A few hours after voting started in the European Union referendum, Populus released its final opinion poll showing a ten-point lead for Remain. This carried weight because the founder of Populus, Andrew Cooper, was also pollster for the official Remain campaign. His findings had been passed to 10 Downing Street earlier, leading David Cameron and his team to become very confident. There were reports that the Prime Minister was not even going to stay up for the result: he intended to go to sleep early and wake up to victory.
The vote for Brexit, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, confounded the financial markets and wrongfooted most opinion pollsters. The telephone polls struggled; they gave undue weight to graduates, who disproportionally favoured Remain. The internet polls fared better; YouGov most consistently showed Leave ahead, but not by the end. Even in this, a yes/no referendum, pitifully few pundits and pollsters called it right. But no one called it more wrong than the chap at the helm of the Remain campaign.
Lord Cooper has form: last year, his bullishly named ‘Populus predictor’ gave a wonderfully precise figure for the Tories’ chance of winning a majority: 0.5 per cent. On polling day, he denounced Cameron’s triumphant general election campaign as a ‘prolonged exhibition of insanity’. All of which raises a question: why put him in charge of an EU referendum campaign whose failure could (and did) destroy the Prime Minister?
Those who worked on the Remain campaign found themselves asking this question in the final weeks before the vote. On polling day, for example, they were dumbfounded to find out that Cooper had released an estimate of a ten-point victory. What possible purpose could this serve, other than to set an unhelpfully high bar for the Prime Minister? Or to persuade Remain voters that they didn’t need to go to the polling station on a rainy Thursday, because the race had already been won?
Lord Cooper’s job was to gauge public opinion, the better to direct the efforts of his campaign team.