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KRISHNAN GURU-MURTHY: The nation has changed its mind

A video of Harriett Ellis went viral after she rolled her eyes behind Nigel Farage on Channel 4's Big Brexit Debate. Photo: Channel 4 - Credit: Channel 4

Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4’s bombshell new poll showing a significant swing.

Their faces said it all. As I read out the final numbers from the survey suggesting the UK has changed its mind on Brexit you could almost see the thought bubbles hanging over the politicians’ heads. They had surely prepared for this.

After months of grim headlines, cabinet splits and dire warnings of what will happen if we Brexit without a deal they must have expected a change in public opinion since 2016. And yet staring at the screen with the numbers 54-46 to Remain screaming at them, David Gauke and Barry Gardiner still looked momentarily stumped, a huge ‘Oh God’ not needing to be said. Nigel Farage looked incredulous and Caroline Lucas gleeful, as though for a second it was a real referendum result.

Has the nation really changed its mind? Can we allow ourselves to trust the survey result? Polls are often wrong, aren’t they? Well, a sample of 20,000 with all the clever analysis that makes it demographically cross checked and adjusted is a very big survey. Survation, the company who carried it out, have a good track record of getting things right in the past. Our psephologist Sir John Curtice is unimpeachable. This was bigger and deeper than any other poll since the referendum.

That Britain is still deeply divided is an unhelpful conclusion. We are divided as a nation when we are asked a binary question. Two years ago more people were prepared to come out and vote Leave than those who’d vote Remain. Today our survey finds the opposite. Not, according to Curtice, because huge numbers of people have actually changed their minds, but because more Remainers who didn’t vote in 2016 say they’d vote now, and some Leavers who did turn out in 2016 say they wouldn’t bother today.

Unlike in elections when a relatively large number of people can change the party they vote for, there is not a lot of switching going on. Most Conservative voters now want to leave the EU. Most Labour voters now want to remain. It would be easy to conclude we are still hopelessly divided with no prospect of coming together around what to do now. But that’s what simple questions do. Earlier this year, when I asked Jacob Rees-Mogg if he’d resign if there was an economic downturn after Brexit, he complained: ‘You’re proposing a very simple question on a very complex set of circumstances.’ Many viewers pointed out the obvious riposte. A bit like the Brexit referendum question?

However the Survation survey showed something intriguing. If you get into the details there is much common ground between Leavers and Remainers. There was jaw-dropping agreement that in order to get a deal with the EU the nation would accept people from the EU and UK being able to live and work in each other’s countries.

That, in other words, is freedom of movement. As a nation we also seem to agree that if Brexit goes ahead we should be free to do our own trade deals. That means no staying in the customs union. If the price of a deal is going along with EU regulations on goods, again there is significant agreement. And Labour and Conservative voters are surprisingly united in thinking Boris Johnson would not have done a better job in the negotiations than Theresa May. So it’s not all daggers at dawn when it comes to Brexit.

There was also strong agreement that after Brexit the UK should have a close relationship with the EU. So it appears the nation is clear on one thing: it does not want a hard no-deal Brexit. There might be an old fashioned compromise after all, that doesn’t annoy too many people too much. In fact when asked what they thought about Theresa May’s proposed deal, around one in three people don’t know what they think yet. They could be shifted, one way or another.

But if the nation has changed its mind, ask the People’s Vote campaigners, why are we still trying to hammer out a compromise? After all, in one of the most astonishing moments in the results programme, both the men from government and opposition (who both want to go ahead with Brexit) agreed that Brexit is an act of economic self harm. Nigel Farage and his Leave Means Leave friends said they are ready to fight again. His explanation for the change to Remain is simply that they haven’t been out on the campaign trail, and that the message people have been hearing about Brexit for two years has all been one-way.

He claims to be confident another campaign would mobilise the Leavers and produce an even bigger majority for Brexit.

Whether his donor Arron Banks has more millions to pour into another campaign we don’t know. Perhaps he meant his little quip about voting Remain if he’d known about the demons that would be unleashed. Whether the various investigations into campaign funding and political advertising would affect the way people feel about Brexit we don’t know either. But one of the most surprising results in the survey will certainly give Messrs Farage and Banks hope, should they find themselves going into battle again. Only 48% of 18-24 year olds said they’d vote in a new referendum. That’s the same as in 2016. It is hard to fathom why more of the next generation still don’t want a say in their future. Do they feel none of it makes a difference to their lives then British politics really is in trouble.

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