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…

I’m writing a longer piece rounding up public opinion towards Brexit, but rather than let that get dominated by a big rant, I thought I’d write a separate piece about self-selecting newspaper polls apparently showing changing attitudes to Brexit. Several newspapers in the North East and the Black Country have had open-access “polls” on their websites that have had more responses supporting remain than leave. These have been widely picked up on social media by people who support Britain remaining in the EU, who have given them rather more weight that they probably would do to most open-access polls on newspaper websites.

I have spent a decade making the same post about self-selecting polls – the phone in polls in papers, press-the-red-button polls on TV, click here to vote at the bottom of newspaper articles – are bunkum. That venerable old sage Bob Worcester has been doing it for decades before me, coining the term “voodoo polls” to refer to them.

However, they keep on coming back. This time it’s a little different because of the people doing it. I keep seeing otherwise intelligent and learned people on social media quoting them. Even people who recognise that they are not a robust way of measuring public opinion sometimes suggest they must mean “something”.

They really don’t.

To roll over the old arguments again…

1) Polls are only meaningful if they are representative, and self-selecting polls are not. To be meaningful, a sample needs to mirror whatever population it is trying to measure. If it has the same gender balance, age balance, class balance, etc, then it should have the same balance of opinion. Properly conducted polls ensure this is the case using the sampling (normally using randomisation and/or demographic quotas) and weighting (adjusting the sample after fieldwork to ensure it does indeed have the right number of men and women, old and young, rich and poor). Self-selecting website & newspaper polls do not do this.

More specifically, if you look at the professionally conducted polls asking how people would vote in a referendum now, they are almost all weighted to ensure they are representative in terms of how people voted last time. For example, look at the ComRes/CNN poll, the most recent poll to ask how people would vote in a referendum today. The first question ComRes actually asked was how people voted back in June, this ensured the sample was representative, that it matched the actual figures and did not have a skew towards people who voted Remain in June or who voted Leave in June. This means we know ComRes’s sample accurately reflects the British population, and if it had shown people would vote differently now, we would have known there had been a genuine change in opinion. Without controls on this, without an attempt to make sure the sample is representative, it could just be the case that a sample is full of people who voted Remain in June to begin with.

2) Getting a large number of responses does not make a poll meaningful. Self-selecting “polls” often trumpet a large sample size as a way of suggesting their data have some validity. This is false. If you conducted a poll entirely of, say, Guardian readers, then sheer numbers would never make it representative of the whole country. This was famously tested to destruction in 1936. Back then the best known “pollster” was the Literary Digest magazine, which conducted mail in surveys. They sent out tens of millions of surveys based on subscription directories, phone directories and so on, and received literally millions of responses. Based on those they confidently predicted that Alf Landon would win the 1936 Presidential election. George Gallup, the pioneer of modern polling methods, had a far smaller sample, but made it properly representative – as a result he accurately predicted Roosevelt’s landslide victory. It was the birth of modern polling but, alas, not the death of newspapers conducting voodoo polls.

3) Self-selecting polls reflect the views of those who are interested and have an axe to grind. Any poll where people can choose to take part, rather than the polling company controlling who is invited, will attract those people with strong views on the subject and under-represent those with only a limited interest (indeed, this is a problem that even proper polls are not immune to, given low response rates). It probably explains some of the apparent shift from the pre-referendum newspaper “polls” to the current ones – before the referendum it was angry Leave supporters with the motivation to take part in “polls” on obscure newspaper websites; now the Leave supporters have what they want, and it is the frustrated Remainers hammering away on website “polls”, grasping for evidence that public opinion has moved their way. To measure public opinion properly, you need to represent all the public, not just those who are the most fired up.

4) Self-selecting polls can be orchestrated and fixed. Open access polls don’t usually have any limits on who can take part (do you actually live in the Black Country?) or any method of preventing multiple votes. They can never stop people sharing or distributing the link to like minded people to encourage them to vote (indeed, given they often exist purely as clickbait, they are very much intended to be distributed in that way). This doesn’t have to be an organised attempt, as much as people sharing links on social media with a “vote here and show people that not everyone wants Brexit”. Again, properly controlled polls have measures preventing such manipulation or skews.

Almost no new information is entirely useless. If we lived in an information vacuum then these sort of things would perhaps be an interesting straw in the wind, a pointer to something that might be worth proper investigation. We do not live in an information vacuum though – there have been numerous properly conducted opinion polls using properly representative samples over the last six months (I will write something on them later, but in the meantime John Curtice has collected them at the beginning of this article.) and these have painted a different picture. Properly conducted polls in recent months have consistently shown very little net movement in whether the British public want to leave or remain in the EU.

