Brexit polls – a step change since the end of May.

Adrian Low

YouGov, in collaboration with The Times, has been asking one key question, more or less every fortnight since June 23rd 2016:

‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union.’


Despite responses to other questions which seem to suggest that the UK is getting behind Brexit, the responses to this unambiguous, direct question have changed little over the last year. Leavers and Remainers have been relatively evenly balanced, but there is a slow but steady move away from wanting Brexit. It is not the will of the electorate, the residents or the citizens of the UK.

When the proportions from the 30 YouGov polls, asking the same question, are applied to the referendum voting numbers across all the UK plus Gibraltar, the preference has moved solidly into a UK preference amongst the registered electors, for remaining in the EU. All of the last four polls give solid majorities for Remain, and five out of the last nine of them give remain majorities greater than any previous YouGov poll majority for either Leave or Remain and greater than the winning majority for Leave at the referendum. Even without any adjustments the trend is obvious. And, in addition to the 12 month trend, there seems to have been a step change at the end of May.

Adjusted YouGov polls results since August 2016.
Bars below the line are the ‘leave’ majority, bars above the line are ‘remain’ majority.
The green line showing a 3% rise towards Remain is a linear regression fit to the data.

So why do the media suggest that the UK is happy with Brexit?

Many poll questions are framed with the supposition that the Brexit train is on the track. For example: ‘Do you think the government should work for a good deal with the EU’ is bound to get a very positive response which can be reported as ‘some large majority of the UK is looking for a good divorce deal with Brussels’. Such questions make the assumption that the Brexit decision is irreversible and that the electorate is powerless to do anything about Brexit, other than seek a good deal.

The key question ‘do you think it right or wrong to leave the EU’, however, actually measures the will of the UK without any assumptions.

Leave won the referendum by 3.8%. The adjusted YouGov polls for 31st May, 7th June and 13th June give majorities for Remain of 4.3%, 2.5%, 4.1% and 3.5% respectively. On average that is more than a 7% swing to Remain.

YouGov ask what the people voted at the referendum, so further analysis shows where this trend is coming from. For twelve months the support for both sides has remain more or less 90%, that is nine out of ten who voted Leave still think Leave is right and nine out of ten who voted Remain still support Remain. The key difference is the increasing engagement and preference of some of the 12.9 million electorate who failed to vote last June, plus the new 18 year olds now able to vote. For instance, in two of the latest polls the Remainers in this group have more than 20% majority. 20% of 12.9 million is nearly 2.6 million, which cancels out the Leave majority achieved at the referendum (1.27 million), and gives a 4% majority for Remain.
Both a trend and a step change, but they come as no surprise. Some facts:

The trend – basic demographics and greater engagement

The step change

So, after one year of polls, the trend is clear. The UK wishes to remain in Europe and the 2017 election has brought that desire more into focus. Simply assuming that the train is on the tracks so there is no turning back is a misuse of our fragile democracy. People have made up their minds, and the UK government should recognise that.

Adrian Low
Professor Emeritus, Computing Education, Staffordshire University
Anglican Chaplain, Costa del Sol West