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)


The Times this morning report that the government are to drop the 600 seat boundary review and start again with a 650 seat review. A few technical points on this:

  • The rules and timetable for the Boundary Commission are set out in statute, meaning that any changes will require primary legislation. Until the law is changed the current review will continue, based on 600 seats and a deadline of 2018. To go back to a target of 650 seats the government will need to pass new legislation changing the rules to 650 seats, and starting up a new review from scratch.
  • That legislation will be an opportunity to change other boundary rules. In the Times article there’s a quote from Labour saying they’d support the change back to 650 seats, but no doubt they’ll have some other recommendations too were the government to try and get cross-party support for the Bill. Even if the government aim to change only the 600 seat rule, there will be opportunity for the Bill to be amended in other ways as it passes through the Commons and Lords. Two things to really keep an eye on are how close to the quota the boundary review requires seats to be (currently 5%, but the Private Member’s Bill that Labour supported last year would have changed that to 10%) and how often they need to happen (currently 5 years, but the Labour Bill last year suggested ten years). Either change would make things a bit better for Labour – as a general rule, strict equality requirements and frequent reviews favour the Tories, more flexible equality requirements and less frequent reviews favour Labour.
  • Timing will be a little tight, especially if the Bill doesn’t get cross-party support and gets tied up in the Lords. On the current rules it takes three years to carry out a review, and that was achieved by cutting the process down as much as possible. If the government want a review conducted in time for 2022 they need to get that legislation going soon so the Boundary Commissions can scrap their current review and start again on a new one next year.
  • If the review happens it will still favour the Tories a bit, regardless of tweaks to the rules. The current constituency boundaries are based on the electorate in 2001, so updating it for sixteen years of demographic change is still going to move things about quite a lot. Taking the electorates from the 2017 general election, by my reckoning a boundary review on 650 seats would still produce 7 extra seats for the South East, 3 extra seats for the South West and 3 in the East (presumably mostly Tory), and seats being lost in the North East, North West, Scotland and especially Wales.

Meanwhile there are two voting intention polls to update on:

YouGov for the Times had voting intentions of CON 41%(nc), LAB 42%(nc), LDEM 6%(-2), UKIP 4%(+1). Fieldwork was Wednesday and Thursday last week and changes are from a week before. Full tables are here. YouGov also released some interesting European polling on Brexit, asking other EU countries how they’d react if Britain did an about face and decided that we did, after all, want to remain in the European Union. This would be welcomed in Germany – 49% of Germans would rather we stayed, 25% that we left and the most common emotional reactions to Britain staying after all would be “Relieved” (23%) and “Pleased” (22%). Contrast this with France – 32% of French respondents would prefer that Britain stays, but 38% would rather we go. The most common French reaction to us changing our minds would be “Indifference” (23%) (tabs for the EU polling are here.)

Meanwhile Survation in the Mail on Sunday had an online poll in the Mail on Sunday with topline figures of CON 38%(nc), LAB 43%(+2), LDEM 7%(-1), UKIP 4%(-2). Fieldwork was Thursday and Friday last week, and changes are from Survation’s last online poll in July. For the record, there is a very minor method change in the Survation poll – UKIP are no longer prompted in the main question. Full tables are here.


-->

Two new voting intention polls this week showing very similar figures. YouGov‘s latest poll was actually conducted last week, but was only released today and has topline figures of CON 41%, LAB 42%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 4% (full tabs are here.

The regular ICM poll for the Guardian, conducted over the weekend, has extremely similar topline figures – CON 42%, LAB 42%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 3% (full tabs are here).

ICM also asked about people’s attitudes towards Britain paying a financial settlement as part of our Brexit negotiations (a so-called “exit fee”). ICM asked similar questions back in April and found very little support – only 10% thought paying a £20bn settlement would be acceptable, 15% a £10bn fee and 33% a £3bn exit fee. This time the figures suggested in the question were changed to what are probably more realistic figures and with interesting results – now 9% think a settlement of £40bn would be acceptable, 11% a £30bn settlement, 18% a £20bn settlement, 41% a £10bn settlement.

On the face of it this one might think this is a startling change, a few months ago only 15% thought it would be acceptable to pay a £10bn settlement as part of Brexit, now 41% think it’s acceptable. I think it’s probably actually a good example of the importance of context in a question. Most people are really not that good at putting figures of billions of pounds in context – any sum that involves the words billion is a huge amount of money to begin with, so what would be a relatively small settlement? A moderate settlement? A huge settlement? The only thing respondents have to scale it by is the question itself. In April £3bn was implicitly presented as the small option and £10bn was presented as the medium option. In this poll £10bn is implicitly presented as the small option and £20bn or £30bn are presented as the medium options – hence why a £10bn settlement suddenly seems to be so much more paletable.

That’s not to say the question doesn’t tell us anything at all – there’s still an interesting increase. In April only 33% thought a “small” financial settlement would be acceptable as part of the Brexit deal; now that figure has risen to 41% (despite the actual figure quoted tripling!). It looks as if the public may be moving towards accepting that a financial settlement may be an inevitable part of Brexit.


The quiet summer rolls on – for once we have a proper silly season with barely any domestic political news. I’m off for the next week, so won’t be updating even if there are any chunky polls to write about. In the meantime Opinium released their regular voting intention poll last night, which continued to show a small Labour lead – CON 40%, LAB 43%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 4%. Full tabs are here.


We’re heading into Summer and the silly season now, so don’t necessarily expect much polling (August tends to be quite anyway…the month after a general election even more so). This is just a quick update on the latest YouGov voting intention figures, which are CON 41%(nc), LAB 44%(+1), LDEM 7%(+1). Fieldwork was Monday to Tuesday and changes are from a fortnight ago. Full tabs are here.