There are only three obvious ways of resolving the conflict between the picture painted by professionally conducted national polls and the self-selecting website polls. One, that that has been a vast shift of opinion in favour of Remain in the North East and the Black Country, but it has been balanced out by a big shift in the other direction elsewhere in the country so at a national level it evens out. Two, that professionally conducted polls with representative samples (polls that even on their very worst days, still end up within a handful of percentage points of the actual result) have somehow completely missed a 45% swing in public attitudes to Brexit. Or three, that open-access polls on newspaper websites that let any old bugger vote multiple times without any attempt to get a sample that is politically or demographically representative are an utterly useless way of measuring opinion.

I know it’s the third explanation, and deep in their hearts, I think most of those people sharing them know it’s the third explanation too. The kindest advice I can give to those who would like Britain to remain in the EU is that they need to change public opinion, not grasp at voodoo polls to kid themselves that it already agrees with them.


Opinium’s latest voting intention poll has topline figures of CON 38%, LAB 31%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 13%, GRN 4%. The seven point Conservative lead is much tighter than we’ve seen in other recent polls, which have almost all had double-figure Tory leads. While the lead has dropped in this poll, I suspect the difference is methodological somehow – most of Opinium’s recent polls have had Tory leads that are smaller than those from other companies. One of the results of the 2015 polling error and polling companies’ efforts to correct them is that we can’t really tell for sure which are right. Is it that some companies haven’t done enough to correct the errors of the past, or others who have done too much?

Given I’ve flagged up the increase in Lib Dem support in the last three polls I should also point out the absence of one here, they are down one point. We’ve had four polls since the Richmond by-election, two showing a small increase, one a small drop, one a substantial increase. Taking an average across the four polls, a very modest impact on national levels of Lib Dem support. Full tabs are here.

The same poll had a couple of questions for Keiran Pedley – the first asked people if they preferred a Brexit where Britain left completely, but got a harsh deal meaning the economy suffers, unemployment increases and there’s less money for public services… or a Brexit where Britain remains in some EU institutions, has freedom of movement, is subject to the EU courts and so on. Faced with that stark choice, people went with the “soft Brexit” option by 41% to 35%. However, it does, of course, assume that people can be convinced that a “hard Brexit” option would result in the economy suffering, unemployment increasing and so on. We’ve just had a salutary lesson that lots of experts telling people that leaving the EU would have negative economic effects is not necessarily effective. I think the most we can say is that it suggests if people can be convinced that a hard Brexit would damage the economy, jobs and public services and that a soft Brexit would not, then they would prefer a soft Brexit… but that “if” is doing a lot of work.

Keiran also asked two questions about a second referendums, both finding a majority of people do not want one. The first asked if people would like a second referendum after terms are agreed, the second asked if there should be a second referendum if it becomes clear that Brexit is damaging the economy. In both cases 33% said yes, 52% said no – suggesting that a declining economy wouldn’t necessarily make people want to reconsider the issue.

That second question is key in a lot of current discussion about public attitudes to Brexit. It is clear from current polling that that has not been any significant shift in public opinion since the referendum, most people think the govt is obliged to deliver on the referendum result and that most people do not currently want a second referendum. The hopes of some of those who would like to stay in the European Union are pinned upon the idea that as the negotiation period progresses the impact on the British economy will begin to be felt and at that point the public will change their mind, want to stay after all, and therefore be open to the idea of a second referendum.

Whether there is a chance of this happening is very tricky to measure in a poll. It’s asking people to predict how their opinions might change as a result of future economic developments, when respondents themselves don’t know the answer. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the economy in coming years, and we certainly don’t know what the public will attribute it too. It would be naive to think that an economic downturn will necessarily be blamed on Brexit by those people who supported Brexit. People view new events and information through the prism of their existing views, and many Brexit supporters will blame it on other economic factors, or on the rest of the EU trying to punish us, or pro-Europeans wanting Brexit to fail…. or take it as short-term pain that will be outweighed by later gain (in the same way, many pro-EU people will be liable to blame things on Brexit that have nothing to do with it. This is not a comment about supporters of one side or the other, but on human nature in general).

Ipsos MORI’s monthly political monitor is out in today’s Evening Standard. Topline voting intention figures with changes from last month are CON 40%(-2), LAB 29%(-4), LDEM 14%(+4), UKIP 9%(+2), GRN 3%(nc). The 14 point score for the Liberal Democrats is the highest MORI have recorded for five years.

So far we have had three polls since the Richmond Park by-election and while ICM and YouGov did not have the Lib Dems doing as quite well as MORI, all three have shown them improving, suggesting they have received a boost from their by-election victory and the publicity it gave them. Whether that leads to any lasting recovery, or fades away again once the by-election is forgotten, is a different question.

A quick update for the ICM/Guardian poll on Monday, which is presumably the final ICM poll of the year. Topline figures are CON 41%(-3), LAB 27%(nc), LDEM 9%(+2), UKIP 14%(+2), GRN 3%(-1). Nothing startling to report here – the Tories still have a commanding lead, the Lib Dems are up very slightly following their by-election win (but nothing to write home about) and rumours of UKIP’s demise continue to be false.

Full tabs are here.