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The polling shows public opinion turning against Brexit—can we trust it?

Recent numbers from YouGov and ICM deserve scrutiny

By Peter Kellner  

Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Buried in the detail of the latest ICM poll for the Guardian is a remarkable fact. Of the people who voted Remain in the EU referendum, only 32 per cent say they agree with Tony Blair’s stance on Brexit. Two-thirds of Remainers either disagree (24 per cent) or don’t take sides (43 per cent).

Successive polls have found that almost nine in ten Remain voters still want the UK to stay in the EU. So does Blair: he has been vocal and unambiguous in saying so. So why do so few of the voters who share his view say they agree with him?

We know that Blair is generally unpopular—though not as unpopular as his more vociferous critics would like. That may explain part of this poll finding, even though ICM did preface its question on Blair, and other senior politicians, with the phrase: “Putting aside your general views about these individuals…”

The larger part of the answer, I believe, is that millions of voters do not have the faintest idea what Blair thinks about Brexit. They don’t read the papers, or watch/listen to the TV and radio programmes where he has expounded his views at length; and they ignore the stories in the papers and on social media where they are reported more briefly.

This illustrates a fundamental truth about the state of public opinion in the early weeks of the year that is likely to set the course for Britain’s future for many decades. Vast numbers of voters, probably a majority, are paying little attention to the ebbs and flows of the Brexit debate. It’s not just Remain voters who have limited knowledge of the views of their side’s cheerleaders. Barely half of Leave voters (56 per cent) say they agree with Boris Johnson’s stance on Brexit. The figure for his fellow pro-Brexit cabinet minister, Michael Gove, is even lower, 29 per cent.

This is the context in which the broader polling numbers about Brexit should be viewed. In the past three weeks, YouGov has twice asked its tracking question, were we right or wrong to vote to leave the EU? In mid-January, for the first time since August, slightly more people said we were right to vote to leave (45 per cent) rather than wrong (44 per cent). Then at the end of January, the number saying “right” fell to its lowest level yet, 40 per cent, while the number saying “wrong” rose to 46 per cent. It is possible that there was a five percentage point fall—equivalent to two million people—in the number of pro-Brexit voters in the second half of January; but until we have more polls confirming this change, it is more likely that the difference between the two polls is mainly, perhaps entirely, a product of sampling fluctuation rather than a shifting public mood.

Likewise, we should be cautious about ICM’s finding, trumpeted by the Guardian, of a fall in the numbers of voters saying the Brexit process is going well, from 21 per cent in December to 16 per cent in early February. The December survey was conducted immediately after the interim agreement in Brussels between Theresa May and Donald Tusk. That almost certainly gave a short-lived boost to the admittedly low numbers of voters who thought the Brexit process was on track. Any such effect has long worn off.

If public opinion is to shift decisively in the weeks and months ahead, it will because events generate the kind of news that makes normal voters sit up and take notice. For the moment they are getting on with their daily lives without bothering with the details of the customs union debate, or warnings from Brussels, or the latest interview with Anna Soubry or Jacob Reeg-Mogg.

Could such an electorate-rousing event occur in the near future, perhaps as early as this week’s attempt by cabinet ministers to thrash out an agreed position? Watch this space.

Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady.

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