What do the public want when it comes to Brexit? More than three years on from the EU Referendum, the Brexit question is still unresolved and the public’s preferred solution continues to be disputed.
BMG’s polling asking the public whether they would rather Remain or Leave has shown a slight shift towards Remain over the course of the last 18 months, but the shift has largely come from those who didn’t vote in 2016, with around nine in ten Leave and Remain voters still saying they would vote the same way as they did three years ago.
However, the Brexit question is no longer a ‘simple’ binary choice between Leave and Remain. Rather, the possibility of another referendum, the notion of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, as well as Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, are all potential routes that we must try and gauge public support for.
This is not a simple task. As with all polling, the wording and structure of the questions and the answer options which are included can have a considerable impact on your results.
Thus, to understand preferences in more detail, BMG conducted polling asking respondents about their preferred Brexit outcome using a number of different questions, each of which adopted a different format.
Whilst the polling, all of which was conducted between 2nd – 5th July 2019, does shed some new light on the nuances of public attitudes on the question, what is absolutely clear – no matter which way you look at it – is that the public are still deeply divided on Brexit with seemingly little chance of compromise.
Our key findings from the polling presented below:
1.Preferred Brexit Outcome: No-deal is the most popular single outcome, but still only attracts the support of one-third of the public
To start, we simply asked respondents which of five potential outcomes was their preferred choice, with respondents only able to select one potential outcome from the list. The outcomes were as follows:
- Leave the EU without a deal
- Leave the EU with Theresa May’s deal
- Seek an extension to negotiations to try and reach a new deal
- Hold a second in-out EU referendum
- Revoke the UK’s notice of withdrawal and remain in the EU
Please keep in mind that there was no option for a new deal to be agreed before the 31st October. This option was excluded as it is more hypothetical than the other options provided. Firstly, we do not know if a deal could be done by the 31st October. Secondly, if a new deal could be negotiated, we do not know what it would look like and how this might differ from the Withdrawal Agreement as it currently stands.
Out of the options provided, leaving the EU without a deal was the most popular, chosen by one-third of respondents (32%). Of the other Leave options, just 9% said that they would prefer to seek an extension to negotiations to try and reach a new deal, with even fewer saying they want to leave the EU with Theresa May’s deal (7%).
We should therefore not underestimate the appeal of a no-deal Brexit. Many on the remain side have suggested that no-deal was not on the ballot paper in 2016, but whilst this is certainly true, a no-deal Brexit is now the preferred outcome by a clear majority of those that reported voting Leave in 2016. Two-thirds of Leave voters (64%) state that they would prefer to leave the EU without a deal. Just 9% of Leave voters would prefer to seek an extension to Brexit to try and reach a new deal, whilst another 9% would like to leave on Theresa May’s deal.
After no-deal, the next most popular single outcome was revoking the UK’s decision to leave the EU and remain in the EU, supported by some 25% of respondents. Holding a second in-out EU referendum was third, on 16%. Thus, when simply examining first preferences at least, the vast majority of public have not settled on a position that you could reasonably call a “compromise” – May’s deal is the single least popular option.
However, remain voters are more split in their preferred outcome compared to leave voters. Nearly half (48%) of Remain voters would like to revoke the UK’s notice of withdrawal and remain in the EU, with a further 27% wanting a second in-out referendum (although whilst these are different approaches, both are likely to be motivated by the same end goal of remaining in the EU).
2. Outcome acceptability: No single outcome commands majority support, with each scenario dividing opinion
Secondly, we asked respondents whether they would support or oppose each of the scenarios listed in the previous questions. Whilst a respondent may have a single most preferred outcome – results for which are outlined above – they may also see some scenarios as more acceptable than others.
This results for this question show that the British public is split on most of the outcomes with exception to Theresa May’s deal, where they are more united in their opposition to the Prime Ministers preferred solution.
When analysing net support scores, by subtracting the sum scores of opposition from the sum scores of support, Revoking the UK’s notice of withdrawal and remaining the EU comes out on top with a net score of +5%. The only other scenario with a positive net score was holding a second in-out referendum (+2%). Whilst leaving the EU without a deal scored a negative net score, it was only -6%.
Thus, whilst no deal is the single most popular choice when respondents can select just one outcome, it struggles to broaden its coalition of support when compared to revoking the UK’s notice of withdrawal and holding a second referendum. Indeed, apart from Theresa May’s deal, no-deal receives the highest level of opposition, with 44% either somewhat or strongly opposed.
