Brexit options and the People’s Vote

Justine Greening’s recent call for a multi-option referendum on Brexit brings to the fore the central dishonesty of the Referendum. Brexit cannot just mean Brexit: if it is to happen it will have to be a specific Brexit. And it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no feasible specific Brexit that can command the support of all those who voted for Brexit in general in the referendum.

Following Greening’s call, Yougov carried out an opinion poll asking about preferences between three options, which we can call Remain, Soft and Hard. The Soft option was described as `along the lines that Theresa May has set out’ (i.e. the Chequers proposal), while the Hard option was described as `leave the EU without a deal’.

What was unusual about this poll was that it asked for voters’ second preferences as well as their first. This is essential if we are to understand the real popularity of the options, and what the poll reveals is very interesting.

First preferences show an exact 50-50 balance between Remain and Brexit in this poll. However, when we compare Remain with either specific form of Brexit it has a clear majority: 55-45 against Hard Brexit, 60-40 against Soft. While Soft is narrowly preferred to Hard (53-47), a large proportion of Hard supporters (nearly half of them) would abstain rather than choose between Remain and Soft.

The poor showing of the Soft option is in interesting contrast to a similar poll Yougov carried out on Scottish Independence in 2012, where the compromise option (in that case `More Powers’) had a large majority over each of the extremes (No change, Independence). It is possible that there is a Soft option that could command majority public support, and be acceptable to the EU, but it seems that political pressures have pushed the government into an option – the Chequers proposal – that is widely viewed as unsatisfactory or unfeasible.

Is a 3-way referendum as suggested by Greening a plausible route forward? Almost certainly not, because there is unlikely to be agreement on how to count it. The most thorough method, comparing each pair of options as above, is likely to be thought too complicated. Professor Vernon Bogdanor has suggested a 2-stage vote, starting with the `gateway’ question of Brexit or not, followed if Brexit is preferred by a choice between the different Brexit options. But this would just repeat the error of the referendum, in assuming that those whose first preference is Soft Brexit all have second preference Hard Brexit, and vice versa; whereas the poll shows that neither is true.

For a referendum to be fair and acceptable, it needs to compare one specific Brexit option – `the Final Deal’ – with the equally specific alternative of Remain.

* Denis Mollison is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform. More information can be found at

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  • William Fowler 2nd Aug '18 - 9:07am

    Let’s not forget that Mrs May started out the election with 65 percent and events whittled that right down, so today’s poll may have little bearing on the final results.

    Possibly a quarter of the population are hardcore brexiteers and another quarter want to remain in the EU regardless, leaving half the population open to persuasion… so whoever is going to lead the remain campaign will need some very good arguments and solutions to the problems of being in the EU, not the somewhat vague promises of future reform…

  • I suspect, the only remotely likely referendum would be a simple binary reject deal/accept deal soft v hard Brexit affair. Less likely is a rerun of the in/out question just to make sure. Highly unlikely is a multi choice option loaded in favour of a Lib Dem party with about 8% of the electorate. Obviously, I could be wrong.

  • William Fowler 2nd Aug '18 - 12:11pm

    I think there needs to be a reality check included in the options:

    Stay in EU with increased spending from improved tax receipts compared with leaving despite still paying into the EU.

    Leave the EU with no deal, interest rates at 5-6 per cent to protect the pound and a cut in spending of circa 100 billion to reflect decreased govn revenues despite savings from not paying into the EU.

  • Richard O'Neill 2nd Aug '18 - 3:02pm

    If it’s too short a time to properly organise a second referendum, I suppose putting Article 49, to re-join the EU into the next Liberal Democrat manifesto, would in a roundabout way count the next GE as a proxy second referendum?

  • Peter Watson 2nd Aug '18 - 3:06pm

    I think that there is a later version of this poll ( based upon fieldwork 3-4 days later.
    It seems to show significant changes in some of the numbers but I wouldn’t read any sort of trend into that. It might be worth repeating the analysis discussed in this article on that second data set or even on the two data sets combined.

