In terms of support for Brexit we end the year in pretty much the same place as we were on June 23rd. Among some there is a desire to jump on the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that people have changed their mind one way or the other. Overall however, the polling suggests that public opinion remains largely unchanged.
There have been numerous polls since the referendum that have asked how people would vote in another referendum tomorrow (below are all the polls I can find in the last three months):
ComRes/CNN (18th Dec) – Remain 45, Leave 47 (Remain 49, Leave 51)
Gallup International (7th Dec) – Remain 54, Leave 46 (Remain 54, Leave 46)
ComRes/Mirror (27th Nov) – Remain 46, Leave 47 (Remain 49, Leave 51)
YouGov (25th Oct) – Remain 44, Leave 43 (Remain 51, Leave 49)
BMG (24th Oct) – Remain 45, Leave 43 (Remain 51, Leave 49)
Survation/ITN (12th Oct) – Remain 44, Leave 44 (Remain 50, Leave 50)
All except the Gallup International poll are within the margin of error of the referendum result (I think the contrast is because the Gallup poll has a very large proportion of university educated respondents, which correlates with support for EU membership). On average they show only a small movement towards Remain and – looking closer – even that may be illusionary. Looking at the actual tables for the polls none of them show any real net movement between Remain and Leave voters, the small move to Remain is only because people who didn’t vote last time claim they are more likely to vote Remain this time. I would treat that with some degree of scepticism – of course, it could be those people took the result for granted and would be spurred into action in a second referendum… or it could be those who couldn’t be bothered last time probably wouldn’t be bothered in a second referendum either.
In addition, YouGov have asked a regular question for the Times on whether people think leaving was the right or wrong way for Britain to vote. That too shows no obvious evidence of Bregret:
YouGov (5th Dec) – Right 44%, Wrong 42%
YouGov (29th Nov) – Right 44%, Wrong 45%
YouGov (15th Nov) – Right 46%, Wrong 43%
YouGov (12th Oct) – Right 45%, Wrong 43%
Both sides of the debate have taken other figures to try and claim that the balance of opinion has shifted in their direction. In recent days I’ve seen several people who really should know better getting excited over voodoo polls in local newspapers that claim to show a big shift towards Remain – rather than let this post get overtaken by a rant, I’ve addressed that elsewhere. On the other side of the divide, some Brexit supporters have a tendency to misinterpret this YouGov poll to claim shows 68% now support leaving the EU. This is a little disingenuous – the poll doesn’t show that support for leaving has grown from 52% to 68%, it’s a different question asking about what the government should do. The 68% includes 23% of people who say they do NOT personally support Brexit, but that the government has a duty to do it.
Neither does there appear to be much current appetite for a second referendum. ComRes for CNN found 35% thought there should a referendum on the terms of exit, but 53% thought there should not. A similar recent question by Opinium for Keiran Pedley found very similar results – people opposed a second referendum on the terms of Brexit by 52% to 33% and also opposed one if the economy worsened, again by 52% to 33%. A poll by YouGov found that only 26% of people thought it was legitimate for those opposed to Brexit to campaign for a second referendum, 59% thought it was not.
As things stand public opinion does not appear to have moved since the referendum and people do not want a referendum, but as ever they are only a snapshot, not a prediction of how attitudes to Brexit may change in the future. Is there anything we can tell from current polls about how public attitudes towards Brexit might develop? There are two obvious “known knowns” ahead that could potentially change attitudes to Brexit: the negotiations and the economic impact.
The financial angle depends on what the economic impacts are and how long they take to show themselves. I am not an economist so won’t seek to speculate. I will urge caution though about polls showing that people would turn against Brexit if it cost them x amount of money, caused a recession, unemployment or so on. Should the economy collapse, I have no doubt that it would have a major impact on attitudes to both the government and to Brexit. I am less confident about what impact more modest economic bad news will have. Polls attempting to measure this assume that people will blame any economic ups and down on Brexit, and I don’t think they will – or at least, they will interpret it through the prism of their existing support or opposition. People who opposed Brexit will blame economic bad news on it, but people who supported it will blame it on other factors, or on obstructive Europeans, or Remoaners talking Britain down or whatnot. It is the nature of human beings that we are very good at defending our beliefs against data that might challenge them.
