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.

712 Responses to “Public opinion on Brexit”

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  1. SAM @ BZ
    Do we know if the transitional phase is really what will take place? Hammond has spoken confidently about it and presumably means EEA.

    My own guess would certainly be just that and probably extended indefinitely. I’m no fan of May or Corbyn but I suspect both are bright enough to realise that anything further would be a disaster, at least for a decade or two. I don’t think it will be initially popular, but it wouldn’t hurt the economy much – unlike any other option. The trouble is that no party will want to take the responsibility for it, so we could see a political game of pass the parcel taking place in the HoC.

    If sold properly, it could prove successful for 5 main reasons:
    1. Scotland has already agreed to accept it without requiring indyref2
    2. It would resolve the hard border issue in Ireland
    3. Being outwith the EU, the CAP & CFP funds saved could be devolved – delaying indyref2, an NI border poll & pleasing Wales
    4. Being outwith the EU we could prove [or otherwise] that establishing new external trade is practical before losing our own current export markets
    5. Being outwith the EU, UKIP would no longer have significant representation anywhere

    Re tonsorial matters, you have my sympathy. I was lucky enough to inherit my red/ginger hair from my Scottish maternal grandfather. This was just as well since my Anglo-Dutch father resembled a freshly shaved cue ball before he was 25. As it is, approaching 69, I still have a full head of hair [albeit somewhat pepper & salt] and a full ginger beard.

  2. I’m looking forward to hearing TM’s announcement tonight on her plans for EU citizens in UK and UK citizens in EU. Has she really got something new to put on the table?

    Until recently I assumed that May’s Delphic announcements were motivated by a genuine (if imo misguided) desire to keep the government’s real intentions secret until negotiations started. After all, David Davis’ department is big enough and must be doing something to prepare for the many knotty problems of Brexit.

    Since the talks with the DUP though I’ve changed my mind. It looks increasingly as if May’s characteristic phraseology was just to cover the fact that they really have no ideas at all on how to deal with these huge issues. There’s no plan for the NI border. And there’s no plan for EU citizens beyond possibly registering them and then treating them like every other foreigner (ie appallingly). Similarly there are no plans for dealing with backlogs at ports and airports, appeasing British farmers, or managing and applying the new ‘British’ Health and safety regimes etc. (I haven’t even started!)

    I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that tonight’s speech will prove me wrong

  3. BZ

    “Thanks for trying, but I’m afraid not. I hadn’t realised that you were against the peace process in Ireland,

    Read what I wrote again. You totally misrepresent what I said, which was I would not have negotiated the Good Friday agreement in that form. I have always been very supportive of peace in NI or indeed anywhere where there is, or has been conflict.

    “and am surprised you reject the NS article out of hand.”

    Why? it’s one man’s biased view, and he has worked for the EU.

    “and would be aware of the problems Dover and Folkestone in particular are likely to suffer if an EU/EEA occurs.”

    I am well aware of the possible problems for the UK and the EU of no deal. For me leaving the EU is paramount, I have waited 43 years for it. Whatever the cost it will be worthwhile in the end and I see a much brighter economic future outside the EU. If the UK and EU negotiators are sensible a deal can be struck on terms I could be satisfied with. If not then as I say I would prefer leaving without a deal.

    I appreciate the depth of my feeling on the subject may reflect a minority view of those who voted to leave but I am by no means alone in feeling as I do.

  4. @Sam

    “There is a good analysis (sometimes funny) by Richard North of the Queen’s Speech as it applies to Brexit. ”

    Please stop posting duncecap Dickie as a reputable source, from his obsession with the Super Tucano through to his newest pet project “Flexcit”, he is up and down one of the most deluded men I have ever had the misfortune to meet.


    I understand your position without agreeing with any of it.

    I do accept that your: feeling on the subject may reflect a minority view of those who voted to leave but I am by no means alone in feeling as I do.

    OTOH, I have no debt, no financial worries and neither do my children yet I cannot ignore that the majority of the UK population do have such worries, and rightly so if, as seems probable, the cost of living rises whilst their wages and the conditions of their employment worsen as a result of leaving the EU.

    You and I can afford to take an economic hit; they can’t. I won’t make the mistake of asking for your opinion again.

  6. MrQueue



    Fair enough that you don’t agee with Dr. North, but you do so without providing evidence.

    Since you have met him, you should be in a great position to analyse the errors in his posts.

  8. @barbanzero

    Your post cheered me up.I liked the picture you painted of your obviously formidable presence but even more the sense you give me that something manageable might come out of what Alan Christie called this dog’s brexit.

    My question is whether we could get this EEA thing and what we would have to pay to get it. I am inclined to agree with ToH that this North Blogger is biassed but that’s more the way he writes than because i can see an underlying flaw in his logic. He says that if we think we can get EEA we don’t understand a thing about it.

    So do you see a realistc chance of getting it? If we do get it, could it be dressed up in a way that enough brexiters could accept?


    @”Maybe we should send Nigel Dodds over to negotiate with wee Donald. I mean he’s the man holding all the strings. ;-)”

    I presume the first thing he would try to identify is the Leverage he has over the other side.

    And I’m wondering whether , like TM , he would decide the answer is “not much” and so-like the DUP tend to do and TM said she would do-he would just say-if we don’t like it we will just walk away.

    I really do think that there might be a plan on their side to engineer a change of mind in UK. If there is DD is going to have a very tough time.

  10. Somebody sent me this.

    30 Tory MPs just told the government that they won’t accept leaving the EU without a deal!

    Is this true? If so has anybody a majority for anything? And if they do what is it for which Parliament would vote and is it on offer?

  11. Is anyone watching C4 news


    “So why did T.May call a snap election?
    Oh that’s right it was them polls that got her tampons excited.”

    Is it not enough for you to be referring to her as a “bint” on numerous occasions, without embarrassing yourself further?

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