Bowing to the Inevitable?
by Andrew Hawkins, Chairman

The circuitous route to yesterday's announcement of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has served only to heighten anticipation ahead tomorrow's historic House of Commons sitting.

By happy coincidence, on Wednesday, the eve of the deal's announcement, Channel 5 and ITN Productions released the results of the largest Brexit survey since the 2016 Referendum. The Savanta ComRes poll was conducted online across 12 days earlier in October with a gargantuan sample size of some 26,000 UK adults – equivalent to 13 of our regular voting intention polls. This makes the margin of error an impressive +/-0.61%.

As the Government embarks on efforts to sell the deal to the House of Commons, the poll gives us more granular and authoritative data than ever before on the views of different demographic groups, regions and voter types.

Has anything shifted?

At first sight, headline public opinion does not seem to have moved much in three years: the poll gives a combined Leave lead of 50% over Remain’s 42%, with a Brexit deal (30%) more popular than leaving without one (20%). Eight percent declined to offer a view.

This was not intended to be a formal modelling of a Referendum re-run but, if we exclude don’t knows, it nonetheless points to an increase in the 2016 Leave margin of victory, with 54% for Leave and 46% for Remain, while the country remains profoundly divided by region, age and political preference (of which more in a moment).

However, dig beneath the surface and we find some important indicators of the public mood. First, as we have found repeatedly in recent polling, a majority believes the UK must abide by the 2016 result. One in three does not. Importantly in this latest mega-poll, 31% of 2016 Remain voters believe in sticking with the result – perhaps because of a sense of fair play or, equally plausibly, because they have simply had enough of the whole saga.

Second, the poll reveals important patterns among switchers between Remain and Leave. Some commentators have argued that generational turnover renders the 2016 Referendum result void.

The argument goes like this: there are some 2.5m post-2016 (mainly Remain-voting) younger voters eligible to take part in a referendum now, added to which we have parted with around 2m (mainly Leave-voting) Britons who have died since 2016, so – they claim - there is no longer a majority for Leave.

This poll blows that myth to pieces.

Now, it is true that of those who did not vote in 2016, fully half are aged between 18 and 34 – which explains why by almost two to one, non-2016 voters support Remain. However, the numbers switching from Remain to Leave since 2016 has been more than sufficient to outweigh these demographic changes: eight percent of 2016 Leave voters now support Remain, while more than twice that proportion of 2016 Remain voters, 18%, now support Leave.

Also coming across strongly is just how the UK is split. On age, there is an unbroken gradient between 18-24s and 65+ on each of the key issues of Remain/Leave, abiding with the referendum result or discarding it, and whether we should hold a second referendum.

On each of these three issues there is also a clear division between Northern Ireland, Scotland and London, with each of those regions articulating the same Brexit viewpoint as younger voters, and the rest of England, among whom a majority support leaving the EU, abiding by the 2016 result and ruling out a second referendum.

Managing these divisions was never going to be easy, but MPs contemplating their next move would do well to bear in mind that two of the least popular outcomes tested were leaving without a deal, which is seen as dangerous, and setting aside the 2016 Referendum result.

In the very short term, chatter is building about whether Parliament will try to force making Brexit subject to a confirmatory referendum. If so, MPs need to consider a third outcome which is also unpopular. A majority – albeit a slim one - would oppose a second referendum with ‘deal’, ‘no deal’ and ‘remain’ on the ballot paper. In light of the shift towards support for Leave and resistance to a further referendum, it is difficult to see how throwing tacks in the road at this stage will do much other than delay the inevitable.

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