Does the public want no deal?

10 April 2019
What was claimed

The country wants no deal.

Our verdict

Some polls show no deal as the most preferred Brexit option. Others show remaining. It all depends which options respondents are surveyed about and how the question is asked.

What was claimed

No deal is consistently the preferred option of the British public.

Our verdict

This is misleading to suggest. While some polls have found this, others have found more support for remaining in the EU. It all depends on how the question is asked and the options respondents are presented with.

“The country wants ‘no deal’…’No deal’ is consistently the preferred option of the British public.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, 6 April 2019

“The polling evidence shows that people now think [no deal is] the least bad option… The public accept, by a majority now, that the best option is just to leave and offer them a free trade deal.”

John Redwood MP, 5 April 2019 

Recently a number of MPs have claimed that polling shows the public would prefer for the UK to leave the EU with no deal, compared to any other option.

This is misleading. Opinion polls about Brexit often give conflicting messages about the public’s preferred way forward, because so much depends on what options people are given to choose between and how the questions are worded. No deal comes off as the preferred choice in some scenarios presented to voters, but looks less popular when presented in other ways.

We aren’t aware of any poll showing that, in John Redwood’s words to Channel 4 News, “most of the public” (in other words, more than 50%) support a no deal exit.

So it’s wrong for MPs to suggest unequivocally that the public prefers one Brexit option or another. The reality is much more ambiguous.

This topic has been written about before by polling expert Professor John Curtice who looked at a range of polls (though not those quoted by Jacob Rees-Mogg) finding that both no deal and remaining in the EU were preferred options, depending on which other options respondents were presented with.

More recently, Anthony Wells of YouGov has said their polling suggests the public thinks no deal is a bad outcome, but narrowly prefer it (by 44% to 42%) if the only other option they are given is remaining in the EU, in the event that the EU refuses to give the UK an extension to Article 50 beyond April 12th.

Wells added: “However, while other options remain on the table, it would be wrong to say 44% of people support No Deal yet.”

So what are the polls being featured in Mr Rees-Mogg’s tweet?

In one poll by Comres, 45% of the public preferred leaving the EU without a deal. Respondents were asked if they agreed we should leave and trade on “WTO rules” instead of delaying Brexit, with 45% agreeing, 34% disagreeing and 20% saying they didn’t know.  

There are a few methodological issues with this question that have to be borne in mind when interpreting the results. Firstly, as Anthony Masters of the Royal Statistical Society points out, questions posed like this aren’t worded neutrally as they only put across one side of an argument, meaning respondents are prone to something called acquiescence bias.

That means when asked if you agree or disagree with something, you’re more likely to agree with the statement. So in this case, the 45% could have been boosted by people answering “agree” when they may not have, had the question been worded more neutrally.

Another potential issue is that the question doesn’t call the option “no deal” or “leaving the EU without a deal”, but rather leaving on “WTO rules”. All are accurate descriptions of the option, but could deliver different levels of support depending on which is used in the question.

The poll also restricts people to a few, short-term choices. All the Brexit options other than no deal are packaged as “delaying Brexit”. While that’s potentially a necessary step on the way to any other Brexit outcome, other polls show when people are given more developed Brexit outcomes beyond that delaying step, such as the government’s withdrawal agreement or having a second referendum, no deal doesn’t always remain the preferred option. 

Mr Rees-Mogg also cited the YouGov poll already mentioned, which asked “And if Britain has not agreed a deal by April 12th and the European Union refused to grant a further extension, what do you think should happen?”

44% said Britain should leave the EU with no deal, 42% said we should remain in the EU, and 13% didn’t know.

The problem with using that poll to claim that no deal is the public’s preferred option is that the question poses a hypothetical situation which isn’t the one Britain finds itself in. The EU hasn’t refused to grant a further extension yet, and so it’s misleading to suggest that, right now, no deal is the most preferred option. 

In the same poll YouGov also asked respondents “And if you had to choose one outcome of Brexit, what would you prefer to see?” with options to remain after a new referendum, leave with no deal, leave while remaining in the single market and customs union, and leaving under the negotiated withdrawal deal.

With that question, remaining was the favourite, preferred by 37% of the public, followed by no deal on 26%.

And one thing that tempers all of these results is of course that polling is an act of estimation and results come with a margin of error. While pollsters try and survey a group representative of the public, they can never get this spot on and so the views of those surveyed may differ from the actual views of the public. For example, none of the polls mentioned survey people in Northern Ireland. 

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