James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Where do voters currently stand on the principle of Brexit, the reality of the Government’s handling of it, and the various options theoretically standing before politicians? In this short summary, I provide an analysis of where the polls currently stand, with some thoughts on why the polls are where they are and how the Government should proceed.

  • People still obsess about Brexit. It might be boring them to death, but voters still recognise Brexit to be the most important issue facing the country by far. Ipsos-Mori’s February tracker poll, the most comprehensive issues tracker, showed it’s by far people’s top concern. It’s what people are talking about and will surely affect their voting habits in the medium term. It’s reasonably common to hear people in Westminster argue that the Conservatives’ apparent obsession with Brexit was a net negative at the last election and they missed voters’ focus on austerity/cuts/change and all the rest. There is some truth to this, but Brexit was viewed by many at the time as a done deal that didn’t need affirming. With Brexit now apparently in doubt, it’s more reasonable to assume that it is now the dominant electoral issue of the day, but, of course, this might change.
  • Nobody’s happy about how Brexit is going. YouGov trackers show people overwhelmingly think the Government is doing badly at negotiating our exit from the EU. The rating currently stands at -66 per cent and it has been rising gradually for two years, having been at +1 per cent in April 2017. There was always going to be significant public sceptically towards the Government’s position and record regardless, given that they are implementing a policy half the public opposes. But the endless negotiations and the to-ing and fro-ing in Parliament has clearly made people take a hostile view of the Government’s handling of the actual process.
  • The public remains divided but leans Remain. On the fundamental question as to whether Brexit is right or wrong, the public nationally is still divided but the polls have slightly moved against Leave. By 48-40 per cent, a recent YouGov poll showed people think it is wrong to leave the EU. This current eight point lead has very gradually crept up over the last couple of years, although it has been essentially static since the autumn.  Other polls back this up: a YouGov poll for the People’s Vote campaign (a poll that had mostly reasonably worded questions) showed that by 49-41 per cent, people think it was wrong to decide to leave the EU; and a ComRes poll in early March showed people would now vote by 46-39 per cent to stay in the EU. As I’ve written here before, it’s surprising that the Remain lead isn’t greater. The Government has never attempted seriously to sell a positive vision for life outside and has largely projected the idea of Brexit as damage limitation – amid endless negative coverage in the media about the likely terrible prospects for the economy, and an (unfair) onslaught about Leave voters’ apparent dark motives for voting out.
  • There is massive confusion about “no deal”. We should be sceptical about the various polls purporting to show public attitudes to the various deals suggested and voted upon. ComRes’ early March poll showed that few people understand the implications of what leaving without a deal would mean. In most polls that deal with issues high up the public agenda, “don’t knows” to questions tend to be very low. ComRes’ poll showed very high “don’t know” rates to questions on whether we could trade with countries we didn’t have a bilateral agreement with, the setting of tariffs, and our freedom to agree on FTAs. In short, it’s reasonable to infer that people’s attitudes towards leaving without a deal are mostly based on their past vote, on media and social media commentary, and indeed on the simple use of the term “deal”, rather than even a sketchy reading of the various plans being voted on. That said, as we see below, many Leave voters nonetheless worry about the prospect of leaving without a deal.
  • People are nervous about a “no deal” Brexit. While they don’t know the details, the public show distinct nervousness around leaving without “a deal”, whatever that means. A poll on 13th March showed that people wanted MPs to vote against leaving without a Brexit deal by 46-31 per cent. A YouGov poll for the People’s Vote campaign showed that, if there were a public vote, and the choice was to stay in the EU or leave without a deal, people would vote to stay in by 47-38 per cent. But it’s still the most popular choice of the various options that stand in front of the Government. The People’s Vote campaign asked a complex question to the public, giving a range of options for what Britain should do next with regards to Brexit. Of the options they put to the public, by far the most popular was leaving without a deal on 29 March backed by 27 per cent. 14 per cent backed the option that we should “negotiate a different deal for leaving during an extension and then leave only if it’s approved by the public in a new vote”, while 13% said there should be a new general election. An ICM Poll from the start of the year showed the same. A Delta Poll at the end of 2018 showed that a majority of people lack confidence that the Government has made sufficient preparations for no deal.
  • For all their concern about “no deal”, more voters than not just want it dealt with and done. A YouGov poll on 14th March showed that people wanted MPs to vote last week against a delay in leaving the EU, by 43-38 per cent. The same poll showed, given the choice, people favour only a short delay of “a few weeks or months”. This mirrors the qualitative research I’ve conducted on this issue; despite people’s nerves, and despite knowing it’s a vital issue, and despite many worrying about the prospects for the country (and particularly the economy), they do just want the country to “get on with it”.
  • There’s residual support for “more democracy”. There appears to be a contradiction in the polling: if you ask people if we should get on with it, they say yes, but if you ask people if there should be another vote, many also say yes. A YouGov poll for the People’s Vote campaign showed that by 50-36 per cent, people would support a public vote on whether Britain should leave without a deal or stay in the EU. Nearly 30 per cent of those that voted Leave in 2016 support a new vote. The same poll showed that, if there were a public vote, and the choice were to stay in the EU or leave on the terms negotiated by the Government, people would vote by 47-32 per cent to stay in the EU, with the rest saying they wouldn’t vote or don’t know. Why is there such a contradiction and which is the more powerful message? Here, a judgement call must be made. Looking at the polls, there is certainly a big chunk of people that want another vote to say “Leave” again. And polls typically show people favour more not fewer referendums. Personally, I think the “let’s get on with it message is stronger”, bolstered by the qualitative research I’ve been involved with, but I appreciate others might have other experiences.
  • Conservative voters are massively pro-Leave and favour “no deal”. In all the polls, we see that Conservative voters are solidly behind a Leave vote and want a no deal exit (clearly, but less solidly) and no delay. It’s hard to see how the Conservatives can sustain their electoral position by U-turning or appearing to U-turn on Brexit. Its core vote will surely completely collapse and they will be left trying to go after voters who are mostly not culturally aligned to the party – an immensely difficult task.
  • Brexit must be keeping the Conservatives up in the polls. This previous point takes us to another. Given the Party’s lead in the polls, and given being pro-Brexit is by far the highest profile issue the Party is associated with, it’s reasonable to assume that its Brexit position is either keeping the party up in the polls, or at least that it isn’t dragging the Party down. The only other reasonable explanation, which might to be fair be an additional explanation, is that vast swathes of the public might simply believe Corbyn is an unelectable clown. On this latter point, there’s no question Corbyn has a competence problem. And it is also possible that some people will look at the chaos that is Brexit and conclude that, regardless of their own view, they wouldn’t want him near any negotiations. That’s something that’ll play out in the coming weeks.
  • In the polls, it’s all about damage limitation. This column purely addresses the electoral politics of Brexit, not the substance. What can we conclude from all the complex and occasionally contradictory results? Probably that electoral calculations should be based on the idea of damage limitation. There is no path to unambiguous victory by fully embracing any of the alternatives being discussed. Going down one path attracts one group and alienates another. Again, putting the substance of the Government’s deal and its negotiation record aside, in communications terms alone, it seems to make most the sense to go for Brexit with a deal with minimal delay. Perhaps only one thing is certain: the Conservatives will lose their existing support if they back away from Brexit.