Sunday, January 01, 2017

As we start the New Year, where does public opinion stand on Brexit

Between 23rd June last year and the end of 2016, some people on both sides of the debate about Britain's place in the European Union seemed determined to convince themselves that public opinion was moving in their direction.

It is therefore, perhaps worth starting the New Year by reviewing the polling evidence.

Obviously, any reasonable person who has followed the events of 2015 will be aware that opinion polls are not 100% reliable. I did read an argument in the past few days, one published on a University website as well which was a cause for some concern, which suggested that the polls the author claimed to have  seen - particularly those which just happened to produce results which agreed with his own opinions - were a better reflection of public opinion than the referendum was.

I'm almost tempted to suggest that the most appropriate response to that argument involves an order under Section II of the Mental Health Act.

But the polling evidence - if it comes from professionally run polls run by people who know what they are doing and not the ridiculous voodoo polls with a self-selecting sample in certain newspapers is what we have. And in an excellent review of that evidence on his UK Polling Report website here, Anthony Wells suggests that there is little conclusive evidence of an overall shift in either opinion.

The majority of polls show Leave still ahead of Remain. Most of them show support for Leave and Remain within the margin of error of what it was in the actual referendum - in other words, they provide no statistically significant evidence that the overall level of support has changed.

The one exception was a Gallup international poll which found a 54% to 46% lead for Lead over Remain. However, Wells argues that this poll was distorted because University graduates formed a much higher proportion of the sample than they do of the electorate - and people who have a University degree are much more likely to support Remain.

There are certainly some people who have moved in each direction.

Furthermore a very substantial proportion of the 48% of voters who put their cross in the "Remain" box may not have changed their opinions but have accepted the outcome of referendum as a democratic decision which should be respected.

The consequences for British democracy if parliament failed to implement the result of the referendum would be so serious that I do not believe for a moment that the House of Commons would dare try to block it. The recent vote by a large majority in support of the government's timetable to trigger article 50 by the end of March provided the government produces a Brexit plan is fairly strong evidence for this view. I don't think it is likely that the majority of the House of Lords will dare try to frustrate the wishes of the majority who voted in the referendum either.

What both the Commons and the Lords probably will try to do is express their opinions on what sort Leave agreement Britain should make we have with the other 27 members of the EU as part of the Article 50 negotiations. But I don't see how any reasonable person can object to them doing that. The only thing definitively decided on 23rd June was the question on the ballot paper, and that decision was that Britain will leave the EU.

Expect the debate on what exactly our relationship with the EU is when we have left to run on and on throughout 2017.

Happy New Yar!

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