By Matt Singh
IT HAS become cliché to say that Brexit has divided the UK, but political circles now bitterly disagree over the depth and nature of that division. A poll showing public opinion favoring one outcome or another — remaining in the European Union or leaving with no deal, for example — has become a weekly occurrence, giving almost everyone a data point that fits their preferred narrative.
There are several reasons for the confused picture. Some of the more eye-catching findings have come from unscientific “open access” polls of the type run by some local newspapers, which lack controls for demographics or people voting multiple times. But legitimate polls can produce different results too, even when asking the same question, partly because their methodologies vary. How to cut through the noise?
Polling so far, quite reasonably, has asked people whether the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May and rejected by parliament so convincingly last week is “good” or “bad.” It also asks which of three currently feasible endpoints — May’s deal, no deal at all or no Brexit — respondents prefer. But what people would like and what they could live with are often quite different things.
So Number Cruncher Politics asked 1,030 eligible voters not only which outcome they’d prefer, but which they’d accept. Their answer, I believe, gets closer to helping us understand where the real public consensus lies.
Remaining in the EU was the preferred outcome for 37%, ahead of leaving with no deal (29%) and leaving with the proposed deal (23%), with 10% undecided. That seems to suggest that May’s deal is as unpopular among the public as it is in parliament and supports the aims of those Remainers who want a second referendum.
We then asked, for each of the three outcomes, whether the respondent would personally find it acceptable or unacceptable. Remaining in the EU was acceptable to 48% and unacceptable to 41%, and leaving without a deal was acceptable to 45% and unacceptable to 39%. Voters who reported backing Brexit in the 2016 referendum and those who opposed it chose along the lines you’d expect. That is, the two extremes — remaining in the EU or a no-deal exit — are hugely polarizing.
What was more revealing was that nearly half of those polled (49%) said they find May’s deal acceptable; only 30% find it unacceptable with around a fifth (21%) undecided. So as well as being the most acceptable and least unacceptable option, May’s deal is by far the least divisive.
The particular polling challenge here is that Brexit is full of complexity, but most people aren’t following its every twist and turn. And it’s an emotionally charged topic for many, so the wording of the question really matters. For example, polls have differed on the single most popular outcome to the process, depending on which options are provided, and how similar outcomes are grouped. And questions using the word “referendum” tend to produce less support for holding another one than those that call it a “vote” or similar.
Likewise, questions asking whether or not voters should be given the chance to accept or reject the government’s deal consistently generates a more positive response (meaning voters want a say) than questions that spell out what rejection by voters would mean. Remain voters who oppose May’s deal but worry about the risk of a vote to leave with no deal may not want the issue put to a vote again.
Something similar may help explain why the House of Commons rejected the deal so heavily last week. Opposition came from hard Brexiters on the one hand who would be happy with a no-deal exit, and soft Brexiters and those advocating remaining in the EU on the other. Rejecting the deal almost invariably means that one side will end up with something further from their preference than the deal, but which side that will be is as yet unclear.
In our poll, a majority (55%) of 2016 Leave voters and a plurality (44%) of Remainers found leaving with the deal acceptable. “Acceptable” also lead among supporters of all the main parties, including 68% of current Conservative voters, and also among undecided voters.
As far as the public is concerned, then, Theresa May’s deal is unloved, but it’s the closest thing to a compromise that most could live with. Whether UK lawmakers will reach the same conclusion remains to be seen.
Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 UK election polling failure.