Robert Struthers, BMG’s Head of Polling, examines whether more people have ‘come to terms’ with Brexit since the UK formally left the EU at the end of January. He argues that there is now early evidence to suggest that our new position outside the EU has re-framed the debate in the minds of electorate, with slightly fewer voters now opposed to Brexit than there were prior to January 31st.
The UK leaving the EU on January 31st posed an interesting problem for pollsters. Since 2016 BMG and a few other polling agencies had been tracking the public’s preferences on Brexit by asking the public the same question that had been on the ballot paper in 2016: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?
Delay after delay to the Brexit process meant we were able to keep asking this question for more than three years after the UK voted to leave. And the story that our tracker told was a fairly consistent one. For over two years, since late 2017, Remain consistently recorded leads over Leave. The size of this lead fluctuated over the course of this period, but our final poll before our EU Exit in early January still showed Remain ahead, with Remain on 49%, Leave on 45%, with 6% unsure.
However, the UK’s exit on the 31st January means that a new question is required. The UK is no longer a member, so the question is not now between remaining or leaving, but is rather a question of whether or not to stay outwith the EU or re-join, meaning our Brexit support question finally had to be updated.
… And the result? A shift in preferences in favour of UK staying out of the EU
For the first time in two years, a greater share of the public indicated that they favoured being outside the European Union than did being inside the European Union. Conducted in early February, our polling showed 48% preferred to stay out of the EU, compared to the 45% who said they wanted to join the EU, and 7% unsure. With don’t knows removed, this places Leave on 52% and Remain on 48%, mirroring exactly the 2016 result!
So, whilst the result is still close – and the margin of error means that both sides could be effectively tied – this result is certainly at least symbolcially striking; with the UK finally exiting the EU, suddenly support for Brexit appears to have increased.
One may reasonably say this is simply a result of a change in question wording. Those familiar with survey design know just how much of an effect the wording of a question can have on how respondents answer a survey question. Small, seemingly minor changes, can have a significant impact.
However, it must be acknowledged that the question we have to think about has changed; our new wording simply reflects the reality of our new position outside the EU. Yes, exactly how this question should now be asked can be debated – it certainly left us scratching our heads in the office – but it would be unfair to dismiss the result given it simply no longer makes sense to re-ask what was put to voters in 2016.
So, what might explain this change? Status-quo bias is one possibility …
Pollsters and political commentators often talk about the question of status-quo bias; people are said to prefer things to stay the same rather than make changes. Whilst the effect of status-quo bias on election and referendum results is much debated, it is possible that some voters may be showing signs that they are learning to live with the reality of Brexit, including some of those who didn’t vote for it, preferring that over the prospect of more change and upheaval.
Indeed, research suggests status quo bias is more likely to have an effect where there are high levels of ambiguity; and it is certainly arguable that any possible path back to EU membership looks highly uncertain – for the time being at least.
A closer look at the data goes some way to supporting this theory. In our data collected before our EU exit, around one in ten Leave and Remain voters consistently indicated they had switching sides. In other words, the traffic was flowing at the same rate in both directions, with the numbers displaying what you might call “buyer’s remorse” similar to the numbers of who we might label “late converts” to the Brexit cause. Indeed, it was how non-voters – those who said they did not vote in 2016 – said they would vote that largely explained Remains’ lead, with around half non-voters backing Remain, compared to around three in ten who said they would back Leave.
This month the picture has changed. Whilst we see little evidence of movement among non-voters and Leave voters, we see a notable shift in the preferences of those that reported voting Remain in 2016. In January, 87% of Remain voters said they still backed Remain. Fast forward a month, just 76% of 2016 Remain voters told us they would back re-joining. Much of the change has been in the level of don’t knows, rising from 3% to 9%, although there has also been movement in the share backing Leave (9% to 14%).
Has the tide turned?
Quite simply, it is too early to tell. Certainly, we can say that this poll points to early evidence that more of those who may have once backed EU membership are now less keen on reversing the referendum result. This is not to say that they are now enthusiastic supporters, but perhaps they feel the additional upheaval following a turbulent period of debate and indecision may simply not be worth it.
That being said, it should be noted that shifts are relatively marginal, so we should wait to see if this pattern continues over the course of the coming months. Indeed, the UK left the EU a matter of weeks ago and there is a long process ahead as the Government looks to negotiate a trade deal with the European Union. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues or whether – if the road ahead gets increasingly bumpy and uncertain – we start to revert back to a similar pattern to that which we were seeing in the run-up to the 31st January.
Robert Struthers, Head of Polling
Data tables showing af full breakdown of the results of this polling will be available on this website later today.
For a more detailed breakdown of results from this poll, or any other results from our polling series, please get in touch by email or phone.
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