ideally, like Britain to remain a member), it’s because a substantial proportion of people think that the government has a duty to go ahead an implement the referendum result, even if they personally disagree with its outcome. For anyone campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, that’s probably the more difficult obstacle… not convincing the public that Remaining would be good, but that it would be democratically legitimate.

Soft v Hard

If we are to leave, that brings us to the question is the balance between “hard” and “soft” Brexit. The terms themselves are a problem – personally I try avoid using them in questions as it’s unclear what people understand by the terms (Note how opponents of hard Brexit have started to call it “extreme Brexit”, rather than “hard Brexit”). I’ve always assumed that there is a majority to be found in favour of a “soft Brexit”: 48% of people voted to stay in the EU as it was and would presumably be fairly happy with a soft Brexit. Equally some minority of Leave voters would prefer a soft Brexit to a hard one. Even if the vast majority prefer a harder Brexit, when combined with the opinions of Remainers it only takes a few percentage points of soft Leavers to build a majority for soft Brexit.

Just asking about whether people would like to keep free trade or stay in the single market rather misses the point. I suspect the single market is just being seen as a euphemism for free trade, so the vast majority say they want to keep it. Equally when it is asked in isolation a large majority of people want to end the right of EU migrants to freely come to Britain. To give one example, a poll by NatCen earlier in the year found 68% in favour of treating EU migrants like non-EU migrants, and 88% in favour of free trade with the EU. These don’t tell us much beyond the the fact that ideally people would like all the benefits of EU membership without the responsibilities – of course they would. The interesting questions come when we start asking people to make trade offs.

There have been lots of different questions asking people to pick between free trade and immigration control when it comes to the Brexit deal. The wording makes a difference here (I am suspicious of questions asking about “freedom of movement” and the “single market” because I’m not sure people know exactly what they mean), but there is a clear pattern. To give some examples:

  • Opinium ask a regular question asking people to choose between the single market and ending free movement of Labour, typically the split is down the middle (in their last poll 37% preferred staying in the single market, 38% preferred ending free movement).
  • NatCen in February found 54% thought we should “allow people from EU freely to come and live and work” in return for “allowing UK firms to trade freely with the EU”, 44% did not.
  • In February Ipsos MORI found 40% of people thought EU citizens should continue to have the right to free movement in return from British access to the EU single market, 41% thought they should not, even if that meant losing access to the single market

These questions all assume, of course, that the public see this as an actual choice. That is not nececssarily the case – some people think it is a false choice, and that Britain will indeed be able to have its cake and eat it:

  • In March YouGov asked a version of the question that asked people to choose between it being more important to control EU immigration than keep free trade, more important to keep free trade than control immigration… but gave people the option of saying that it’s a false choice and that it was possible to do both. 16% thought it was more important to control immigration, 24% that it was more important to keep free trade… 40% that it was possible to do both (when forced to choose the 40% split down the middle, so overall more people wanted to keep free trade)
  • Opinium have a question along the same lines asking how likely they think it is that Britain could both stay in the single market AND stop free movement of labour from the EU – in their last poll 16% thought it was likely, 37% either didn’t know or didn’t think it likely or unlikely.

Looking overall at the questions, they tend to show it either very close or slightly more people valuing free trade over immigration control. However a substantial majority do think that both are possible, so actually selling a compromise as necessary may be tricky for the government.

Another caveat is that these questions do rather assume that the public’s big sticking point is going to be immigration. That’s not necessarily the case – for example, in April ICM asked in what areas the government should be willing to make compromises in negotiations: 54% said that a transitional deal on immigration would be acceptable, 48% said giving preference to EU immigrants over non-EU immigrants would be acceptable. On contrast, a majority thought that it would be unacceptable for the government to compromise on paying towards the outstanding costs of EU projects agreed when Britain was still a member. YouGov found similar in polling last summer – 51% thought allowing EU immigration was a price worth paying, but only 41% thought a financial contribution to the EU would be. Don’t necessarily assume that immigration is the trickiest obstacle.

Equally, before assuming that costs would necessarily be a deal-breaker for the public, the Survation poll at the weekend asked a different trade off – whether people would be willing to pay a fee in order to secure membership of the Customs Union. 27% would like Britain to leave the customs union, 37% would rather Britain pay a fee to remain a member.

