Yesterday I got a few questions about a new BMG poll in the Independent that had voting intentions in a hypothetical EU referendum tomorrow at 52% remain, 48% leave. The Indy wrote this up with a pretty hyperbolic “Majority want to stay!!!”. The full results – along with a fair more reasonable and caveated write-up by BMG themselves – are here.

So, what is the bigger picture in terms of attitudes to Brexit, and is there any sign of people changing their minds?

I should start by pointing out that how people would vote in a hypothetical referendum tomorrow is not necessarily the same question as what people think should happen now (perhaps surprisingly!). If you ask people what should happen now, a clear majority say Britain should leave the EU. If you ask people how they’d vote in a referendum now, they are split down the middle between Remain and Leave. The difference appears to be because there is a chunk of people who personally favour remain, but think the government has a duty to leave following the referendum. Neither of these is necessarily a “better” measure of public opinion, opinion is best understood by looking at both: that is, the public are split equally on what they’d prefer, but some remainers think that the referendum means Brexit should go ahead anyway.

If we do look specifically at how people would vote in a referendum tomorrow, there is comparatively little change since 2016. Most Remain voters would still vote Remain, most Leave voters would still vote Leave. People who did not vote at all in 2016 tend to split in favour of Remain, meaning that the overall figure tends to be around a 50-50 split. Polls, of course, typically have a margin of error of around 2 or 3 points. This means if the actual position is a 50-50 split, then normal sample variation will inevitably spit out some results that are 52-48, or 48-52, or whatever. This is the unavoidable result of normal statistical variance, however, it does mean that now and again there will be a poll showing Remain with a small lead, which pro-Remain sorts will get wrongly overexcited about.

In terms of a trend, my impression is that there is some small degree of movement against Brexit… but it is very small. It is hard to discern a trend from questions asking the referendum question because they are infrequent, different companies use different methods and there may be different “house effects”. BMG have probably asked it more regularly than any other company, and looking at just their figures (in the link above) there is a slight trend towards Remain.

YouGov regularly ask a question about whether Britain was right or wrong to vote to Leave the EU (below), which also shows a very tight race, but a slight trend towards Remain. Last year it tended to show slightly more people thought it was the right decision than the wrong decision, now it tends to hover around neck-and-neck.

In summary, there hasn’t been any vast sea-change in attitudes towards Brexit. Most people who voted Remain would do so again, most people who voted Leave would do so again. There is some movement back and forth, but it mostly cancels itself out. If you look at the two most frequently repeated questions, the BMG question on referendum VI and the YouGov question on whether the decision was right or wrong, then there does appear to be movement towards Remain… but it is as yet pretty small and pretty slow. In short, there are some “bregrets”, but not enough to really get excited about. If there is going to be a big change, I still wouldn’t expect to see it until the leaving deal (and the consequences of it) become a bit clearer.


I’ve got an article over on the YouGov website about the difficulty on polling on the Brexit financial settlement (or “Brexit divorce bill” as the more Eurosceptic elements of the press tend to call it). Brexit is obviously a very complicated issue – the Brexit deal will almost inevitably dominate the next year of British politics, yet the complexities of it mean it’s very hard to ask about until there’s actually a deal on the table.

The financial settlement between Britain and the EU should, on the face of it, be one of the more simple issues. On the face of it you might expect it to be fairly simple to ask people what sort of financial settlement the public would think was reasonable and what sort of settlement would have the public thinking Theresa May has struck a poor deal. In fact such questions give us a very poor guide, simply because most people are not particularly good at comprehending very large numbers.

If you ask a question about what a reasonable price is for, for example, a pair of shoes, it should work very well. Everyone knows roughly what shoes cost, and know the value of £10 or £30 or £100. The same does not apply for government spending – £50 billion is an unfathomably large amount of money… but then, so is £20 billion, or £10 billion or £5 billion. Most of us don’t really have any good yardstick for judging just how big or small these huge numbers are, nor whether they are a good or bad deal for Britain.

Nevertheless, if you ask people about a financial settlement people will still express opinions. Back in August there was an ICM/Guardian poll that found 41% of people though a £10bn settlement would be acceptable, up from just 15% in April. This seemed like a startling rise, but as both ICM and the Guardian cautioned, it could just be the way the question was worded. In April ICM first asked about the lower figure of £3bn, but in August £10bn was the lowest they offered.

This seemed like a more plausible explanation to me, but just to be sure we tested it at YouGov. We used a split sample – one half of the respondents got a grid of three questions asking about settlements of £5bn, £10bn and £20bn. The other half of the sample got a grid of three questions asking about settlements of £25bn, £50bn and £75bn.

On the first bank of questions 38% thought £5bn would be acceptable, 18% thought £10bn would be acceptable, 11% thought that £20bn would be acceptable. Looking at the other half of the sample, 29% thought that £25bn was acceptable, 9% thought that £50bn was acceptable, 6% thought that £75bn would be acceptable (full tabs are here.)

Taken as a whole we get the the rather perverse finding that while support generally falls as the size of the settlement increases, £25 billion is far more acceptable to the public than £20 billion. This is nonsense of course, and the reason is simple enough – people take their cues from the question itself. In the first half of the sample, £5bn was the lowest amount asked about, £20bn the largest amount, and many respondents presumably took this as an implication that £5bn was a low settlement, £20bn a high one. For the second half of the sample £25bn was the lowest figure asked about, so many respondents presumably took the implication that this was a low settlement. Whether people said a sum was acceptable or not was less about the actual number, more about whether the question implied that it was a low or high figure.

