Ross Clark

‘Remain or Leave?’ is no longer the key Brexit question

'Remain or Leave?' is no longer the key Brexit question
Text settings

In an astonishing interview on the Today programme this morning, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson tried to explain why she was tabling an amendment which would force a referendum on any deal the government presents to the House of Commons on the grounds that we should 'let the people decide'. She then asserted that the country had changed its mind since the 2016 referendum and now wanted to remain. It had to be pointed out to her that her party has, in fact, just adopted a policy of reversing Article 50 without a referendum – so much for letting the people decide.

The truth is that like so many Remain campaigners, Swinson will banter on about letting the people have a say when it suits her while knowing it would be fatal to her cause to have another referendum at the moment. Her only hope of cancelling Brexit – other than the highly improbable outcome of her becoming prime minister – is to drag out the matter forever in the expectation that public opinion will change.

But at the moment there is little sign that public opinion has changed at all. A ComRes poll for Channel 5 today finds pretty solid support for honouring the referendum result.

When asked for their favoured outcome for the Brexit negotiations, 50 per cent say they want to leave and 42 per cent say they want to remain.

Asked a slightly different question: do they think that the 2016 referendum result should be honoured, 54 per cent said yes and 32 per cent no.

Thirdly, respondents were asked if they thought there should be a second referendum with 'deal', 'no deal' and 'remain' options on the ballot paper – with 45 per cent saying no and 41 per cent saying yes.

It is pretty clear that on the basis of this poll – and it was a large one, involving 26,000 adults – the forces of Remain have a desperate uphill struggle. If they push for a second referendum they would offend more people than they pleased. If they somehow got that referendum, it would not go the way they want it to. To add to Jo Swinson’s problem on the issue, a policy of overturning the 2016 referendum result, while bold, is inevitably going to offend a large slice of Lib Dem voters. According to a YouGov analysis soon after the 2016 poll, 32 per cent of people who voted for the party in the 2015 general election went on to vote leave.

That might explain why positioning her party as the unapologetic party of Remain has gained such little traction in the polls – it is still around five per cent short of where it was under Nick Clegg in 2010. While no doubt picking up support from remain voters, Swinson is losing just as many leave voters. Given the demography, the Lib Dems can be expected to pick up a few seats in London and some university towns – while losing them in Wales and failing to pick any up in the South West, until recently a Lib Dem heartland.

What today’s ComRes poll does show, on the other hand, is that few of the public relish the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. The 54 per cent in favour of Brexit are divided between 22 per cent saying they favour no deal and 32 per cent wanting a deal. When asked if they thought a no-deal departure would harm Britain, 49 per cent said they thought it would – while only 23 per cent thought it would be good for Britain.

Overall, this snapshot of public opinion would appear to support Boris Johnson’s strategy of getting Brexit over and done with, preferably with a deal. It would appear to lend some support, too, to Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy of opposing no deal and offering a second referendum while refusing to back the case for Remain. As for Jo Swinson, she may be on a hiding to nothing – with her strategy merely carving out a new core vote for the Lib Dems while failing to increase its appeal.