Referendum and beyond
By Andrew Hawkins, Chairman

Pollsters won’t be the only people relieved that today has finally come.  None of us can recall elections where so many ‘facts’ have been disputed or passions aroused.

Our final poll, published at 10pm yesterday, gave Remain an eight-point lead.  One question left hanging is whether Leave were indeed ever ahead.  Whatever the answer, in May 2015 Remain had a 22-point lead which was steadily eroded until last month when Leave brought about an almighty shift in opinion by switching the focus to immigration.  This squeezed Remain’s lead to just one point. The final week of the campaign was inevitably influenced by the tragic events of last Thursday, but experience suggested a move back towards the status quo was always on the cards.

Leave needed to do something dramatic; the economy had leapfrogged into first place in the three months to May, and the stubborn Remain lead showed no signs of abating.  Now, though, the combination of economic arguments and risk aversion make it hard to see how Leave can succeed.

Support for the two campaigns is very different in nature.  Leave voters are more persuaded than Remain supporters by arguments around immigration and democracy.  The Leave vote is more visceral and deep, but narrower, while Remain appeal to a broader number of people with less passionate messages.  This really is a contest of head versus heart.

It is of course also a contest between tribes. The Leave vote is characterised by the older, less wealthy demographic, while the Remain vote tends to be younger, educated for longer, and richer.

The eyes of the world will be on the UK tonight, and attention will focus especially on the first few local authorities to declare. Those will likely include the neighbouring counts in Sunderland and Newcastle.  Sunderland is expected to vote to Leave and Newcastle to Remain, so a surprise there could presage wider upset.

Further south we will be watching Stevenage and Wandsworth for signs of the South-East’s Remain strength holding.  If you want to look at the schedule in more detail, the House of Commons Library published an extremely helpful guide here

Beyond the early results, we should wait until well into the night before drawing too many conclusions: lots of the early authorities to declare favour Leave – so beware of trigger-happy Tweeters making wild claims.

So much for election night, what does the longer term future look like?

If we do vote to Leave, yesterday’s poll found that David Cameron is by far the most unifying popular choice to lead Brexit negotiations, even if Boris is the more popular choice among Leavers.

But it is difficult to see how, whatever the outcome, the EU will ever be the same again.  Even if Donald Tusk’s enjoinder to abandon ‘Utopian dreams’ of total integration is heeded, other EU countries are likely to face calls for their own referendums.  In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has promised to table a motion in Parliament for Dutch referendum if the UK votes to Leave, and 2017 elections give him (as the current poll leader) the chance to get his wish whatever happens today. And we know from time-series polling that unfavourability towards the EU has steadily been increasing among all major Member Countries over the past decade.

In the UK, David Cameron will emerge from No.10 tomorrow as a lame duck Prime Minister whatever the result.  Even a substantial Remain win doesn’t change the parliamentary arithmetic; with a working majority of 18 he will need to rely on the support of the numerous MPs that the Cameron-led Remain campaign has spent the past months vilifying.  On which note, while ‘only’ 140 Tory MPs (42%) declared publicly their support for Leave, ComRes found in a March 2016 survey of MPs – conducted anonymously – that a whopping seven in ten Conservatives intended to vote to Leave.

Only an arrogant or foolhardy pollster would dare to bet the ranch on an outcome either way – not least because so many people will make up their minds at the last minute.  In our final poll 11% said they were yet to decide and, of those who had expressed an intention, 17% said they might change their mind.

What does look beyond contention is that Pandora’s box is firmly open.   Until relatively recently, supporting Brexit was regarded by some, especially in the Westminster Bubble, as an eccentric minority indulgence.  So, concerned that telephone polling might be discouraging ‘shy Leavers’ from being honest about their true intentions, ComRes tested attitudes to both positions and we found no difference whatsoever between the two. It is ok to support Leave, and it is ok to support Remain.  Getting on for half the voting public will express a view for change and this is now a legitimate and mainstream view to take.

Britain may have its opt-out from ‘ever closer union’, but with result of the referendum looking likely to be within the Danger Zone, keeping the tide of Euroscepticism at bay will be a difficult, if not impossible, line for any British government whoever is in charge.