Indeed, it is striking that for all scenarios, the proportion of Brits saying they strongly oppose a scenario is greater than the proportion saying they strongly support the scenario. So, even those scenarios achieve a positive net score are still deeply dividing.
3. Hypothetical referendums: Results suggest that ‘no-deal versus remain’ referendum would carry the greatest degree of legitimacy, with the result on a knife-edge
The final way of testing opinion was to present some of the options in more of a ballot box style. Three different versions of a second referendum were put to respondents. In all versions, respondents could choose from two different scenarios, with each scenario also allowing them to say if they would choose to not vote or if they don’t know. Each respondent was shown all three versions of the referendum in random order.
No deal vs May’s deal
The first version put Theresa May’s deal against leaving the EU without a deal. In this version, leaving the EU would win on 34%, which compares to just 26% who say they would vote for Theresa May’s deal.
Interestingly, this version has the largest proportion of Brits saying that they would not vote (27%) as well as the most people saying they don’t know (13%). A majority of Leave voters would vote for leaving without a deal, chosen by 63%. Remain voters are more evenly split, with 38% saying they would vote for May’s deal and 33% saying they would not vote.
It shows that this version of a referendum poses the greatest difficulty for remain voters, with some choosing a softer Brexit and others refusing to vote entirely. This raises an important point about the legitimacy of the options presented in a future referendum in voters’ minds. Rather than voting for an option which they dislike the least, voters may simply choose to boycott the contest, which could in turn call into question the validity of the ballot and the mandate politicians could infer from it.
May’s deal vs Remaining in the EU
The second version puts May’s deal against remaining in the EU. This time there is a much clearer result, with 43% of respondents choosing to remain in the EU. Just 25% would vote for Theresa May’s deal, whilst 23% say they would not vote. However, Leave voters are split in how they would vote. Nearly half of leave voters would vote for leaving the EU with Theresa May’s deal, chosen by 45%, whilst 33% said that they would not vote at all (again highlighting possible problems with certain scenarios around legitimacy in the minds of voters).
No-deal vs Remaining in the EU
The final version asked respondents to choose between leaving the EU without a deal or remaining in the EU. This question had the closest result, a difference of just 6%, as well as the fewest respondents saying that they would not vote (11%). In this scenario, remaining in the EU came top on 44%, compared to leaving the EU without a deal on 38%. However, there are 7% of Brits who say that they do not know which way they would vote, which could theoretically sway the result.
4. But is there enough time for another deal?
Over the past couple of months, the possibility of negotiating a new deal or securing major changes to the current deal have been mused by senior Conservatives. Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have stated that they expect to be able to negotiate a new deal if they were to become the next leader of the Conservative party, but the EU has repeatedly stated that they will not renegotiate the deal.
BMG’s poll for the independent shows that the public are also split as to whether there is enough time to negotiate a deal. In total, 41% of people think that there is not enough time to negotiate a new deal before 31st October, whilst 39% say that there is indeed enough time.
Unsurprisingly, Leave voters are more confident of being able to negotiate a new deal by the 31st October, with 56% saying it is possible. Conversely, almost exactly the same proportion of Remain voters say there is not enough time (59%). So again, as with some many Brexit related questions, Leave and Remain voters are divided.
So what can we learn from this?
For politicians looking for an easy way out, the polling presents a fairly bleak picture. There is no hiding from the fact that the public are extremely divided on the way forward. Indeed, Theresa May’s deal and the option of extending the deadline to try and reach a new deal – arguably compromise solutions – are the least popular outcomes. Remainers and Leavers are still largely in their trenches, with little evidence for support for a compromise.
The results should also act a reminder to proponents of a future referendum that they must think carefully about the options they propose voters are presented with in any future contest. The vastly different rates of apathy depending on the scenario presented highlights the fact that not only must a referendum be able to provide a clear result, it must also be accepted as legitimate by voters on both sides of the debate. If not, we could be left with an even more contested and confusing position than we have at present.
An article based on these polling results, released by the Independent, can be found here.
Methodology, fieldwork dates, and a full breakdown of these results can be found here.
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.
0121 333 6006
Andrew Price – Research Executive:
Andrew Price joined BMG last year and has expertise in the fields of public attitudes, opinion polling, and political strategy. Andrew manages BMG’s monthly vote intention and leader satisfaction trackers and works with a variety of public and private sector clients providing insight, analysis and consultancy.
Robert Struthers – Research Manager:
Robert joined BMG in 2016 and is currently Head of Polling at BMG. He works with key clients on public attitude, branding and strategic communications projects. Robert has expertise in public attitude measurement, message testing, projective discussion techniques, and qualitative analysis.