Some other polls have asked wider ranging questions, asking about whole Brexit packages. My general assumption is that this is likely to be a better guide – in the end the Brexit deal is likely to be judged by whether it sounds good overall, rather than on a sum of its parts.

Before Theresa May set out her negotiating stance at the start of the year YouGov asked people about various Brexit scenarios. These suggest more problems with selling a “soft Brexit” to the public: a Norway style soft Brexit where Britain became a member of EFTA, stayed in the single market with EU immigration and a financial contribution was seen as good for Britain by 35%, bad for Britain by 38%. However only 32% thought it would respect the referendum result, 42% thought it would not. Compared to that Theresa May’s version of Brexit is popular – asked this week 52% still think her version of Brexit would be good for Britain (compared to 51% in March), 61% think it would respect the result of the referendum. By promising a trade deal AND controls on immigration she is presenting a version of Brexit that people would be happy with. The question is whether it is realistically possible. If May fails to secure the sort of Brexit she has asks for and returns with a deal that involves only limited free trade and customs checks and tariffs on British people think it would be bad for Britain by 42% to 31%.

Has the election changed the situation?

Given the variations you get from different question wordings on Brexit, the only real way of measuring if attitudes to Brexit have changed in face of the general election result are long term tracking questions. The YouGov survey this week was mostly made up of repeats of questions that were last asked before the election was called, and with a few important exceptions, opinion hasn’t changed much.

Directly comparing people’s preferences on Brexit there does appear to be a little shift towards a softer Brexit. Last November a hard Brexit of some sort was the first preference of 52% of people (26% favoured no deal at all with the EU, 26% only a limited deal), a soft Brexit or remaining a member was favoured by 48% (17% a soft Brexit, 31% remaining a member). Now only 45% support a hard Brexit (23% no deal, 22% a limited deal), 54% either a soft Brexit or Remaining (19% and 35% respectively).

The more drastic change has been confidence in Theresa May to deliver Brexit. Obviously this is not Brexit specific – the public’s attitude towards May has nose-dived across the board. Nevertheless, back in January 47% had confidence in May to negotiate the sort of Brexit she wanted, that has now fallen to 37%. In April 40% thought the government were doing well at negotiating Brexit, that is now only 22%.

This change is important – ultimately when Theresa May comes back with a final Brexit deal, she will be the person selling it to the British public (if she is still there, of course). Any political message depends a great deal on the person making it, and the Theresa May the public mostly thought very highly of in April 2017 would have been a far more effective saleswomen than the Theresa May we have now. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t have much political capital left to spend on selling her Brexit deal.

A second referendum?

Polling on a second referendum is somewhat mixed. The Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday at the weekend found 53% support a referendum on the final dead, 47% opposed, compared to 46% support and 54% opposition when they asked a very similar question in April. I should add a minor caveat in that the first question was asked online and the second by phone, but the important thing is the result: this appears to be the first poll that has shown more people supporting a second referendum than opposing one, so it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on to see if it’s a consistent pattern.

The YouGov poll this week asked a different question on what should happen after the final deal was agreed, offering options of a referendum or a Parliamentary vote, though it again appeared to show some movement. Only 25% wanted a referendum on the deal, 23% want a Parliamentary vote on the deal, 37% want the government to go ahead without any further. The proportion wanting a referendum or vote after the deal is up two points since the start of the month, the proportion thinking the government should just steam ahead is down five.

What next?

If there is public support for a softer Brexit out there, it does not mean it’s necessarily easy for the government to take advantage of it. The biggest obstacle for a soft Brexit is probably the politics of the Conservative party. The figures in most of this article are for the public as a whole. However, Theresa May’s position and her party’s position depends on the views of Conservative voters and those who might plausibly support them in the future. If you look at the answers for Tory voters, they think that a hard Brexit is preferable to a soft one, that May should plow on with the current targets rather than reconsider, that immigration control is more important than trade.

