Three Years On: Still Divided

Posted on 23 June 2019 by John Curtice

Today marks the third anniversary of the EU referendum in which the country voted narrowly (by 52% to 48%) in favour of leaving the EU. Since then, the country has spent much of the last three years debating how the process of leaving has and should be handled, the terms on which we should aim to leave, and even the merits of the original decision itself.  The debate has precipitated a general election and resulted in the downfall of a Prime Minister. The one thing that has not happened is Britain making its exit from the EU – thanks to the repeated refusal of the House of Commons to accept the terms of the withdrawal treaty that was negotiated with the EU by the UK government. Instead the country is awaiting the arrival of a new Prime Minister who will be charged with the task of solving in three months a Brexit riddle that Theresa May was unable to solve in three years.

One might imagine that the difficulties that have beset the withdrawal process would have had an impact on support for the principle of remaining or leaving the EU in the first place. But of that there is remarkably little evidence. Our poll of polls of how people would vote in another referendum continues to report that the country is more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave, much as it was three years ago.

True, as has been the position ever since our poll of polls series began at the beginning of 2018, the balance of support is now tilted in favour of Remain rather than, as in the referendum, in favour of Leave.  Indeed, the current average of Remain 52%, Leave 48% is the exact mirror image of what emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016.

However, this does not mean that there is a discernible, key group of Leave voters who have changed their minds about Brexit. That much becomes clear if, as in the table below, we examine separately the current vote intentions of those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave. In both cases over 85% say they would vote exactly the same way as they did in 2016. The sound and fury of the last three years has left the vast majority of voters unmoved. And although 8% of those who backed Leave say that they would now vote Remain, they are counterbalanced by 8% of Remain supporters who indicate that they would now support Leave.

The principal reason why public opinion is now tilted towards Remain is because, as we have noted before, those who did not vote three years ago prefer Remain to Leave by around two to one (if they express a view at all). In part, at least, this reflects the fact that this group of abstainers consists disproportionately of younger voters who in general are more likely to back Remain. However, it also suggests that, far from being certain to produce a majority for Remain, the outcome of a second referendum could turn on the ability or otherwise of the Remain side to mobilise the support of a group of voters who cannot necessarily be relied upon to vote at all.

Meanwhile, we should note that, in so far as there has been any change in recent weeks, it consists of a slight narrowing of the lead for Remain. The latest figures of Remain 52%, Leave 48%, contrast with ones of Remain 54%, Leave 46%, that had hitherto pertained for most of the time since the beginning of this year. Still, this movement could be the product of chance variation or the possibility that more recent polls have been undertaken disproportionately by companies that tend to produce relatively narrow leads for Remain anyway.

However, this seems to be an inadequate explanation. Of the four companies that have polled vote intentions in a second referendum since the beginning of May and who also did so in January this year, three (BMG, Survation and YouGov) have registered clear drops in support for Remain, on average by three points, while only one (Kantar) has not.

The principal explanation for this change appears to be that there has been some ‘hardening’ of the Leave vote in recent weeks. At the beginning of the year we reported that while 89% of those who voted Remain said that they would vote the same way again, the equivalent figure among Leave supporters, 83%, had become somewhat lower. Now the two figures are almost identical. Recent events have, it seems, simply reinforced Leave voters in their original views rather than encouraged them to think again.

Avatar photo

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.

37 thoughts on “Three Years On: Still Divided

  1. The main reason why there is a disconnect between the polls and the final results is that people don’t want to admit their real voting intention to an interviewer, especially if it may be perceived as controversial. Many leave voters likely didn’t admit this intention when interviewed, instead stating remain or undecided.Report

  2. Say we vote again, and this time remain gets 52% leave 48% like the last time what make you think those who want to leave are just going accept it?