The point is that questions about what level of “divorce bill” will be acceptable to the public don’t really tell us much. People don’t have any good way of telling what is a good or bad deal and are really just expressing their unsurprising preference for a smaller settlement. When (or if) Britain and the EU do finally agree on a sum, it won’t be so much the particular figure that determines whether the public see it as a victory or a sell-out, but whether the media and political class present it to them as a good or bad deal.

Meanwhile, lastest GB voting intention figures this week are below – both show the parties pretty much neck-and-neck, neither show any obvious movement:
YouGov/Times (12th-13th Sept) – CON 41%(nc), LAB 42%(nc), LDEM 7%(+1), UKIP 3%(-1) (tabs)
ICM/Guardian (8th-10th Sept) – CON 42%(nc), LAB 42%(nc), LDEM 7%(nc), UKIP 4%(+1) (tabs)


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More Brexit polling

A year on from the EU referendum there was some new YouGov polling for the Times this morning. The country remain quite evenly split over whether Brexit is right or wrong, 44% think leaving was the right decision, 45% the wrong decision. There is not much optimism about negotiations – only 26% expect the government to achieve a deal that is good for Britain, 31% expect a poor deal, 15% expect no deal at all (that said, most don’t think Labour would be doing any better – 24% think they’d get a better deal, 34% a worse deal, 20% that it would end up much the same).

Asked to choose between Britain having full control over immigration from Europe or British businesses having free access to trade with the EU people preferred trade by 58% to 42%. As I wrote in my last post, there’s a lot of variation in questions like this depending on the specific wording, but the overall picture suggests that when people are pushed to choose they do think trade is more important than control of immigration (though among Conservative voters the balance is the other way round).

On other matters, on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn now leads Theresa May by a single point – 35% to 34%. This is the first time that Corbyn has led in the question – this is partially because of a sharp drop in Theresa May’s ratings (before the snap election she was consistently in the high 40s), but is also due to a significant increase in Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings. Again, if you look at the longer term ratings he used to be consistenty down in the teens.

Full tabs are here

I should also add an update on polling about the second referendum. In my last post I mentioned the Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday which found that the balance of opinion was in favour of having a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. This was the first time any poll had shown this, and I said it was worth looking to see if other polls found the same. Well, so far they haven’t – Survation also had a poll for Good Morning Britain on Monday, that also had a question on a second referendum, and it found 38% of people supported it and 57% were opposed. Tabs for that are here.


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.


ComRes have a poll in the Independent & Sunday Mirror. Topline figures with changes from last month are CON 42%(+1), LAB 25%(-1), LDEM 12%(+1), UKIP 10%(-1), GRN 4%(nc).

Earlier in the week the monthly Ipsos MORI political monitor was also published in the Evening Standard. Topline figures there were CON 43%(+3), LAB 30%(+1), LDEM 13%(nc), UKIP 6%(-3) (full details are here.

Three polls released since the budget all suggest the government emerged unscathed in terms of voting intention. UKIP’s figures are also interesting – while it’s normal for MORI to have the Lib Dems comfortably ahead of UKIP, we’re now in the unusual situation where all of the last three polls have the Lib Dems in third place and UKIP back in forth (that’s ComRes, MORI and the YouGov/Times poll in the week)

As well as the usual trackers, MORI also had some questions on EU negatotiations. Asked if the government were doing well or badly at handling Britain’s exit from the European Union 36% said a good job, 52% a bad job. Asked the same question about Theresa May 49% said a good job, 40% said a bad job. That alone is an interesting difference – I’d be fascinated to see how people who answered the two questions differently explained their answers (by guess is people would say something about May coming across as more competent than some of her ministers).

Asked how important various considerations were in Brexit negotiations 43% of people said it was essential or very important for Britain not to have to make any contributions to the EU after we’ve left, 43% also said it was essential or important to remain in the single market. 61% said it was essential or important that Britain has full control over immigration.

On the subject of Brexit negotiations, there was also some new YouGov polling in the week – I’ve written a longer article over on the YouGov website. This was a follow up to the YouGov poll after Theresa May’s January speech setting out her Brexit negotiating targets. Those were well received by most of the public, are still are – by 52% to 22% people think the sort of Brexit that May says she is aiming for would be good for Britain.

However, this leaves open the question of how people will react if the government don’t manage to get everything they want. Certainly some of the things that the government are aiming for are ambitious. In this week’s poll YouGov also asked how people would react if May failed to get some of things she wants, asking about a hypothetical deal where Britain ends up with tariff barriers and customs checks on many imports and exports with the EU. In that case only 30% say it would be good for Britain, 40% bad for Britain.

Asked what should happen next the most popular option would be for the government to go back and try to renegotiate. That’s pretty much a given though, the more interesting question is what people think should happen once all further opportunity for negotiation is exhausted. 41% said Britain should still leave on those terms; 32% that there should be a second referendum on whether to stay after all. 27% say not sure.

I think there’s some cause for optimism for both sides there. For those who want to leave, it suggests the balance of opinion would still be in favour of leaving even if Brexit negotiations are seen to have failed. For those who want to stay, the 27% of people who would be unsure suggests that plenty of people are open to persuasion.

This is, of course, very much a hypothetical question, a straw in the wind of how the public might react if the negotiations go badly. Time will tell what actually happens if things don’t go to plan.

UPDATE: There’s also a Opinium poll in the Observer. Topline figures there are CON 41%, LAB 28%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, so there is still one poll with UKIP holding on to their third place. Full tabs are here.