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6 November 2018

With public opinion now “swinging towards Remain”, May’s deal looks less likely than ever

If Labour MPs rate their chances of getting a better deal than the Prime Minister, they’re more likely to vote against hers.

By Stephen Bush

Is the United Kingdom swinging against Brexit? That’s the conclusion of a 20,000-person mega-poll by Survation for Channel 4, which finds that Remain leads Leave by 54 to 46 per cent. The poll comes with the warm glow of being produced by the one traditional polling company to get the 2017 election result right, and also its size, but it is, of course, just one poll. It does, however, echo the general shift towards Remain that most polls have shown.

Robert Hayward, the pollster and Conservative peer who predicted the polling errors of both 1992 and 2015 has a good rule of thumb: first look at what the polls are telling you, then stress-test against whether the relevant groups of voters are actually behaving that way in real life. And this is where Survation’s size is so helpful, because it allows us to pinpoint the geographic and demographic groups who are moving one way or the other. Part of the shift is, put crudely, differential rates of mortality among Leavers and Remainers. We know that the young tend to favour Remain and that the old tend to die, so that makes sense.

But the shift isn’t just about the changing demographics of the United Kingdom: there is also movement from Leave to Remain among the 2016 electorate. And again, that looks plausible, with a major part of the shift coming among the third of ethnic minority voters who backed a Leave vote and in the south-west. It’s easy to forget because of the tone of the government’s Brexit strategy, but part of Vote Leave’s success was that it managed to sound inclusive enough to scoop up the votes of significant numbers of minority voters, in part because of the promise of fairer visa rules for people from outside the European Union after Brexit. That’s an argument I heard across the country during the referendum campaign – it’s an argument that has all but vanished.

Add that to the large number of voters who thought that Brexit would be over by now and don’t understand why the government is taking so long and making such a hash of it, and this poll certainly meets Hayward’s rule. Don’t forget that, while Brexiteers have done an excellent job (and George Osborne’s punishment budget threat helped, too) of taking the argument about the economy off the board at Westminster, in the outside world, food and other essential items are more expensive because of what’s happened to sterling since Brexit. You’d expect that to have consequences both for the government’s popularity and for the success of its animating project.

Does it matter? Well, I wouldn’t bet my house that this Remain lead is big enough to survive a referendum campaign and we are still a way off a parliamentary majority for another one in any case.

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But it makes the lives of Labour whips easier and Theresa May’s hopes of passing her deal narrower. Why? Because if Labour MPs think their chances of getting a better outcome than Theresa May’s deal are higher they are more likely to vote against it, as the Labour leadership will undoubtedly instruct them to do. That works both ways, of course: this poll hands Conservative whips a powerful argument to Brexit ultras that if they don’t vote this way, then they might end up with no Brexit at all.  The difference is that Labour whips are starting from a lower base: they are less would-be Labour rebels than Conservative ones to begin with. (At least, that’s the impression that both sets of whips have.)

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Also, bluntly, the argument that Labour whips will be making is a hell of a lot more plausible than the one that Tory whips will make. There’s a clear path to a softer Brexit from voting down May’s deal, and a clear one to leaving without a deal at all. The path to a second referendum and no Brexit at all isn’t clear at all. May has the worst of all worlds: a situation in which it is clear why Labour rebels shouldn’t help her but the Tory case for putting up with her deal is still opaque.