  • If it’s too short a time to properly organise a second referendum, I suppose putting Article 49, to re-join the EU into the next Liberal Democrat manifesto, would in a roundabout way count the next GE as a proxy second referendum?

  • Denis Mollison 2nd Aug '18 - 3:59pm

    @Peter Watson
    Thanks for drawing my attention to the later poll. I can’t do the full analysis on it because it doesn’t give the detailed preference data (tho’ I expect Yougov will provide if I ask them nicely). It looks as though the main difference is that the Soft Brexit option has lost support (from 17% down to 11% in 1st preferences) to both Remain and Hard Brexit.

  • There is still time to pass an act of Parliament to have a referendum on 21st March 2019. Time runs out in the autumn. It should be possible to use AV to decide between the three choices – the deal negotiated, no deal and staying in. The votes for the option coming third would be re-allocated to their second choice if they have one. It seems likely that if such a referendum was held in March 2019 staying in would win an AV election.

  • Philip Knowles 3rd Aug '18 - 8:06am

    In Spring Vince said there could be a referendum called in October for the first week in December – that’s still feasible.
    There’s some interesting data in the second poll. One is that the unweighted sample has a higher level of Remainers than Leavers which may point to it being difficult for the pollsters to find Leavers. The most telling figure though is the voting intention – the LibDem voting intention has gone up compared to 2017 but both Tory and Labour is down substantially.
    Perhaps the calm voice of reason is having an effect. We just need to capture those 232 people who voted Tory or Labour who are looking for a home. I suspect some of them are Remainers.

  • Multi stage and three option referendums were used in the Newfoundland confederation referendum in 1948, instigated by the Atlee Labour government.
    Although in their case, the right result came through and ordinary Newfoundlanders benefitted from a far more healthy economy.
    The arguments thrown around then bear a fair similarity to our recent EU referendum, the anti-confederation campaign arguments certainly sounded rather similar to the leave campaigners in many ways.
    It’s odd no one has spotted the similarities, to my knowledge at least!

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Aug '18 - 10:35am

    If and I hope we do have another referendum, let’s get the process right. There must be strict rules about what is allowable and what is not with stiff sanctions for those who exceed the boundaries. The people have the right to receive the right information to make a reasoned choice from a number of options.

  • Denis Mollison 6th Aug '18 - 10:34am

    My thanks to all who have commented, even Glenn who seems to suspect me of advocating a multi-choice referendum loaded in favour of the Liberal Democrats. On the contrary, while the multi-choice opinion poll is very interesting and informative, a multi-choice referendum is almost certainly not on. Apart from straight opposition to another referendum, there’s unlikely to be agreement on how to structure it: I cited the Bogdanor `gateway’ suggestion, which is biased against Remain; Michael BG suggests AV (as did Peter Keller in the Economist) which is biased against the compromise option (Soft); the fairest would be Condorcet, whose downside is the (remote) possibility of being indecisive (R>S>H>R).

    The key implication of the poll is that, not surprisingly, support for Brexit depends on what sort of Brexit it is. Therefore, before a final decision is taken Brexit needs to be defined. There must come a point where we know more or less what Brexit means – the best `final deal’ that the government and the EU can actually agree on. As I understand it, there then has to be a period of time during which the other 27 EU countries decide whether to endorse it. During that period there needs to be a democratic test of whether the UK also backs the deal. If opinion polls at that stage show a majority in favour of the deal, then the government can get away with just a vote in parliament. But if polls show a majority against the deal, only a referendum or general election will be democratically acceptable.

  • Denis Mollison 7th Aug '18 - 9:43am

    @George Kendall
    Don’t get me wrong, I’d be very happy with a 3-way referendum; if it has to be in 2 stages, it should be as Michael Roberg suggests – first clarify which sort of Brexit, then compare that with Remain.

  • Denis Mollison 7th Aug '18 - 4:36pm

    That’s effectively AV, which generally discriminates against the compromise option, so it’s high risk. The fair way is Condorcet, where you use the preferences expressed to tell which is preferred of each pair: on the opinion poll figures, Remain is preferred to both Soft and Hard (and Soft is preferred to Hard) so Remain is the clear winner.

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