Richard North, 27/10/2019  

Surveying the ever-repeating train-wreck that is the government's Brexit policy, it is understandable that an Opinium poll for the Observer should find that 57 percent of those surveyed believed it would have been better not to have had a referendum in June 2016.

This, according to the survey, compares with 29 percent of voters who believe it was right to hold the referendum, the overall findings reflecting (in the view of the Observer) "a growing sense of public weariness about arguments over Brexit, which have paralysed British politics and divided the country".

However, this is not quite as straightforward as the figures indicate. When sentiment is broken down according to those who voted for the two propositions, we get an interesting contrast.

Some 87 percent of those who say they voted to remain were of the view that the referendum should not have taken place, against seven percent saying it was a good idea. Of those who say they voted to leave, 57 percent supported the referendum compared with 32 percent who now think it was a bad idea.

Like so many of these surveys, though, context is everything. It stands to reason that the losers would be more inclined to oppose the referendum, while the winners will inevitably tend to be more supportive.

Then, it appears that the respondents were asked to consider the difficulties the government has had in reaching an agreement, which effectively means that the result was tainted. People were as much giving their view on the government's post-referendum performance as they were the advisability of having a referendum in the first place.

Most likely, the result was also influenced by perceptions of Johnson's deal. Around 40 percent of the voters questioned thought it would be bad for the UK economy as a whole, compared with 26 percent who thought it would be beneficial. People who see the referendum as having delivered a bad result might thus believe it should not have been held.

Imagine how different the result might have been if Mrs May's government had gone for the Efta/EEA option, with the UK now out of the EU but still trading without disruption within the framework of the Single Market.

Where the survey takes us, therefore, is interesting, if somewhat predictable. Given the lacklustre performance of successive governments, the option of another referendum is supported only by 23 percent of all voters. Broken down, we see a mere five percent of Tories supporting another vote, while Labour voters are also not particularly enthusiastic, able to muster just over a third of their number, at 35 percent.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm, if there were to be another referendum – fought as a re-run of the 2016 contest, the result would be close. Of those questioned, 43 percent would back remain and 42 percent leave. And if that was a real life result, the re-run would have resolved exactly nothing other than to confirm that opinion is irreconcilably split.

Taking us away from all this, the Opinium poll also tests views on the forthcoming general election. Here, Johnson's Tories fare relatively well with 40 percent of the vote – up three points in a week - giving what is described as a "commanding 16-point lead over Labour", which trails behind at 24 percent.

The Lib-Dems are down one point on 15 percent and there is interesting news on the Brexit party. It is down two points, able to command only ten percent of the vote, The SNP up one on five percent and the Greens down one, struggling along on a mere three percent, despite (or because of) the high public profile of Caroline Lucas.

As to the Tories' "commanding lead", one might recall that similar or even better figures were seen in the run-up to Mrs May's abortive attempt to increase her majority in 2017. A mere six weeks before the election, the Mirror was running the headline, "Theresa May hits 50% of vote in latest poll - which would deliver a Tory general election landslide".

This was a ComRes poll which had Labour on 25 percent – just one percent more than its current showing – while the Tories had achieved 50 percent – double the Labour vote. If those figures were mirrored on election day, the Mirror proclaimed, Mrs May "would be left with a thumping overall majority of more than 200 – while Jeremy Corbyn would lose at least 90 MPs".

But what makes the current Opinium poll especially unreliable (in common with any other election poll) is a mood of "disillusionment" amongst voters. Without the benefit of any artificial devices, we've been able to sense this for ourselves. That mood is in the air, and anywhere you go you cannot help but experience it.

Confirming what we already know, therefore, the Observer picks up on a series of focus groups run by the think tank BritainThinks, the results of which are acknowledged as making any upcoming election difficult to predict.

Deborah Mattinson, the founding partner of BritainThinks says : "For lots of reasons this coming election is going to be particularly hard to call and one of the reasons is people are so disillusioned with all politicians that I think it's very hard to judge what turnout will look like".

She adds: "I think a lot of people think, 'Well I voted last time, they didn't do any of the things I asked them to do, I don't trust them to do what I’m going to ask them to do now, so why bother?'". Thus does Mattinson conclude: "There's this complete dejection really, and rejection of the process".

But if this is a significant factor, something else to watch is the relatively poor showing of Farage's Company, with its relatively low ten percent in the Opinium poll. Yet, as I pointed out in an earlier piece, Farage's intervention could be decisive.

This rather depends on whether we have an election after leaving the EU or, as looks more likely, the contest is held against a background of the current stalemate, where the nature of Johnson's deal becomes an election issue. Farage is speaking out against the deal and his view could have some traction if the circumstances are right.

Even such considerations, though, may be academic if we don't get an early election, and now even Johnson is doubting that we'll see a contest this side of Christmas. With Labour in turmoil, riven with splits, it is looking as though there will not be enough votes to secure a poll.

In an attempt to break this impasse, the Lib-Dems have stepped in with a one-page Bill to amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It states that the next election will take place on 9 December – three days earlier than under Johnson's plans. The new date, though, would be cancelled if the European Council refuses to give us a three-month extension.

Although it is claimed that the SNP backs the plan, it seems unlikely that it can succeed, for the same reasons that other initiatives have failed. A lack of Labour support plus splits in the Tories could see the idea binned as wishful thinking. Even Johnson himself might oppose it, as it takes us to the polls while we are still in the EU.

And if things are not complicated enough, the DUP has come out saying that it has put Johnson on the "naughty step" and will not support his deal unless he goes back to Brussels and seeks changes.

Since the chances of that happening are slight, the DUP will remain implacably opposed to the deal, mounting a guerrilla war against a former ally. This can only compound Johnson's problems which, in the coming weeks, seem set to intensify.

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