As Justin Lewis recalls, an Ipsos Mori poll just before the EU referendum “found that while most people (70% to 17%) did not believe a claim that British people would be significantly poorer outside the EU, they were more likely to accept (by 47% to 39%) the £350m a week figure.” Such beliefs indicate both that Leave ran a much better campaign, and also that the broadcast media totally failed to inform its viewers.
Those beliefs about the economic impact of Brexit are now beginning to change, as this series of results from a different poll show:
One obvious reason for this shift is the increase in inflation that the Brexit vote has generated. This shift is important, because polls before and after the vote also suggested that a large proportion of voters only wanted to reduce immigration (as a motive for voting Leave) as long as it did not cost them any money.
But put these things together and we get something of a paradox. If being worse off was more important than reducing immigration, and more people are now convinced they will be worse off, why has popular opinion about the vote itself hardly changed. The YouGov tracker poll, which asks “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?”, has hardly moved since the vote, with currently as many people saying Yes as No.
It is not just the economic data that is going the wrong way. Matthew d’Ancona quotes a senior government source as saying “the three main Brexiteers are suddenly becoming more and more vocal about the need to keep the [immigration] numbers sufficiently high for the needs of the economy.” They are right of course, but it suggests another key area in which the expectations of Leave voters will be disappointed. Not to mention the £350 million a week coming to us turning into a £50 billion bill going to the EU.
Here is a possible reason for this paradox. (I admit I have little evidence for it, and it is not the only possible explanation.) Voters feel that once a democratic decision has been made, it should be respected, even if they personally now feel less comfortable with the reasons behind the decision. It is important to respect the ‘will of the people’ for its own sake, just as it is important to keep to a contract even though you may now regret signing it. I do not think this view is sensible in this context, but that is a different issue.
You could use a similar rationalisation for Labour’s evolving attitudes to Brexit. Their latest position is that Labour will hold May to 6 tests, one of which is to “deliver the "exact same benefits" as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union”. It is of course an impossible test for May, despite what David Davis may have said. It makes no sense coming from a party that voted for triggering Article 50, unless there was some compelling reason for supporting the will of the people for its own sake.
The big question, for those like me who would much rather we stayed in the EU, is whether the same logic applies to Conservative MPs who personally favour remaining in the EU. Is there some point at which their duty to respect the vote is fulfilled, and does that point come before or after they have to ratify whatever deal May delivers? I suspect (again with not much evidence) that this depends on whether there will be a deal or not.
The logic of this suggests there will be a deal. (I wrote this before reading today’s Guardian.) Any poor poll performances from the May council elections onwards will be described as the public sending a message that there should be a deal, rather than as the public changing their mind about leaving. The tabloids will huff and puff, but May will just for once ignore them. Conservative MPs who are also Remainers will console themselves that at least disaster has been avoided. In the end, that one vote will bind us all.