Looking at the Brexit opinion polls it seems that the public is consistently in favor of staying in the EU ever since July 2017, with the gap between 'leave' and 'remain' slowly widening over time. So why do British politicians seem to ignore their electorate and keep pushing for leaving the EU instead of at least voting for a new referendum? Did any MPs mention the poll results in public discussions within the House of Commons?


9 Answers 9


It was discussed in the discussion on one of the online petitions. The standard Tory line against it is:

17.4 million people voted to leave. After that, 499 Members of Parliament voted in favour of invoking article 50, and 122 voted against

But Brexit, as currently being operated, is not a public-driven process. Even if it was, making it opinion-poll-driven on small daily fluctuations between 49/51 one way and the other would make no sense either.

No, the absolute driving motivation is to keep the Tory party together and in power. There has been a risk of a split over Europe since at least the days of John Major. Everyone is aware that under the FPTP system a split would be completely fatal to the party.

This causes an endless cycle of making concessions to one group within the party to prevent them defecting, followed by the discovery that those concessions have angered another wing of the party, or are infeasible to deliver, or the EU won't agree to them, and so on. It also explains the weird stasis where the government is unable to command a majority for its flagship legislation but has not yet lost a vote of no confidence.

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    To be fair, the risk of a split over Brexit also applies to Labour. Both parties recently had defectors over their Brexit policy. That's why Labour has to be indirect when accusing the Tories of indecisiveness..
    – MSalters
    Apr 8, 2019 at 10:19
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    "17.4 million people voted to leave. After that, 499 Members of Parliament voted in favour of invoking article 50, and 122 voted against" - and article 50 was indeed invoked... however I don't think that answers the question; since there are a lot of acts that have been repealed.
    – UKMonkey
    Apr 8, 2019 at 12:35
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    @UKMonkey it's very much a politician answer - it's true in a strictly factual sense, but is very far from a whole answer that addresses all the issues.
    – pjc50
    Apr 8, 2019 at 13:22
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    @HenningMakholm: Resign and take up foxhunting?
    – Kevin
    Apr 8, 2019 at 22:48
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    17.4 million 'opinions' is what started this whole mess. I'd ignore everybody too.
    – Mazura
    Apr 9, 2019 at 0:37

There is no strong evidence that UK politicians are ignoring opinion polls. There is some evidence that the information in the opinion polls is more subtle than what's expressed in the headline figures. Consider this Survation poll for the Daily Mail, with fieldwork conducted on the 15th March 2019. The headline question is

Imagine there was a referendum tomorrow with the question. 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?' How would you vote?

and for likely voters, ignoring don't knows, the breakdown is

Leave 47%

Remain 53%

in line with your question. However the tables also have the breakdown by party voted for the in the 2017 General Election. This gives a split for the Conservatives of 62% Leave - 38% Remain, of Labour 34% Leave, 66% Remain. Meanwhile the SNP and Liberal Democrats split towards Remain by 79% to 21% and 73% to 27% respectively.

So all told, the party in government is following the wishes of its electorate by attempting to deliver Brexit, even if it's at constant risk of sparking an internal political civil war about what Leaving actually means.

Meanwhile the Labour party is in an unfortunate position:

  • Any firm positive action in either direction will displease one wing or another of its party, leading to a perception of disunity which will cost it votes.

  • Many of those pro-Remain Labour supporters are in London and other large cities, whereas many battleground constituencies are pro-Leave or more evenly split. Hence a switch to Remain could cost it a disproportionate number of seats in the next election.

  • Just switching back to a pro-Remain stance allows soft attacks on being anti-democratic for ignoring the result of the 2016 referendum.

Meanwhile, the SNP have no real need to point to current opinion polls, since Scotland voted Remain and the party ran an anti-Brexit Manifesto. The last point is also true of the Liberal Democrats.

There's a lot more that could be said by looking at the figures comparing voting intentions now with voting patterns in 2016 (the short version is that relatively few people appear to be actively switching, so some of this signal is being driven by non-voters) but that would need a much larger meta-analysis of polls.

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    I've taken the liberty of editing the paragraph on the Labour position. The parenthetical comment on electoral mathematics seems to me to merit more prominence, so I've split that paragraph into bullets. Please feel free to revert if I've misunderstood. Apr 8, 2019 at 15:17

The answer is slightly different for each of the two main parties (Labour and Tories) but boils down to trying to upset as few people as possible with an eye on the next general election.

