MPs Decide? Four Key Messages From The Polls

Posted on 10 December 2018 by John Curtice

At the time of writing at least, the House of Commons is scheduled to vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday evening. But is there any evidence that she has had any success in winning over the country? And what do voters want to happen if, as widely expected, the deal does go down to defeat whenever the Commons does get the chance to vote on it? Here are four observations based on the polling that has been published in the last week.

The deal remains relatively unpopular.

After having apparently registered a modest shift in favour of the deal last week, YouGov reported in its most recent poll that, if anything, public support had slipped back a bit. In fact, it now looks as though, according to the company’s polling, the pattern of responses has not changed significantly since the weekend after the draft Brexit deal was unveiled. In the five readings the company has taken since that weekend on average 24% have said they supported the deal, while 44% have indicated that they were opposed. Leave voters are somewhat less critical of the deal than Remain supporters, but on balance they are still opposed to the deal. On average 28% of Leave voters have said they support the deal, while 42% have stated that they are opposed. The equivalent figures among Remain supporters are 23% and 49%.

The relative unpopularity of the deal has been confirmed by the pattern of responses to questions asked by both Opinium and Ipsos MORI. Indeed, if anything their readings have painted an even bleaker picture for the government. The former found that only 11% think the deal is good for Britain, while 50% reckoned it was bad, while the latter reported that while 25% thought it would be a good thing for Britain as a whole, as many as 62% thought it would be a bad thing.

Whatever the terms, leaving the EU could raise questions about future levels of public support for maintaining the Union

Polling undertaken by Panelbase in Scotland and by Lucid Talk in Northern Ireland suggests that even leaving the EU on the basis of Mrs May’s deal could test the sinews of support for t.he Union in both these pro-Remain parts of the UK. After excluding the Don’t Knows Panelbase’s poll reported that 47% of Scottish voters say that at present they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum, while 53% indicate that they would vote No.  But rather more people (43%) say they would prefer Scottish independence to being part of a UK that had left the EU on the basis of Mrs May’s deal (39%). The gap is even bigger when voters are presented with a choice between Scottish independence (44%) and leaving without a deal (30%).The main reason for the decline in support for the Union in these circumstances appears to be that relatively large numbers (just over a fifth in the first instance and as many as a third in the second) of those who voted No to independence say they do not know which of the two that they would prefer.

In Northern Ireland 60% state that in the event of a border poll they would definitely or probably vote to stay in the UK if Brexit were to be reversed, while just 29% indicated that they would vote for a united Ireland. But should the UK leave the EU on the basis of the proposed deal, the 48% who say they would definitely or probably back staying in the UK are equally matched by 48% who state that they would vote for a united Ireland. Again, the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal shifts opinion yet further, with just 42% stating they would vote to stay in the UK, and 55% indicating backing for a united Ireland. Key to these results is the fact that only 64% of nationalists say they would vote for a united Ireland if Brexit is reversed, whereas the figure jumps to 92% should the UK leave the EU on the basis of the Prime Minister’s deal.

There is little agreement about what should happen if the deal is defeated

Like many previous attempts at addressing the issue, Ipsos MORI found little consensus when voters were asked what they thought should happen if the government’s deal is defeated, with both leaving without a deal at one end of the spectrum and holding a second referendum at the other marginally the most popular courses of action, each with 20% support. Meanwhile, the level of support for holding a second referendum continues to depend on how the question is asked. On the one hand, when YouGov asked whether there should be a ‘public vote’ on whether to accept or reject the deal – without making it clear what rejecting the deal would mean – 45% said they were in favour and just 36% that they were opposed, albeit with supporters of Remain (63% in favour) and Leave (55% opposed) expressing very different views. But when ComRes asked whether there should be a ‘referendum’ in which it was made clear that the choices would be remaining in the EU or leaving the EU, the 40% who said they were in favour were outnumbered by the 50% who were against.

The outcome of any second referendum is highly uncertain

Two polls by YouGov in the last week suggested that public opinion had swung further away from Brexit. One poll found that as many as 49% now think that the decision to leave was wrong, while only 38% stated that it was right – a record gap between the two. The result appeared to be the product of the fact that – unusually – distinctly more Leave voters (11%) said that the decision was wrong than Remain voters (3%) stated that it was right. Meanwhile, in a poll that the company conducted for the People’s Vote campaign, 55% said (after excluding Don’t Knows) that in a second referendum they would vote for Remain, while 45% stated that they would back Leave, a record lead for Remain in the company’s polls, a result that represented a record high for Remain in YouGov’s polls.

However, the apparent swing in favour of Remain was not replicated by Kantar, whose latest poll puts support for Remain at 52%, down a point on last month, with Leave on 48%, up one point. We therefore need more evidence that there has been a further shift to Remain before we can safely conclude that any such development has occurred. Our EURef2 poll of polls is unchanged on where it has been since the beginning of November, that is, with Remain on 53% and Leave on 47%.

Of course, much might depend not only on the circumstances in which any referendum was called, but also on the options that were on the ballot paper. Both YouGov and Opinium have suggested that, if voters are asked to choose between leaving on the basis of the government’s deal and remaining in the EU, Remain would win quite comfortably with some 57-58% of the vote. However, YouGov also reported the results of a mega poll that invited over 20,000 respondents to place the three options, of leaving on the basis of Mrs May’s deal, leaving without a deal, and remaining in the EU in order of preference – and this exercise (which also estimated the position in every constituency) suggested that, under the Alternative Vote system, the outcome of such a ballot could be very close indeed. With 27% of first preferences, leaving the EU on the basis of the deal was marginally more popular than leaving without a deal. And when the preferences of those who backed leaving without a deal were redistributed in accordance with their second preferences, Remain (which was backed by 46% of first preferences) was ahead by only 50.1% to 49.9%! According to YouGov at least, Leave voters’ apparent distaste for Mrs May’s deal does not necessarily extend to preferring no Brexit at all.


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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

5 thoughts on “MPs Decide? Four Key Messages From The Polls

  1. @Neil Pearson
    Statements made about the previous referendum work both ways. We were only asked whether we wanted to leave the EU, not whether we wanted to leave the EEA. May has obviously contradicted the will of the people by attempting to widen the scope of the referendum beyond the original question. Politicians call this the Norway+ option but May has always refused to countenance any attempts to discuss this option.
    Repeated calls to make the referendum the one and only vote on this topic ignore the facts that:
    a) there was illegal spending on the leave campaign.
    b) there was illegal invasion of privacy on social media to convince people to vote leave.
    c) Britons living in Euope were denied the vote in spite of a Tory manifesto promise to reverse the illegal disenfranchisement of the citizens.
    d) there is a high likelihood that the Russians were involved in obtaining the leave vote.
    All facts which have been conveniently forgotten since 2016. Just like Boris Johnson denying his statements about £350M/week being paid to the EU and 17M+ Turkish people wanting to move to Britain both blantant lies but still believed a large number of people.

  2. Nobody asked us in the Referendum if we wanted to Leave with or without ‘a deal’. The deal idea has emerged later and is a red herring, the majority voted just to leave. We should just go out and trade on WTO terms. If we and other countries then decide on better deals later on we can negotiate these from a position of strength.Report

  3. The 2016 “will of the people” vote needs comment. Non UK citizens (many EU citizens) living in UK had no vote in June 2016…about 2 million of them and logically the majority would be Remainers. Further, UK citizens living in Europe had no vote, 1 million of them again presumably many Remainers. Under 18s in 2016 are now entitled to vote, about 0.8 million of them. Again this group has many Remainers. Surely the rights of these groups totalling 3.8 million should have some impact on the “will of the people”.Report

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