How many MPs will come out for Brexit? After hearing endless best guesses, we got rather fed up, and used Ipsos Mori’s Reputation Centre to conduct a proper survey of MPs. The total sample size is just under 100, with respondents included front and backbenchers, weighted accordingly.
In total, half of respondents said they would be voting in favour of remaining in the EU, 11 per cent said that they would be voting to leave – but a full third said that their views would depend on the terms of any renegotiation. A further 3 per cent did not know how they would vote (and one respondent said that they would not be voting at all).
There were, however, very clear differences by party. Almost 70 per cent of Conservative MPs either said their vote would be contingent on the negotiations or that they did not yet know how they would vote. A full 20% said they were going to vote to come out regardless, almost double those who would stay in regardless.
Once we allow for a margin of error on the poll, these figures represent a full 66 Conservative MPs (+/- 33) voting to leave, with another 200 (+/- 43) still weighing up the options. By contrast, just 5 per cent of Labour MPs said they’d be voting to come out regardless. We then asked those whose minds were not yet made up (almost all of whom were Tories) what would swing their vote. The top issue, mentioned by more than half of the MPs who had still to make up their mind, was border control, with access to the welfare state coming a close second. One or both of these issues was mentioned by just over 70 per cent of all those who said their vote was contingent on the negotiations. These may be difficult areas in which to achieve reform, but the Prime Minister is at least pitching at the issues that matter to (mostly his) MPs – either that or they have accepted his framing of what the important issues really are.
We also asked how great a change MPs thought the renegotiations would produce. Not much, is the main view. Just 9 per cent of MPs said that they expect the negotiations to produce a great deal of change, and 21 per cent expected ‘a fair amount’. The majority expected ‘not very much’ or none. But again there are very stark party differences. Just 5 per cent of Labour expected at least a fair amount of change to come from the renegotiation. The equivalent figure for Conservatives was 52 per cent. This is (obviously) linked to the much higher percentage of Conservatives who said they expect their vote to be contingent on the negotiations. Of those who say they will vote to remain or leave, the percentage expecting very much of the negotiations is small (just 15 per cent of remainers and 15 per cent of leavers said they expect a great deal or a fair deal of change).
But of those – almost all Conservatives – who said their vote will depend on the negotiations, 48 per cent said they expect to see either a great deal or a fair amount out of the negotiations. The causal link here is not obvious. Is it that they genuinely expect more change – perhaps as a result of having more faith in the Prime Minister – and are thus willing to claim that their vote depends on that change? Or is it that, having said their vote is contingent, they then have to say they expect a reasonable amount of change? Your guess here is as good as ours.
We also asked MPs what they thought the outcome of the referendum would be. Overwhelmingly, MPs thought that Britain would vote to stay in in the EU: that was the response of seven out of ten of our respondents. Some 23 per cent said they thought Britain would leave, and 7 per cent said they did not know. And here the party differences became smaller. Majorities of both Conservative and Labour respondents think Britain will remain in the EU.
MPs’ views of what will happen tend to align with their own preferences: 81 per cent of those who said they are voting to stay in also said they think the outcome will be to remain; 77 per cent of those who are voting to leave thought it will be to leave. The key to the fact that Conservatives overall expected the outcome to be to remain is that the majority of those who want to see the results of any negotiations before deciding how to vote expected the eventual outcome to be to stay in: two-thirds of those who say their vote is contingent on the negotiations expect a remain vote and just a quarter expect Britain to leave. (The remaining 10% per cent don’t know). We suspect this may well change the calculus of whether to come out for Brexit on the part of some Eurosceptic but ambitious Conservatives. That they mostly expect the outcome to be a vote to Remain must make it more likely that some wavering MPs will eventually come down on the same side. Why throw yourself on the barbed wire for what you suspect is a lost cause?
Tim Bale and Philip Cowley teach politics at Queen Mary University of London; Anand Menon is director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s UK in a Changing Europe initiative