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POLL ALERT: Polling Matters / Opinium: Voters back ‘soft Brexit’ but reject second referendum – even if the economy worsens

December 17th, 2016

 

The first poll commissioned by the ‘Polling Matters’ podcast, conducted by Opinium, shows little appetite for another referendum but we shouldn’t assume voters want a ‘hard Brexit’ either writes Keiran Pedley

Since the EU referendum result was announced last June, many have sought to explain on behalf of voters why they voted the way they did and therefore surmise what they want from any Brexit deal. To try and understand what is really going on we have commissioned our first poll with pollsters Opinium (and we are delighted to be working with them on this project).

What type of Brexit do voters want?

The poll focused on two subject areas. The first was to explore attitudes to a potential ‘hard’ or ‘soft Brexit’. We put two potential scenarios to respondents and asked them to choose between them. We deliberately did not use the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft Brexit’ in the survey to try and avoid any bias that may result in using them. Respondents just saw the descriptions below. The results suggest a ‘soft Brexit’ is preferred overall by 6 percentage points with the public divided (as we might expect) by how they voted in the referendum.

Table 1: ‘Hard’ versus ‘Soft Brexit’

  1. You may have heard different descriptions of what sort of deal the UK might receive when it leaves the EU. Assuming that Britain does leave the EU and these were the options available, which scenario would you prefer?

table-1

Before we go further we should acknowledge that this is a difficult exercise to undertake in a survey environment. We are not suggesting that Britain’s choice – insofar as it has one – is as binary as described above. Indeed, many Brexiteers will dispute the idea that there is an economic trade-off with a ‘hard Brexit’ at all. However, we still feel that this is a useful exercise. In presenting the choice as we have above we can start to understand what voter’s value most in any Brexit deal and therefore the prism through which they will see what is eventually agreed.

So what to make of these results? The obvious conclusion to draw is that the debate over Britain’s exact future relationship with the EU is not yet settled. One in four polled either offer ‘no preference’ or ‘don’t know’ whether they would prefer a ‘hard’ or ‘soft Brexit’ whilst 15% of Leave voters actually prefer a ‘soft Brexit’.

There is more than enough ammunition here to challenge those that claim it is obvious what Leave voters wanted from Brexit and therefore also challenge the nature of the mandate Theresa May has when negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Also, irrespective of how people voted last June, at the very least the Prime Minister would be wise to keep in mind that a large body of public opinion prioritises Britain’s economic future (and the future of Britain’s public services) over immigration or Britain’s withdrawal from certain EU institutions.

However, those that want Britain to maintain as close a relationship as possible with Europe shouldn’t get too excited. Delving into the numbers further complicates matters in that Theresa May’s base is largely in favour of a ‘hard Brexit’. Conservatives prefer a ‘hard Brexit’ by 13 points and those aged 65+ prefer one by 19 points. In contrast a ‘soft Brexit’ is preferred by Lib Dem voters (72%), Labour voters (58%), Scots (56%) and those aged 18-34 (52%).

Should there be a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership?

The second subject area our poll focused on was the concept of a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. We asked respondents whether they thought there should be a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU once the terms of withdrawal were known and also whether there should be one in the event that the British economy significantly worsens as a direct result of Brexit. The results will make sobering reading for Remainers. Surprisingly, a second referendum is roundly rejected in both circumstances. In fact, the results are identical.

Table 2: Attitudes to a second referendum

  1. Once we know what terms the government has negotiated, should there be a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, where voters can choose between leaving under the terms negotiated or remaining in the EU after all? 
  1. If the British economy is shown to get significantly worse as a result of Britain leaving the EU do you think there should be a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU?

table-2

In any case, right now public opinion is squarely against revisiting Britain’s membership of the EU in a referendum. Of course this could change in the future. If the economy does get worse then the reality of that could change minds.I must confess I was shocked by these results. Not so much the first as I expected a second referendum to be rejected there. Other polls have given similar numbers.

However, I did not expect such a strong rejection of a second referendum in the event that the economy significantly worsens. The scale of the rejection occurs because a significant proportion of the Remain vote (27% and 26% respectively) rejects a second referendum in each instance. Perhaps this is because these people simply consider the matter resolved by the first referendum in June or perhaps they were never that committed to Britain’s EU membership in the first place. We cannot say for certain. The idea of the Remain vote being soft in parts is rarely discussed but seems in evidence here.

Nevertheless, for now the message from the public seems to be that all sides should focus on the type of exit Britain should secure from the EU rather than whether Britain should exit at all. Theresa May’s challenge therefore will be to deliver an exit that satisfies the Brexiteers in her party without being seen to deliver significant harm to Britain’s economy and public services. Whether she can deliver will ultimately determine her legacy and how long she occupies Number 10. Time will tell.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley is editor and presenter of the Polling Matters podcast and tweets about politics and public opinion at @keiranpedley.

You can listen to the latest Polling Matters ‘Review of 2016’ podcast episode below.

For more information on the above poll (and data tables) contact Keiran at kpedley@gmail.com or consult the Opinium website. Opinium interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults between Dec 13-16, 2016.