One important piece of information missing during these dramatic Brexit manoeuvres is what the voters actually want. Rory Stewart, one of the only ministers doing a decent job of selling the Prime Minister’s plan, speculated that ‘80 per cent of the British public support this deal’ and was promptly forced to apologise. Meanwhile opponents of the deal point to polls taken since the details were revealed suggesting that as few as 19 per cent of the public support it. So what is the truth? I think Theresa May’s deal is fundamentally much more in line with public opinion than polls suggest and that it will become more evidently so over time. It would win a two-part referendum hands-down. Here’s why.
When designing a survey at YouGov, we never offer a three-part scale in answer to a question as the middle one almost always wins. The attraction of the half-way compromise option is so magnetic that respondents who are even slightly unsure are drawn to its safety. For the majority of people that either don’t really know or don’t really care, the middle one seems like the one to choose. So instead we typically force a choice by offering a four-part scale or a binary alternative.
Had the original EU referendum offered three options – Remain, Leave and something like ‘Associate Membership’ (meaning Theresa May’s current offer) the middle option might well have won in 2016. The EU has not been popular in the UK for decades, but then nor is risk, so the option of distancing safely would have been broadly appealing.
Then consider how popular Theresa May was when she first became Prime Minister. In August 2016, YouGov had her net favourability at plus 12 (that is, 12 per cent more of the public approved of her than disapproved). That may not sound great, but for a politician it is stratospheric. To put it into perspective, on the same date the Conservative Party had a favourability of minus 19; Jeremy Corbyn was on minus 25.
What was behind this huge initial support? It wasn’t her telegenic personality voters were enamoured by. Other than the national sigh of relief that she wasn’t Andrea Leadsom, people surely expected her to be a uniting figure of compromise. She had supported the Remain side, but was committed to respecting the referendum result; she had been silent during the campaign, and so was not tainted with acrimony; she was a woman, coming in to heal the divides of the campaign and clear up a mess made predominantly by men (‘banging on about europe’ is a demonstrably male obsession). After the heat and noise of that divisive campaign, with vaudeville villains on either side, voters could tune back out of politics and leave our pleasingly low wattage new PM to find a sensible middle way.
As we know, it wasn’t to be. Instead of Our Lady of Compromise, May gave us Madama Brexit, and pressed herself close to the right-wing ultras she was most afraid of. At the general election of 2017, when a lot of voters took a close look at her for the first time, they didn’t like what they saw. She lost vast swathes of ‘sensible middle’ voters during that election and beyond, and her favourability plummeted to a gut-wrenching minus 37. Since Chequers this summer she’s lost what supporters she had left on the Brexit side and so now seems politically entirely in the wilderness.
But in one sense at least she’s back where she should have been all along: in the middle, attacked on both sides. You can sense from her more confident media appearances that it’s where she feels most comfortable. It’s what people liked about her at the start, and even though she is no longer popular she evinces widespread sympathy and respect.
So if her deal is roughly where the largest group of voters have been since 2016, why does it seem so unpopular in the polls? YouGov has supporters of the deal at 19 per cent, and Opinium at 22 per cent. Partly it’s just simple politics: the policy is a Conservative policy so supporters of other parties will generally be against it when asked.
But more than that, the campaign for a second referendum has been highly effective at moving the desired outcome among centrists from ‘soft brexit’ (which this basically is, and which most remain-supporting MPs favoured until around six months ago) to another roll of the dice (aka a ‘people’s vote’). The high priests of the middle way who would normally be advocating pragmatism, from Tony Blair to Matthew Parris, have abandoned their traditional roles and have become Remain ultras, arguing against the deal in the hope of reversing Brexit at another referendum. This onslaught, with a near-absence of voices in the media supporting compromise, is further depressing support for the deal in current opinion polls.
But let’s just play out what would happen if they got their wish. The only sort of second referendum that would realistically be considered acceptable would be two stage, with Remain, Leave-with-no-deal, and May’s compromise as the three options followed by an immediate runoff of the final two.
As soon as you rebranded the middle option, as you would in a campaign, to something other than ‘Theresa May’s deal’ (how about ‘Soft Brexit’? or ‘Compromise deal’?), the magnetic pull of the middle way would kick in. Many of the voters currently choosing ‘don’t know’ (42 per cent in the most recent poll over the weekend) would come on board, as well as a chunk of the current ‘anti’s whose view is mainly about another referendum.
A positive campaign based around the need for a very British compromise I think might even lead to victory for this option in the first round. But even if it didn’t, the overwhelming majority of supporters of each of the other options would revert to the middle option as their number two choice, so it would surely win in the second round. The chances of either reversing Brexit or leaving with no deal scoring 50 per cent on the first round are very small – they scored 28 per cent and 19 per cent in a YouGov survey last week.
So we are in the weird situation when the Prime Minister is finally fulfilling the compromise role that voters had initially hoped of her. But through a combination of her own shortcomings and the relentless attacks of scorched earth Leave and Remain blocs it appears from opinion polls to be more unpopular than it is. Don’t be deceived. The numbers are on her side.
Freddie Sayers is a former editor-in-chief of YouGov