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.