Consider the ramifications of changing their policy from delivering brexit to cancelling it. That would certainly annoy many millions of leave voters. On the other hand sticking with "we want a unicorn no-damage no-down-side brexit" and blaming the failure to deliver it on other people just plays into people's existing opinions that politicians are generally useless and you pick the least worst one.

The Tories have additional problems with any possible brexit ripping the party apart. That's why May tried for so long to not commit to anything, merely spewing literally meaningless slogans like "brexit means brexit".

Labour could more easily switch to remain, but a much better strategy for them is to support a confirmatory referendum. That way they can blame the failure to deliver on the Tories, and claim they delivered the will of the people with minimal responsibility. Of course some will blame them for even having a second referendum, but it's the least bad option for them.

  • "we want a unicorn no-damage no-down-side brexit". Well they'll still have Scotland (the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn).
    – Stephen
    Apr 10, 2019 at 4:40

In practical and on principle, being a slave to the polls is a bad idea.

The politicians who favour remaining in the EU ignored the polls from the 1970s to 2015 that have shown sometimes wide margins in favour of leaving. Arguing that something is right because a fickle public are currently in favour of it is politically risky, as it seems certain that the public mood will change and change again.

In principle, politicians are elected to lead. The principle of "Parliamentary sovereignty" is almost an article of dogma to many MPs. The idea that an MP will change their mind on a matter only because the opinion polls are against it. would erode this principle. In private and behind the façade of Westminster we know that they are very interested in opinion polls (and focus groups, and audience response surveys etc). But in public they try to act as if they are motivated only by their own judgement and understanding of an issue.

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    I don't agree with the last paragraph - traditionally individual MPs are unimportant and the government executive has control through party whip and control of the order paper. It's historically somewhat rare for MPs to go against government policy at all, and even more rare for Ministers. It's only recently that it's becoming apparent that all options are disastrous that they are breaking ranks.
    – pjc50
    Apr 8, 2019 at 10:54
  • so you argue that the outcomes of elections (like the binding Brexit referendum) shouldn't influence the way the government works? That means you argue for simply abolishing elections altogether and just have a permanent ruling council that does what it likes whether the citizens like it or not.
    – jwenting
    Apr 11, 2019 at 4:33

So why do British politicians seem to ignore their electorate and keep pushing for leaving the EU instead of at least voting for a new referendum

They had

  1. A referendum

  2. A GE where the lib Dems as the only 'remain' party did badly.

This leaves the implication of your 'at least' highly suspect; to ignore to votes for an opinion poll in order to do 'what the people want' is absurd. (There is an argument of ignoring the vote because of best interest, but that's another matter)

As to having another vote, that is a more complicated matter, but part of the criticism of the EU in the past was the 'neverendum', which almost certainly plays a part.

Also note that while arguing for a vote on the aspects of the deal can be sold as a practical matter, having a vote because of what opinion polls say is opening a whole can of worms. For instance, what if people are dissatisfied with a government halfway through a mandate?

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    At this point, it's not that we're dissatisfied with a government - we're dissatisfied with a lack of government.
    – Graham
    Apr 10, 2019 at 9:05
  • indeed, arguing for another referendum now is basically saying "we don't like the fact you voted to leave 2 years ago, so do it again and this time be sure to vote remain because otherwise you're going to be ignored again".
    – jwenting
    Apr 11, 2019 at 4:34

I would imagine that its because that's not how democracy works.

In your standard democratic vote, everyone chooses, in good faith, a decision that they believe to be best. If then the votes result does not swing your way, you are unfortunately restricted by the democratic element of the vote to honour it anyways. Therefore, when the governing body sees a poll, of a small fraction of the voters, that requests the decision be revoked, they will ignore it. This is because it is not only undemocratic, but unfair.

Small polls or protests from a side that lost a vote is simply irrelevant. People may argue that opinions have changed, yet these small polls take such little proportions into account it'd be impossible to show anything without a second referendum. It's therefore necessary for the government to ignore minor protesting or polls and continue to deliver what people voted for, just as if a Prime minister was hated they would still serve their full term.

A second referendum would be undemocratic and seems as though the voters have played a coin flip, only to demand a second go when they lose. No matter what your stance on Brexit is, you have to respect the democracy of the situation. The government are not displaying ignorance of the voters, rather they have chosen to follow them, towards a decision that the government did not want.

