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POLL ALERT: Ignore the hype. Brexit might be going badly, but that doesn’t mean people are changing their minds

November 5th, 2017

New numbers from the Polling Matters / Opinium series show that public opinion on Brexit remains stubbornly fixed writes a returning Keiran Pedley

There is a whiff of decay around Westminster at the moment and it is not just because parliament is falling down. The sexual harassment scandal that engulfs the government looks unlikely to end with the resignation of Michael Fallon whilst Theresa May’s premiership limps on with 53% of the British public dissatisfied with her performance as PM according to Ipsos Mori.

Some will ask ‘what does this mean for Brexit?’ Could the increasing unpopularity of the Prime Minister and her government make Brexit less popular too? After all, more numbers from Ipsos Mori show that a clear majority of the public (55%) say that May has done a bad job handling Britain’s exit from the E.U. (up some 20 points from less than a year ago). Could this mean that people are losing faith with Brexit itself?

Source: Ipsos Mori October 2017

In a word, no. Despite some speculation in the press, there is little evidence of a sizeable shift in public opinion against Brexit. It would appear that many commentators are conflating the obvious problems in the current Conservative government right now with a weakening in public support for leaving the E.U. Although linked to a point they are different issues and though there is plenty of evidence for the former, there is very little for the latter.

The PB / Polling Matters podcast has been measuring public opinion on Brexit with Opinium since last December. One of the issues we have tracked is the question of whether there should be another referendum on Brexit once the terms of divorce are known. The idea being that when push comes to shove Brexit can only be reversed (politically at least) through another vote and that will only happen if public opinion demands it. We have several data points that we can look at now that give us a clear picture of what is going on. The latest figures can be found below.

Q, 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?

What these numbers show is that despite everything that has happened in 2017, public opinion on another referendum is reasonably stable. At present 38% support another vote, 51% oppose and one in ten (10%) are undecided. What is remarkable about these numbers is that aside from a notable narrowing of the gap in July, the pattern has been quite consistent throughout the year.  Support for another vote grew slightly in the spring as some Remainers moved from ‘don’t know’ to ‘yes’ but opposition has been solidly fixed around the 51%-52% mark.

Two principle factors explain these figures. We consistently see at least one in five Remain voters (often Tory Remainers) opposed to a second referendum whilst Leave voters, as you might expect, remain staunchly opposed too. Put simply, there are more Remain voters prepared to give Brexit the benefit of the doubt and ‘get on with it’ than there are Leave voters that think they made a mistake.

However, these numbers do not mean that the British public are an enthusiastic band of Brexiteers. It should be said that 38% wanting another vote is still a lot of people and when we look at the question of E.U. membership itself the picture complicates further. In fact, rather than split the public into ‘the 52%’ and ‘the 48%’, a better way to look at things would be to split the public into thirds.

One third strongly support Brexit, one third strongly oppose and one third are somewhere in the middle (with some leaning one way and some the other). Interestingly, some 12% say that they ‘don’t know’ or are ‘open minded’ on the question of Britain’s membership of the E.U. It will be interesting to see if this moves over time. So far it has not.

So what have we learned?  The key takeaway from this polling in my opinion is to remember that noise in the media does not necessarily move public opinion. There may be a time where opinion shifts decisively against Brexit (there may not) but we are not there yet. Those that think we are have jumped the gun somewhat.

2017 has been another tumultuous year in British politics. However, on the big question of Brexit and Britain’s membership of the E.U. there is actually little evidence that things have moved at all. Dare I quote someone that has had a particularly bad year and say ‘nothing has changed’?

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley presents the PB / Polling Matters podcast (back soon) and tweets about politics and public opinion at @keiranpedley