It would be interesting to see the same split amongst Conservative MPs (given the proportion who backed Remain it may not necessarily be in favour of hard Brexit), though the more pertinent question may be whether there are enough Conservative MPs who are wedded enough to the idea of a hard Brexit that they would trigger a vote of no confidence to remove Theresa May if she changed course. That, however, is steering away from this site’s focus on public opinion and polling into political commentary for which others are far better equipped than me. For now:

  • There has not really been much change in the overall proportions between Remain and Leave
  • But even if there is a fairly even split between people who think Brexit is good or bad for Britain, the proportion of people who think Brexit should go ahead is higher, as many of those who voted Remain think the referendum make it the government’s duty to go ahead with it
  • The ideal Brexit for much of the public one where Britain has its cake and eats it, where we control immigration AND have free trade – a substantial minority think this is possible
  • The version of Brexit that Theresa May laid out in January, with immigration control and the “freest trade deal” is still popular with a majority of the public
  • But trust in Theresa May to actually deliver it has plummeted over the last few months and most people don’t think other countries would agree to what she wants
  • If the sort of deal that May wants isn’t possible then most people think a harder Brexit would be bad for Britain. In contrast a Norway type deal risks being seen as not respecting the result. There is potential for either to be unpopular (especially for those people who think a cake-and-eat it deal was possible)
  • If push comes to shove, when people are forced to choose more people would opt for a soft Brexit rather than a hard one, for free trade rather than immigration control. However among Conservative voters the preference is the other way, and the political obstacles towards the Conservatives making such a change in their approach could be formidable.

915 Responses to “Public opinion on Brexit”

1 17 18 19
  1. TURK

    If you’re still watching, they have moved to coverage of a block in Plymouth. A woman interviewed in her flat was terrified because she hasn’t been moved yet.

    Both councils are clearly doing the best they can to make their residents safer, as they should.

    With any luck they’ll locate all the dangerous cladding as well as other safety issues without more people losing their lives.

    Isn’t that a good thing?

  2. Colin

    Interesting point by Charles although I think the remainers position seems to me more like the appeasement of the late 30s and look what that did for us.

  3. BZ

    Not really my point part of the criticism against the council was because they were council tenants they had used sub standard cladding however it now seems it was used by several different councils in this case a Labour one .
    Nothing to do with who actually lived in the towers.
    As to the residents they seem fairly upset to me with the way Camben Council have acted.

  4. R huckle

    Do you have a source for this rumour.

    Can’t see the DUP doing any kind of deal with Labour. It would be political suicide for them back home.

    At most it’s probably a bluff by the DUP to force the Tories into concessions

  5. @profhoward

    Good question, difficult to answer.

    The Scottish Tory MPs.stood on their election literature for “Ruth Davidson’s Conservative Party”. Davidson was very pro remain before the Referendum, in favour of maintaining Scotland’s position in the Single Market after it, then supportive of May ‘s approach of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, and after the GE she said that the Government should reach out to others to reach a common approach.

    So at the time of the GE the Tory candidates were standing on May ‘s Hard Brexit platform as supported by Davidson. Whether they will swither with Davidson remains to be seen. They mainly represent rural constituencies so may be most concerned with the impacts on agriculture and the food/drinks industry. Some of the north east MPs will be concerned about some aspects of fishing having campaigned against the – in Davidson’s words – “hated Common Fisheries Policy” (although they may have been surprised by May ‘s recent statement that its principles will be at the heart of the UK ‘s fisheries policy.)

    Of course the MPs may have personal views but as new inexperienced MPs they are most likely to see their careers advancing under the patronage of the Westminster whips not from Davidson. So in conclusion I would expect.them to have malleable views which will be shaped by whatever the Westminster Party line turns out to be.

  6. @Turk

    The crux of the matter is how the cladding was selected.

    If the council contracted a company to fit cladding that meets fire regulations and the cladding did not, the sub-contractor looks to be in a wee sticky spot.

    If the panels meet the regulations, the regulations are the issue and not the contractor.

    The above will be no doubt subject to investigation.

    As a view on this, I am a Quality Engineer for a supplier to the automotive industry. Whenever I submit parts for approval I have to send authorised and independent documents showing the materials that make up the part are tested and meets regulations. If something goes wrong and it causes a major issue, you are commercially dead if you haven’t played it with a straight bat.. I wonder if if the request to clad towers was a) fully specified and b) the materials and methods etc fully vetted to ensure the regulations were met.

    I guess ‘due diligence’ covers it.



    But I take you back to your first point-that because it may not be possible for both sides to agree a mutually satisfactory parting of the ways , then the difficulties which would result mean that no one should leave.

