Keiran Pedley looks at some exclusive polling from Opinium and asks whether Britain really could remain in the EU after all?
As Tony Blair gave one of his characteristically unwelcome interventions in British politics last week many were asking why he bothers. With parties supporting Brexit winning more than 8 in 10 votes at the recent General Election you could be forgiven for assuming that the former PM’s calls for Brexit to be stopped will fall on deaf ears and the issue is settled.
But is it settled? As I wrote immediately after the election the political circumstances have changed since Brits went to the polls. Public opinion is volatile and with a Labour government now a realistic possibility again there is a path – however small – for Remainers to end up in government. For that to happen, Jeremy Corbyn would either have to change his tune on Brexit or be replaced by someone else. One imagines that only a significant shift in public opinion could make either of those things take place. With the former more likely than the latter.
Increased support for another vote
However, there are some signs that public opinion is shifting, albeit gradually. The PB/Polling Matters podcast has been given access to some exclusive polling from Opinium that has tracked support for a second referendum on EU membership once the terms are known since December 2016.
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?
There is something for everyone here. On the one hand public opinion is still against the concept of another vote on Brexit. However, the gap is now 7 points as opposed to 19 in December. The trend is clear – support for another vote is growing. The cause? Remain voters are increasingly likely to support another vote – as the chart below demonstrates.
However, none of this puts Brexit in immediate danger. The above chart shows that Leave voters are resolute in their opposition to another vote and there is no major political figure (presumably it would have to be a Labour one…) prepared to break ranks and demand one. To suggest that Britain remaining in the E.U. after all is anything more than a long shot would be dishonest.
Yet if I was a Leave supporter I would be nervous.
One aspect the above poll question does not capture is the strength of feeling on the issue. Another question asked by Opinium last weekend attempts to do just that. The public were asked how committed they were to Remain or Leave. The results are below.
Which of the following statements best describes your view on Brexit?
- I strongly feel that the UK should remain in the E.U. 34%
- I think the UK should remain in the E.U. but don’t feel that strongly about it 12%
- I am open minded on whether Britain remains in the E.U. or leaves 8%
- I think the UK should leave the E.U. but don’t feel that strongly about it 8%
- I strongly feel that the UK should leave the E.U. 33%
- Don’t know 6%
What we can see here is that the public appear to be split into thirds. 34% strongly feel that the UK should remain in the E.U., 33% strongly feel the UK should leave and the rest are either lukewarm in their commitment to either side, don’t know or are open minded. Far from there being a ‘52%’ and a ‘48%’, there is in fact a large chunk of people in the middle waiting to see what will happen.
It should be said that right now the strength of feeling is actually on the Leave side. 72% of Leave voters strongly feel that the UK should leave the E.U. whereas 65% of Remain voters strongly feel we should remain. This means that 30% of Remain voters are in this ‘middle third’ on the issue compared to just 22% of Leave voters. If exit negotiations go well then support for Brexit ought to consolidate rather than fall away.
So why did I say I would be nervous if I was a Leave supporter? Well, in the face of growing support for another vote among Remainers, Theresa May’s government is weak. It is not clear that the Conservatives will control the timing of the next General Election and that makes events unpredictable. Meanwhile, we haven’t truly entered the period of ‘Brexit negotiations proper’ yet, we don’t know how they will go and how public opinion will react. Jeremy Corbyn managed to turn Labour’s poll rating round in a matter of weeks during the General Election. Is it so implausible that a similar shift against Brexit could happen in the next two years?
Of course it isn’t. It isn’t difficult to foresee circumstances where Brexit goes badly and a ‘perfect storm’ of support for another referendum and opposition to Brexit itself creeps up on a weak Conservative government. Just as ‘the 48%’ doesn’t exist, neither does ‘the 52%’. A large body of UK public opinion sits in shades of grey on Brexit and events can shift them one way or the other on the issue.
Brexit seems secure – for now
However, I still agree with those that say Brexit being stopped altogether is very unlikely. Such a specific set of events need to take place that it is almost unimaginable. Yet the unimaginable has been so consistently delivered in the past few years I feel we can rule nothing out. The government would be wise to seek some sort of comprehensive transitional arrangement with the E.U. and agree it as soon as possible. Therein lies stability. Without that stability we are the fall of one weak and divided Conservative government away from all bets being off.
Keiran Pedley presents the PB/Polling Matters podcast. You can listen to the latest episode below. He tweets about politics and public opinion at @keiranpedley
Note on the poll: Opinium surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,005 UK UK adults between the 7th and 11th July. Full tables will appear on their website in due course.