Why both sides of the Brexit argument should be careful citing opinion polls

PUBLISHED: 21:00 27 April 2019

Gina Miller wrote in the Independent last month that, of 125 polls since January last year, 113 favoured staying in the EU.. Picture: Getty Images

Gina Miller wrote in the Independent last month that, of 125 polls since January last year, 113 favoured staying in the EU.. Picture: Getty Images

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Citing opinion polls in support of your argument comes with huge risks, for Remainers and Leavers alike, writes LIZ GERARD.

They've had their break. Now it's time for politicians to knuckle down and “deliver the Brexit people voted for”. But what did they vote for? And what do they want now?

The only way we have of testing that yet is through opinion polls, and, for some, the results are clear.

Boris Johnson: “The so-called no-deal option… is by some margin preferred by the British public.”

Ian Duncan Smith: “The last two opinion polls showed over 50% favoured leaving without a deal.”

John Redwood: “The public accept by a majority that the best option is just to leave.”

Nigel Farage: “A big, clear majority want to leave with no deal.”

Not only were they all wrong – they were all called out for touting misinformation. The Telegraph was required by the press regulator to carry a correction with regard to Johnson's column – in spite of its defence that in his “comical polemic” he was entitled to make “sweeping generalisations”; ie, lie.

Adam Boulton on Sky, Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4, and Mishal Husain on Radio 4's Today challenged Smith, Redwood and Farage; indeed Guru-Murthy cut off the Redwood interview after repeatedly telling him that what he was claiming was not true.

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It's not only the politicians that spin. Last November, an exasperated Daily Mail demanded: “SO NOW WILL MPs LISTEN?” A poll it had commissioned from Survation had asked “Should MPs back May's deal?” to which 41% said 'yes' and 38% 'no'. Would it be a humiliation to stay in the EU? 47% said 'yes', 24% 'no'. Was it the best deal on offer? 52% 'yes', 19% 'no'. The figures were presented in red and blue panels on the front.

Further responses were panelled on page two, including one on whether there should there be a People's Vote on her plan – which came out at 48% for, 34% against, with 18% don't knows. And then, deep in the text came findings that weren't picked out for display: May's plan or no-deal? No-deal by 41-35; May or Remain? Remain by 46-37; Remain or no-deal? 50-40 Remain.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of Theresa May's deal. In fact, the only consistent conclusions across the past six months' polling have been that her Withdrawal Agreement is the worst of all worlds and that we've made a hash of the negotiations.

Last month the Sunday Telegraph declared “Public swinging behind no-deal”. This was based on a ComRes poll that found 44% of people thought Britain should leave without a deal if Brussels did not make further concessions, up six points from the previous month. So yes a swing. But not a majority, as Redwood contended.

This question came towards the end of a large, detailed survey that tested people's knowledge of the proposed treaty, the Northern Ireland border, trading arrangements and whether we should become a tax haven. None of this was reported in the Telegraph. Nor was there room for which of a range of options would be best for the economy (52% thought remaining, 36% backed Leave) and our democracy (46% Remain, 42% Leave).

Politicians and the press interpret polls the way that suits them. But Remainers who use such figures to demonstrate that the country has changed its mind should beware of doing the same.

Gina Miller wrote in the Independent last month that, of 125 polls since January last year, 113 favoured staying in the EU. She was quoting the blogger Jim Chisholm, who has done sterling work in analysing the polls and has concluded that a majority of voters now want to Remain. That sounds compelling and he's surely right about most people now wishing we could just stay as we are.

But thinking something is better for the economy or democracy is not the same as voting for it. Agreeing in hindsight that it was wrong to vote to leave the EU – as the biggest majority do – is not the same as saying we should
stop the train now. And there are an awful lot of 'Don't Knows' in these surveys – up to a quarter or a third of respondents.

In a straight choice between Leave and Remain, Remain just about musters a majority. But while it is the most popular of the various scenarios, it is generally outnumbered by the combined Leave choices. Nor do polls show great enthusiasm for a People's Vote. A new referendum would still be an extremely risky enterprise.

Boris Johnson opened that “comical polemic” with a tribute to the wisdom of the British people and their “instinctive ability to sort fact from nonsense”. Johnson has failed to do that time and again. Can we be sure that, given a second chance, the people will demonstrate greater wisdom?

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