    Just like you remainers who threw you toys out the pram, a lot of leavers are not going be happy. The same is just going to happen again and drag the UK even further down the shitter. so why not accept the real vote, suck your thumbs and get back to work instead of moaning that your side lost. No-one truly knows whats going to happen when we leave. Now if the PM had been mainly spending this time making trade deals and building relationships outside of the EU strengthening our position. This could have helped reassure business that we are on top of the situation and also possibly helped get a good deal from the EU. But no they both have had to deal with infighting and toxicity on both sides of Parliament, underhand tactics and lies, and even a bias speaker. So way i see it, its the remains fault we don’t have a cohesive plan for Brexit and also why we don’t have any sort of deal on the table right now they’re the ones sabotaging our future. Report

  3. It still seems to me that asking the question whether to leave or remain was stupid from the very start.
    As long as the consequences are unclear, no-one knows what they are voting for.
    It is just about as meaningful as asking whether you would like things to stay as they are, or would you prefer a change.


  4. A deal with the EU will never be sorted because the MP’S who voted to stay in Euro will never agree with any deal even if the EU agreed to renegotiate which they won’t, it’s about time they stopped thinking about themselves and what they can get out of it personally and do the job they were elected to do which is serve the people. The majority of the people voted to leave and since that vote all the government has done is waist time and money by acting like children, I haven’t had the privilege of such a high level of education like the majority of MP’S and I definitely wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth but even I can see that if all the MP’S had unitted behind which ever government was in power it would of showed the EU that they can’t walk all over us.

    I know this is just the opinion of a mere uneducated working class citizen but I think the country would be in a better position than it is now!Report

  5. I just want to apologise to Douglas 30 June 2019. I accidentally hit the Report button on his comment whilst scrolling. I had no intention of reporting it so many apologies Report

  6. Typical remain bias , the country’s in a mess because one side simply cannot accept the result full stop .oh if it had gone other way that would been end if it . Shows what type people remainers really are only believe they are right and everyone else is wrong . Safe very very sad people Report

  7. The main problem with a second referendum is that the first referendum was pretty much evenly split and all indications are that this is still the case, albeit with a narrow advantage to the remain side this time…. The result is likely the be dependent on the weather, the catchy posters etc.
    This does not seem a solid basis for such a momentous decision and the frist referendum was a huge mistake to call in the first place and then completely botched afterwards with the central question coming down: do you want to remain in the EU, or do you want “something else”? If you are having a referendum, first decide on 2 or more clear scenarios, preferably pre-negotiated so the choices are actually feasible, now that would be Remain/Leave with May’s deal/Leave on WTO rules and filling out second preferences as well in case their first preference gets the least votes, but nobody got >50%. Then have extensive public discussions with clear explanation what all if this would actually mean in practice and only then have the referendum. I feel now that a GE with all parties, including Labour clearly stating what they would do if winning the elections may now be the better option – with the explicit task for parliament to “deal with it”, it is actually their job!Report

  8. John Curtice is the expert analyst here, not any of you remoaners. What he’s saying is that basically it’s too close to call as pretty much 50/50. I think some ( not all) remoaners have never accepted what was a democratic process with government wording of “we will implement what you decide” and this has not happened. Far far too much negative media and so called experts using words such as cliff edge, catastrophic etc etc – how on earth can they see into the future. The truth is NO ONE knows what will happen but I’m pretty sure we didn’t implode pre EU existence and at the turn of this century when the media and experts predicted planes falling out the sky and world wars etc etc – err like nothing happened.Report

  9. Alan Theyer It is unimaginable how much richer we would be as a country if the referendum had never happened.Billions have been spent, thousands of unproductive civil servants hired.That is simple fact and we are still in.
    As for blaming everything on Remaniacs (or is it Remainiacs you seem unsure), your problem is that as with any sect, sniffing for heresy, Brexiter heroes become Remaniacs with such speed there may soon be no True Brexiters left at all.Liam Fox was a Brexiter hero once. So was Michael Gove. Great heavens so was Theresa May! Oh yes there are Brexiter articles extolling her steel! Now like so many others all of these are Remaniacs, . I wonder if in the not so far away future Boris will be added to that long list. He thinks he can avoid it by taking us out. But, if the exit is messy, which given his track record seems highly probable, he may come to be regarded the biggest Remaniac of all.