    This just doesn’t seem like practical advice to me-and by the way the issues in question were not all to do with trade.

  8. TOH: “I think the remainers position seems to me more like the appeasement of the late 30s and look what that did for us.”

    Funnily enough, on my current Norfolk sojourn I was in Blickling Hall today, looking at a copy of the Daily Express from the day in 1938 after Chamberlain returned from Munich. “The Express says: there will be no war this year or next.”

    I think you should be aware that appeasement was the favoured policy of the same sort of elements that now scream for brexit.

  9. TURK @ BZ
    the criticism against the council was because they were council tenants they had used sub standard cladding

    Not quite so. The initial reaction was at the lack of support by the K&C council. The survivors are understandably miffed at the reason for the disaster, but it could be months before the actual culprits are known.

    The incidents in Camden & Plymouth seem to have been as a result of diligent councils investigating the safety of their flats. Perhaps they have been over zealous in attempting to move residents to safety but if it has saved lives I doubt many will grumble.

    I suppose they could have asked residents who did not want to leave to fill in a disclaimer that they wanted to stay so that nobody need worry about them.

  10. The issue in Camden was made clear by the Political Leader:-
    a) The external cladding on one of the five Towers was partly flammable & involved the same contractor as Grenfell
    b) Residents were informed at a public meeting at which the Leader learned of ( internal) fire risk complaints which she hadn’t been aware of.
    c) The Fire Service were asked to examine these risks &say whether the residents were safe-they said they couldn’t.
    d) Camden Council decided to evacuate all five Towers .

  11. New thread alert

  12. Charles,
    ” I am not sure if you mind ‘blundering into Brexit’, or indeed think that this would be as good as a more orderly process but it certainly fills me with horror.”

    I do see some consolation that the EU would watch with fascinated horror the collapse of the Uk economy, and members would resolve never to let that happen to them. In a few years we would then rejoin. The UK leaving the EU might be just the stimulus it needs to reform as one integrated country.

  13. @TURK

    “Having read Guymondes earlier report from Corbynista land I suspect Corbyn is getting some practise in walking on the Thames although I believe he’s still available for some random hugging and being very angry about something.”


    Yep, he could be heading your way, sitting on a train floor near you as we speak!!…

  14. TOH
    I was thinking of appeasers in relation to Remainers as well. I see that many are still prophesying doom despite all indications to the contrary (e.g. manufacturers’ order books the highest they’ve been for about 30 years). It seems to me to be down to their lack of confidence in the nation – same as appeasers.
    There are many good reasons to leave the EU that are nothing to do with economics, but as that seems to be the Remainers favourite ground, here are a few counter-arguments:
    1) The immediate disaster that was prophesied has not materialised, though of course they may be some bumps along the road.
    2) As the 5th or 6th biggest economy in the world, if we offer to drop our EU-imposed tariffs with other countries I’m sure that many will be only too happy to reciprocate. If Fox has anything about him most of this will already be sewn up despite the EU saying we can’t.
    3) Our trade with the Common Market before we went in (from memory) was about 30% of our total. There were only 6 countries in it then, though 3 of those were big (Germany, France, Italy). I believe the figure went up to the high 50s% some years ago, but is now down to 44% of our total, and that’s with 27 countries! Therefore the trend in our economy is already to trade more with the rest of the world. If we can drop external tariffs this can only increase.
    4) Any company worth its salt will already be seeking new suppliers and markets. By the time the negotiations are wrapped up industry will be ready. Those that aren’t deserve to fold.

    etc etc.

    However, there are much more important things than economics.

  15. SYZYGY re Corbyn and the referendum.

    “In fact, his Remain campaign was consistent with his 7/10 conviction.”

    I’ve already observed that this argument is silly. It was not an option to leave – “but just by a little bit”. It was all or nothing. In or out.

    Millions of people came to similarly nuanced decisions one way or the other in terms of their voting decision – but eventually they HAD then to make that simple, binary choice.

    Clearly you think that Corbyn’s view was that, on balance, staying in was well over twice as good as leaving – 70 versus 30.

    But he did not campaign as though that was genuinely his opinion and – given what a very good campaigner he is – then, if he felt we should stay in, even if that was just an “on balance” view, he should have engaged with greater passion and effectiveness.

1 17 18 19