Leave vote softens but UK still split down the middle on Brexit, says polling guru

The campaign for a second referendum on Brexit has ramped up, but would it produce a different result? Don't bank on it, warns polling guru John Curtice [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/EFE]

Professor John Curtice has been the United Kingdom’s chief elections and polling guru for several decades. So who better to analyse the divisions that have torn apart UK politics and society over Brexit, the tactical mistakes made by Leavers and Remainers since 2016, and a possible second referendum?

John Curtice spoke with EURACTIV’s Brexit Editor, Benjamin Fox

One of the things you’ve said consistently is that the vast majority of people have not changed their mind about Brexit.

The polling evidence suggests that about 85% of those people who voted in 2016 say they would vote the same way. There is no doubt that the vast majority would vote the same way, but because the outcome in 2016 was as close as it was, you don’t need a great deal of people to change their minds to generate a different outcome.

The polling data suggests two things that help to explain why all data tends to show Remain ahead by, on average, 54-46%.

One is that the Leave vote seems to be somewhat softer than the Remain vote, at the margin, though it varies from poll to poll. The survey I published earlier this week suggests that 89% of Remainers would vote the same way and 79% of Leavers.

Why is that?

The thing that is most likely to result in people changing their minds is whether their views on the economic consequences of Brexit have shifted. The people who would vote Leave again are much more optimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit.

Although Leave voters are deeply critical of the deal and the handling of negotiations, their criticisms of the deal don’t lead them to be questioning the principle. It’s much more about whether Brexit will deliver.

The Leave vote has become a little more pessimistic. It’s still the case that many more think Brexit will be good for the economy than bad but, whereas in 2016 around 1 in 10 Leave voters thought that the economy would be worse off, it is now around 1 in 4. So there is a modestly sized group of people who have become rather more pessimistic, and that group is least likely to hang on to their Leave loyalty.

There’s another crucial part to this story. Those people who did not vote two and a half years ago are much more pro-Remain than they are pro-Leave and they have become more pro-Remain during the last two and a half years. Those who didn’t vote are now emerging as a very significant group, and that makes a very significant contribution to the Remain lead in the polls.

This raises two points: the argument that the 17.4 million Leave voters represent the settled will of the public – well, we can debate that. But equally the presumption that a second referendum would produce a different result is not on the soundest of foundations because it rests on those who did not vote in 2016.

There’s been a surge in young anti-Brexit campaign groups since 2016. This demographic has always the least likely to vote. Has this changed?

It is almost a fixed rule of electoral politics that younger people are less likely to vote. That was even true in the Scottish Independence referendum when there was an 85% [total] turnout. The size of the gap can vary.

But there was a big shift in 2017 with the Corbyn effect…

No, there wasn’t. Well, shall we say that is a matter of dispute. Most of the data suggests that the age gap did not change. You’re right, it could narrow. But the age gap in turnout is perennial and persistent.

There are two myths going on out there. One myth on the Remain side is that young people are so much more engaged now that it is going to close the age gap. The myth on the Leave side is that there were hundreds of thousands of people who don’t usually vote who turned out and voted Leave. Yes, it is true that most of those who voted in 2016 but not in 2015 were more likely to vote Leave, but they’re not a very large group because… at the end of the day, the turnout was only 71%. So I think the truth is that both sides tend to invest their faith in myths about turnout because they are convenient myths for what they are trying to argue.

What about turnout? Nigel Farage has said that if a second referendum is between Mrs May’s deal and staying in the EU, he would boycott…

The debate is deeply polarised, so that leaves one to suspect that the turnout would be higher. There might be an attempt at a boycott but if Farage went down that route it would mean that he had effectively given up on Brexit.

Some pollsters have suggested that a ‘no deal’ Brexit is the most popular with the public?

You’re absolutely right to say that ‘no deal’ is increasingly popular, but the figures depend on how many options you offer and how you ask the question. Polls tend to get about 25% of people backing ‘no deal’.

What is consistent across the data – and tends to split almost 50/50 is that the two most popular options are ‘no deal’ or a second referendum – and the ground in between is relatively underpopulated.

Around 50% of Leave voters seem to prefer ‘no deal’ come what may. It is probably true that two-thirds of them would be able to accept ‘no deal’. That is one respect in which the House of Commons is not reflective of public opinion. But there is no majority for ‘no deal’ in the general public. Half of Leave is 26%. Two-thirds of Leave is 33% – that is about the maximum level of support (for ‘no deal’).

Do you expect public opinion to shift decisively in the next few weeks as we reach the denouement of this process?

It’s not obvious that it’s going to shift a great deal.

If you had asked me if public opinion would shift during the 2016 referendum I would have said ‘yes’ because the long-term history of British attitudes to the EU is of very considerable volatility. We’ve had periods when the EU was very popular and others when it was very unpopular. But actually very little shifted during the referendum – it was 50-50 at the start, and there was very little movement thereafter.

Although the deal is deeply unpopular; it’s got the thumbs down from the public, and from Leave voters, it doesn’t change the minds of most Leave voters about the principle.

And most Leave voters are quite relaxed about the prospect of taking a small economic hit for the principle of leaving the EU?

Well, maybe, but not many Leave voters take that view (of an economic hit being likely).

Most Leave voting friends I speak to say that the UK will strike a lot of free trade deals with no tariffs and we’ll be much better off.

Sure, they are not that pessimistic.

The crucial thing to realise about this Brexit debate and why not much is shifting is that most people are viewing Brexit through the prism of their prior preferences. So, for example, it has proved to be more difficult for us to leave the EU than many had thought. Remain supporters just say ‘that goes to show what a bad idea it is’, and Leave voters say ‘this just proves what a good idea it is’. You see that with our politicians but it is also going on with the electorate.

Are you surprised that more Remain voters from 2016 have not fallen into line, accepted the result and said ‘let’s make the best of it’?

Well, they are very strongly committed. There’s no sense of rallying round an agreed decision, though there’s undoubtedly a body of Remain voters who were not that enthusiastic (in 2016) and were voting on the balance of probabilities. If it ends up being a reasonably soft Brexit they won’t think it’s the end of the world.

Is public demand for a second referendum stronger than at any point in the last two years?

We don’t know the answer to that question because nobody has asked about a second referendum in the same way. If you call for a People’s Vote without Remain on the ballot paper – you get a majority in favour; with Remain on the ballot paper, you tend to get a plurality against. It’s virtually 50-50. It’s a surrogate for the main argument.

My view is that the People’s Vote campaign have played their hand badly in recent weeks and months because they have kept on selling the idea of a referendum as a means by which a public which was fooled by fiddled figures can now reveal that it has changed its mind.

The moment that May’s deal got into trouble they should have changed tack, and they should have said ‘May’s deal in terrible trouble getting her deal through. We think that given the country voted to Leave, that therefore if the House of Commons is not prepared to pass the deal that we should allow the deal to go before the public, and allow the public to decide’.

Move the second referendum from being a pro-Remain cause to being about the deal. The argument that a second referendum is the way to solve the impasse – that is only going to work if both Leavers and Remain voters are willing to accept it.

By having failed to sell their project to the Leave community they have rather undermined the potential of the second referendum to solve the impasse.

And the ‘we were duped’ mantra has not cut through with the public?

Well, it’s not going to cut through to those who are in favour of leaving. That feeds the prejudice of those who voted to Remain.

I think they are so caught up in their own perspective on this subject that despite having Alistair Campbell they didn’t have the ability to think up an alternative way. At some point, you need to get Tories to vote for a second referendum and you’ve got to persuade them that moderate Leave voters would think this is a way to solve this, and they have not done that.

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