  10. The only reason that the UK is in a mess over Brexit is because those wrongly chosen to rid the UK of the EU dictatorship were Remainiacs. The media coverage especially by the BBC news and it,s propaganda programs are without bias in favour of RemaniacsReport

  11. Like others on this thread and elsewhere, I’m beginning to question Mr Curtice’s impartiality.

    For two straight years the polls have show a small but clear majority for Remain. Many well outside the tolerances of typical polling accuracy. That’s 70+ polls all saying one thing. And this is totally different from before the referendum when the polls were split down the middle.

    For months the trend has been a slow but measurable move towards Remain so that by the beginning of 2019, the gap was at 10-15%. On an electorate of 42m voters, that’s a majority of at least 4m people who want to Remain.

    But when (just as there was in 2017 and 2018) there is a modest Spring dip back towards Leave, this becomes the big story? Not one peep about the steady increase in Remain support over the last two years or that the data is showing up to 6m more voters want to Remain than Leave.


  12. There is no doubt that there is no big majority for the vote of 2016. There is no doubt that many informed sources predict a negative result from that intention, particularly if we leave with no agreement on the rights of people, financial obligations or the Irish border. Leaving with no withdrawal agreement would be morally wrong and is brought about by an obsession to leave that is very puzzling to non-obsessives.
    We normally support a political system of representative democracy and most of our elected politicians realise that remaining is best but have a dilemma because of the 2016 people’s vote. If a people’s vote was held now and the failings of 2016 were avoided the result would be democratic and politicians could resume governing the country in its best interests.

  13. The 2016 referendum was carried out following Government advice not to leave in it’s publicly circulated leaflet.
    Regardless of this advice nobody can foresee with any surety the impact of leaving but all informed sources suggest that it would be a very costly move.
    We joined the EU without a referendum in 1973 but in 1975 when the public had had recent experience of both being in and being out of the EU, and were therefor far better informed, they voted by a huge 36% majority to remain in the EU.
    Although things change over the years surely more attention should be paid to the benefits that the UK has gained through its membership since 1973, many of which would be lost by leaving.Report

  14. Has anyone done a poll on the 13m of the electorate who did not vote in the referendum? The Leave ‘win’ assumed they would be split in the same ration, 52% Leave to 48% Remain, but this may not be the case. Indeed, there is an argument to say that at the time of the referendum there were many more Remainers who couldn’t be bothered to vote than there were Leavers. It’s hard to get passionate about keeping the status quo – and a Remain win was predicted.

    Also, for those on the fence in that 13m, I can’t imagine that having watched the chaos over the last three years they would now decide that they would prefer Brexit. It would not take many of those 13m preferring Remain to wipe out Leave’s 1.3m majority and swing the ‘will of the people’ firmly in favour of staying in the EU. Which, according to The New York Times, seems the sensible thing to do. Here’s what they said a few weeks ago:-

    “The British cannot actually go through with something that will lower their incomes, make them poorer, lose them jobs, drain investment, expose their market to trade deals over which they would have no say, and — just an afterthought — lead to the breakup of Britain.”Report

  15. One of the reasons Leave won may have been that Remain was perceived to be ahead in the polls. Young people in particular, who have less experience of voting, might not bother to vote if they think the status quo will win anyway, and the current polling lead for Remain might have the same effect in a subsequent referendum. Report

  16. Much as I respect John Curtice, I agree with John and Adrian that Prof Sir Curtice is understating the significant shift from Leave to Remain. Tracking the data that John has used, the trends from Kantar, Panelbase, YouGov and Survation universally show a shift from around 3% Leave in Q2/17 to a cluster of five polls averaging 9% remain now – a 12% shift. Of the 70 polls in John’s data, only two have shown a preference to Leave, most recently 8 March by “ORB” whoever they are.

    Across all the various different questions, of 125 polls since January 2018, 113 of supported Remain and three for Leave.
    The BBC have determinedly refused to acknowledge this “Fact”. Its only mention was when Gina Millar raised it in a spat with Nick Robinson on the Today programme. Nick immediately closed the interview. The Today programme is edited by Sarah Sands, previously Editor Sunday Telegraph, and consulting editor Daily Mail.