  • small polls, wouldn't that only be a problem if the polls aren't statistically representative?
    – JJJ
    Apr 8, 2019 at 19:46
  • +1 I think this answer hits the nail on the head. If the UK allows a second referendum now, there'd also be an argument for having another Scottish independence vote (for example).
    – Allure
    Apr 9, 2019 at 6:59
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    @JJJ Not really, especially not in cases where the two choices have such similar proportions. You can affect poll results in many ways to get the results you want, and especially so if you cherry pick between different polls. There's a reason why referendum rules are the way they are, and there's a reason why statistics must follow similar rules to get an answer that's in any way valid. E.g. if you allow do-overs for referendums, you can just keep retrying until you get the "right" answer (as was the case with the Lisbon Treaty). Polls are always extremely vague and unrepresentative.
    – Luaan
    Apr 9, 2019 at 9:42
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    Well done for mentioning in good faith. Now that we know that standard wasn't met, given the lies, disinformation and law-breaking that plagued the first vote, a confirmatory referendum becomes essential. Apr 9, 2019 at 10:18
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    @Allure That's already coming though, a large part of the anti-indie campaign in Scotland was about how they could stay in Europe only through the UK. The fact that we're now potentially leaving the EU is making Scotland and NI leaving the UK go from 0 to a real possibility. This is actually one of the main arguments that caused the PM to back away from no deal as she realized it threatened the (UK) union.
    – Tim B
    Apr 10, 2019 at 8:53

The United Kingdom (UK) has geographic districts. Each Member of Parliament (MP) represents one small (compared to the country as a whole) geographic district. They are not elected by the country as a whole. As such, there is no reason for them to care about national opinion polls.

A better, but much more expensive, approach would be to run surveys in each district. However, that would increase costs, as accurate results still require larger sample sizes. There are 650 MPs. So even if polls could be a tenth the size for districts, that's still a considerable increase in the number of people polled.

I suspect, but of course cannot prove, that most Conservatives are from districts that still would vote Leave. As such, it is risky for them to vote Remain. This is one of the weaknesses of geographic districts. A comparatively small amount of voters in geographic districts can produce a legislative majority for a rather unpopular result.

There are three major areas that voted Remain: Northern Ireland; Scotland; London. Wales and that part of England outside London voted Leave. Conservatives have little representation in the areas that voted Remain, and what representation they do have may be in districts that voted Leave (even as the larger area voted Remain).

It's also worth noting that in the last general election, at least 82.4% of voters voted for a member of a party that had Leave in its manifesto. Because Labour (the second biggest party) and the Conservatives (first) both officially supported Leave. So it's not just the referendum.

TL;DR: national polling doesn't tell us voter preferences by district, which is what is important for political support.

  • "82.4% of voters voted for a member of a party that had Leave in its manifesto" well there wasn't a lot of choice: Labour and Conservative were both Leave because of the referendum; LibDem were Remain but everyone hates them now, so the choice was (a) vote for a Leave party; (b) vote for a party you hate, or (c) don't vote, and the last one doesn't count as a Remain vote anyway. Apr 9, 2019 at 15:28
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    @DavetheSax Clearly people hate LibDem more than they hate Brexit. Which puts an upper limit on the Brexit hate.
    – Sjoerd
    Apr 9, 2019 at 20:00
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    @DavetheSax We have a FPTP system, that means that in most cases any vote that is not for either C or L is wasted. Utterly worthless. Anyone aware of that no matter how strongly they felt on Brexit may well have felt they needed to vote for Labour as the less damaging Brexit option rather than the party they really wanted to support. Trying to hold up the GE result as an endorsement of Brexit is completely flawed, not least because the PM went in looking for an endorsement of her brexit position and ended up losing her majority. So a better argument is to say that a hard brexit is not wanted
    – Tim B
    Apr 10, 2019 at 9:04

Good answers already, but I'd like to add one more factor to consider - at this point, British politicians have good reason to doubt opinion polls.

In spring 2017 Theresa May and the Tories were way ahead of Labour in the polls, and believed to be in a position to win a much larger majority. She called a General Election based on the polls and lost badly to the point of needing the DUP's support to retain power.
Prior to the Brexit referendum, the polls were predicting a Remain victory, and you know how that turned out.

Why would they want to act based on a very close poll, when they have experience that seems a good reason to doubt those figures?


There are already a number of good answers given, but another view on it would simply be:

Because they are not asked the same question.

The polls opposes the remain and the leave, clear, binary choice. For the MPs and the government, the choices are much more fuzzy (in the mathematical sense of the word). They can fully leave (hard brexit), fully remain (no brexit), or partically leave. And that partially cover the whole range: from almost no connection, to leaving the institution but keeping all the rest in place.

If polls were to provide the whole range, the difference would not be that clear. But at the same time, many (most?) voters would be at a loss for a fully educated choice (understand all the consequences and implications).

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