Brexit is good! Wait, no, Brexit is bad! What’s up with the polls?

The pollsters might not yet have fixed their 2015 problem.


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Only the hardest of Brexits will do! Voters are turning against the Conservative Party following Theresa May’s Chequers proposals, with the main direct beneficiary a resurgent Ukip and the indirect beneficiary a Labour party that now has, on average, a small lead over the Tories despite not having gained any new support itself.

But the polls also show a small but stable majority in the country at large would opt for a Remain vote if it were held again. According to the latest Sky Data poll – which surveys a representative sample of the population as a whole drawn from Sky subscribers – Remain has opened up a significant lead in the polls in the first survey that followed the first public stories about what planning for a “no deal” Brexit would look like. The poll also shows an across the board collapse in confidence in the government’s ability to negotiate Brexit. What’s going on?

There are a couple of important caveats here: the first is that it’s just one poll. It’s really better just to wait and see, to look at the rolling average before making any rash judgements about what the polls are saying.

The bigger one is that we still don’t know for sure how successful the pollsters have been at compensating for the problems uncovered by the Sturgis inquiry into the 2015 polling disaster, when all the pollsters missed the Conservative lead. The evidence of the 2017 election – when all but one of the pollsters got the result wrong – suggests that some of the changes made may have aggravated rather than fixed the problem. Even the one pollster which got the result right – Survation – doesn’t yet appear to have solved some of the industry-wide problems, chiefly that the people who respond to polls are too politically engaged, which means they respond in ways that ordinary voters don’t.

Has that issue been resolved? Well, we simply don’t know. But frankly, I don’t buy that the vast majority of people have noticed the still very small number of stories about no deal and I am dubious, too, about the level at which the Chequers proposal can have permanently moved voters. I have seen no evidence of that kind of cut-through – not least because the warnings about a no deal Brexit never even made it onto music radio, the number one place that relatively apolitical voters get their news from. I may be wrong, but I’m not convinced that the pollsters’ 2015 problems have entirely gone away.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.