    I agree with Adrian Phillips and John Torrance that while the Prof is generally a pillar of objectivity, he seems determined to dismiss a trend that is far more significant than the original Brexit referendum. Then 52% Leave supporting a pack of Boris lies. Now poll after poll shows a gap of 9% to 12% pro Remain.

    To John Fender (great name) and Sam Jan, it depends which Pollster you trust. Some of the them are pants. I follow Kantar, YouGov with a health warning, and maybeish Survation. On this basis I predicted the results of the Scottish and Euro Referenda within 1%. My forecast of the recent Euro Poll was out by several galaxies.

    Sadly, the media’s obsession with Freak Shows, means that they’d rather obsess about an incompetent, lying philanderer than acknowledge that 54% of us want to remain.

    Happy to share stuff.

  17. @John Fender @Gerard Burke

    John is correct in saying that the polls have been rather incorrect in the past few years, especially the shocking election of Donald Trump and Labour’s incredible comeback in the 2017 GE. He is however very wrong on the analysis.

    1) Yes, on the leadup to the Brexit referendum the polls were very close with an advantage to Remain. The difference here is that in 2016, some polls had Leave ahead but more of them had Remain ahead. Right now, there has not been ONE poll where Leave is ahead since 2018, EXCEPT for the one done by Survation a few weeks ago.

    2) The result falls very well in the margin of error

    3) Pollsters have gotten alot better. Yougov predicted the 2017 GE to 2 seats. The polling for the US midterms was pretty much on the money, as well as the EU elections and many other elections across the world..

    4) The dismissal of facts like the recent right wing overpolling and losses like in the EU elections and the Peterborough by-election and more reference to events 3 years past where the populist right had several big wins honestly makes me think that this is another Kremlin account.

    That being said, John Curtice is right in being dubious on the youth vote. Many pollsters learnt their lessons when the young did not turn out in 2016, making them grossly overestimated the left. So in a real referendum John Fender/Johan Fedorov could be correct that pollsters are once again over estimating the youth vote and not doing enough to weigh them out. However, seeing how many young people turn out for people’s vote marches in London gives me hope that actually pollsters are *underestimating* the youth vote this time around. But I’m not holding my breath.Report

  18. I assume the right-hand column includes those people who were under the age of 18 in June 2016 but would be eligible to vote now. But does the bottom row of people who “would not vote” now include the converse, those who did vote in 2016 but have since died? Although these numbers would just be a few percentage points of the electorate the margins around 50% here are very slim so this could be significant.

  19. No discussion of how inaccurate polls have been lately in numerous elections across the world? The pollsters keep getting it shockingly wrong.

    As I recall, the Brexit Referendum may have been one of the first big shocks that started the whole series of polling debacles followed not long after by Trump beating Hillary and most recently in Australia with several other big surprises in-between. Somehow, these surprises ALL seem to be falling to the advantage of the political right which suggests perhaps that there is a leftest bias in the polling.

    If memory serves, in 2016 the polling was very close but Remainers in most polls were showing an advantage similar to the contemporary advantage described in the article above. Yet the Remainers lost.Report

  20. Adrian, a very useful correction and once again I am afraid I see a certain bias in the Prof’s comments here, which may possibly be unconscious. He never ever comments on wide Remain Leads, and almost certainly we will see no comment on the fact in the Survation poll you mention Remain are back at a 7% lead which is please note much bigger than the referendum split. and from a pollster whose last poll before the referendum was within the margin of error of a Leave win, close indeed to a correct prediction of the result. . When the split was wider Curtice rarely id ever commented but now jumps back in when it narrows only to find it is widening again!

  21. “The debate has precipitated a general election and resulted in the downfall of a Prime Minister.”

    Two Prime Ministers? Report

  22. Just to note that Prof. Curtice’s latest comment re Survation trend (penultimate para.) is no longer correct. Today’s poll from them puts Remain back at 51% v 44% for Leave. This compares to 52%/43% in January and 47%/44% in February. Looks like no change over the period. Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *