Do you remember what life was like before 23 June 2016? There’d been plenty of referendum debate but everyone, including the polls, agreed: Remain, as the status quo, would win; people tend to avoid change and, besides, the economic forecasts for leaving the EU did not make pretty reading. Even Nigel Farage called it for Remain on the night (though some have suggested he did so in the knowledge that his side had actually won, in order to - allegedly - cash in on the associated market movement).
But then: 52% voted Leave, and unleashed a seemingly never-ending deluge of debate in the two years and counting since. Will the genie ever be put back into the bottle? It’s hard to imagine it will be, even if the results of a new poll-of-polls for the Evening Standard is correct.
According to analysis of almost 150 polls, a majority of Britons now want the country to remain in the European Union, with an almost exact reversal of the original vote seeing 52% favouring an end to Brexit.
The study of four questions regularly asked in Brexit surveys showed ‘a steady shift toward Remain’, with Leave ahead by two points (51/49) in the months after the original referendum and staying ahead, albeit by a slimmer margin of one point (50.5/49.5), during the first six months of 2017. However, sentiment went 50/50 in the middle of last year, before Remain took a one-point lead (50.5/49.5) in the last six months of 2017.
Now, in 2018, as the chance of a ‘no deal’ has increased, together with a continuing inability to come up with any sort of answer to the Irish border question, and the deaths of older Brexit-voters, together with the new eligibility of younger voters - who did not vote in 2016 and would be statistically likely to want to stay in the EU - has meant that Remain has made further gains, to the point where it now leads 52 points to 48.
The analysis was carried out by YouGov, with Anthony Wells, director of political research saying:
“The weight of evidence means that we can be as good as certain that, at least as far as the polls are concerned, Remain is now ahead of Leave. Between them the four trackers have asked the question 61 times this year, and 57 of them were Remain.”
Another poll-of-polls, compiled by Sir John Curtice, the Strathclyde University professor and polling expert, on his WhatUKThinks website, also puts the Remain lead at four points (52/48).
“There is doubt that there is still a majority of support for Leave but there is also doubt that actually a second referendum would necessarily deliver a majority for Remain. Neither side could be sure of the outcome given how close the polls are.”
So, could Brexit be stopped?
Currently, the answer to that, of course, is yes: if Britain changed its mind, the EU would almost certainly be willing to cancel the entire process and proceed as before. However, the process of getting to the point where Britain would change its mind is extremely complicated.
Theresa May has already ruled out a second referendum, in order to avoid being toppled by the far-right, hard-Brexit wing of her party, so it will not happen while she is in power. If she loses power, it seems likely that it will only be to a member of that far-right, hard Brexit-arm wing, so they will certainly not call a referendum that they might lose.
Thus, Labour are probably the only real hope for anyone wanting a reversal. They could still feasibly back a second referendum, but they must make the knife-edge call of whether doing so would alienate their leave-voting heartlands so much that they would lose any general election that might happen before the UK is due to leave on 29 March 2019. And, while these poll-of-polls might suggest that aggregate public opinion has changed, Labour cannot be sure that it would have changed in the right areas for them, politically.
Thus, as Labour are currently the only game in town, government-wise, for anyone wanting a second referendum and a potential cancellation of Brexit, they are likely to continue their policy of both backing and not backing a referendum until they are safely in power following a general election that could potentially happen if Theresa May’s final Brexit deal is voted down by parliament.
Of course, even if a second referendum happened, and even if Remain won it, it would undoubtedly be by a similarly slim margin to the 2016 vote, meaning that the question would not go away in the coming months or years.
Welcome to our endless Brexit future, everyone.