More interesting are the negotiations. We don’t yet know what sort of Brexit the government will be aiming for (well, not in any useful terms. We know what colour Brexit they want, but this is of limited use in judging potential public reactions) but given there are different possibilities and people have different preferences, once firm targets are announced some people will likely be disappointed.
Lots of polling evidence shows that the public would like to maintain free trade with the EU, but would also like to limit EU immigration – in Boris Johnson’s words, the public’s preference is clearly to have their cake and eat it. This is unlikely to be available.
If they have to choose, the polling evidence suggests the public are very evenly divided. There have been various polls using various different wordings that amount to a forced choice between EU market access or cutting EU immigration – all show a tight divide. An ORB poll this month found people agreeing by 44% to 40% that more control over immigration was more important than keeping EU free trade; a YouGov poll in November asking a forced choice between market access for British exporters and reducing immigration broke down as 49% for market access, 51% for immigration; ComRes in November found 42% would prioritise the single market over immigration, 43% would prioritise cutting EU immigration; NatCen found 49% of people said we should accept freedom of movement as the price of staying in the single market, 51% that we should not.
Looking only at immigration vs market access is probably taking to tight a focus anyway. I suspect the public will judge it as a overall package – as a whole, does it seem like a good deal for Britain? Even there is evidence is contradictory though: Opinium asked people to pick between a “soft Brexit” scenario and a “hard Brexit” scenario and people preferred the former by 41% to 35% (though the question also made clear that soft Brexit was economically better, which the public won’t necessarily think). YouGov have asked people to rate a number of scenarios – a hard Brexit on WTO terms, a limited trade deal along the Canadian model and a Norway type deal remaining in the EEA. On those a Canadian type deal polls significantly better than a Norway type relationship – 50% think it would be good for Britain, 65% think it would respect the referendum and 51% would be happy. In comparison the figures for a Norway type outcome would be 34% good for Britain, 33% respect the referendum, 37% happy (WTO terms would also be bad – 34% good for Britain, 66% respect result, 37% happy).
That is the narrow path which Theresa May must navigate – a Brexit that doesn’t mess up Britain’s trading relationship with Europe so much it sinks the economy, yet is not perceived by Leave voters as a betrayal. If we end up with a Brexit that has tougher consequences that some Leave voters expected then there is potential for public opinion to move against it. On the other hand, if we end up with a Brexit that retains more links with the European Union than some Leave voters hoped for there is the potential for a betrayal narrative to take hold, presumably to the benefit of UKIP. Either situation may bring division within the Conservative party, which has only a wafer thin majority to begin with.
Ultimately, I suppose those are two questions that matter about public opinion on Brexit. One, will public opinion move sufficiently against Brexit to make it avoidable? Two, how will it impact on the popularity of the Conservative government and opposition parties?
To answer the first one, as yet there has been little or no net movement in opinion since the referendum, the majority of people think the government have a duty to implement the results of the referendum and and the majority of people are opposed to revisiting the question. However, given the vote was only 52-48 it wouldn’t take much to tip opinion in favour of staying once the consequences become a bit more visible. It remains to be seen if the negotiations or economic developments do change things. Getting majority support for a second referendum is a much bigger ask and would be a necessity if there is any chance of a second referendum (well, counting 1975 a third referendum) has any chance of delivering a different result to 2016. Anti-elitism was an important factor in the vote, and the perception that an uncaring and distant political elite didn’t like what the public said so wants them to vote again differently would be a very powerful narrative.
As for the political parties, Brexit is the mission that has been forced upon Theresa May’s government and the yardstick they will inevitably be judged by. Thus far the public think they have been carrying it out badly, yet this has not damaged their position in the polls (presumably because it is still early days). If Brexit doesn’t work out well for them, they will suffer – especially given the high expectations of some Brexit supporters. The government’s great challenge will be to sell the compromises that will be necessary, the difficulty will be persuading the public that such compromises are either unavoidable or in Britain’s interests… as opposed to being the result of government ineptitude, backsliding or lack of ambition. If people believe the latter – that a government led by someone who never really wanted Brexit anyway is failing to be ambitious enough in our Brexit negotiations, I imagine it will be UKIP who benefit. If they deliver Brexit that’s hardness is beyond doubt, but the economy collapses, who knows who will benefit…