Sizing the ‘Liberal Leave’ position

Roland Smith
Jul 5, 2016 · 11 min read

Throughout the referendum campaign I was promoting a position dubbed ‘Liberal Leave’.

The definition of this position is that one isn’t particularly animated by high immigration & free movement AND voted to Leave AND after leaving EU membership would initially accept a UK position in the Single Market (from outside EU membership).

The question hovering around this position has always been: “How many people adopt this position?” The question is especially pertinent given the final result of the EU referendum which was quite close and gave Leave 52% and Remain 48%.

A number of opinion polls were taken during and after the referendum campaign that can help us answer this ‘size’ question. The polling data need to be taken in the round but together they paint a picture.

If you are short of time, please scroll to my conclusions at the bottom.

I will take the opinion polls in chronological order. They are:

  1. Ipsos-Mori for BBC Newsnight, with a final date for fieldwork of 25th April 2016.
  2. Yougov for The Adam Smith Institute, with a final date for fieldwork of 8th June 2016
  3. The Ipsos-Mori political monitor with a final fieldwork date of 14th June 2016)
  4. Lord Ashcroft poll on how people voted, with a final fieldwork date of 23rd June 2016
  5. Comres for the Sunday Mirror, interviewing online on 24th June 2016 (on the day of the referendum result)
  6. Yougov poll, with a final fieldwork date of 28th June 2016.
  7. Yougov/The Times poll solely of Conservative Party members, with a final fieldwork date of 29th June 2016
  8. Opinium poll with a final fieldwork date of 30th June 2016
  9. Ipsos Mori poll for BBC Newsnight with a final fieldwork date of 30th June 2016.
  10. ORB online poll for The Independent conducted on 6th and 7th July 2016.
  11. Comres poll for the BBC conducted on 7th — 10th July 2016.
  12. Yougov poll conducted on 31st July — 1st August 2016

Firstly the Ipsos-Mori poll for Newsnight in April. Question 14 (table 35) asked:

“And now thinking if Britain votes to leave the European Union on 23 June which of the following statements comes closest to your view?”

“Britain should continue to allow European Union citizens to come to live and work in Britain in return for access to the EU single market”

“Britain should stop European Union citizens coming to live and work in Britain with new immigration rules even if that restricted access to the single market”

20% of Leavers supported the proposition to stay in the single market while 66% supported the second statement while 14% were Don’t Know. For ALL voters, the split was 42% to 39% in favour of staying in the single market with 19% Don’t Know.

This poll focused specifically on the EEA/Norway Option and first asked the following question to 1751 adults:

“If Britain did vote to leave, what do you think the government’s first priority should be in negotiations?”

Ensuring free trade with the rest of the European Union even if it means citizens of other EU countries retain the right to live and work in Britain


Reducing the amount of immigration into Britain, even if it means British companies losing access to the single market”

That essentially set the baseline of Leave/Remain preferences and the results for this question were evenly split 41:41 with 18% Don’t Know. That broadly matched other polls at the time suggesting the two sides were level pegging.

The next question was then:

“Norway is not a member of the EU but it has full access to the European single market. In order to access the single market, Norway allows EU citizens to live and work in Norway and has to implement some of the EU’s rules. If the UK does vote to leave, do you think the British government should or should not consider a similar relationship?”

The results for everyone in the sample were that 57% thought we should consider a similar ‘Norway’ relationship. And 24% thought we should not. 19% were Don’t Know.

But what was striking was that 42% of Leave voters thought we should. While 45% of Leave voters thought we should not. Even 26% of UKIP voters thought we should.

A very similar question was then asked about the Norway Option in the short term (stated as 5–10 years). The figures only changed very slightly and probably within the margin of error such that the “Should Nots” were a little ahead of the “Shoulds”. But the results of this question about the short term were broken down further, showing that 18% of Leave voters were strongly opposed and specifically that 33% of UKIP voters were strongly opposed.

None the less, this appeared to show large support for the ‘Liberal Leave’ position and one which the country could feasibly unite around.

This poll showed an overall 6 point lead for Leave over Remain (53:47) when filtered by turnout and was headlined: “Immigration is now the top issue for voters in the EU referendum”.

It was possibly the first poll that put the immigration issue ahead of the economy as the main issue concerning people.

For the purposes of this analysis, the key finding was in Table 9. The question was:

“Overall, would you say that EU immigration has been good or bad or had no impact on Britain’s economy?”

It must be said immediately that this question does not necessarily indicate how one would then vote but I note it merely to show some underlying attitudes where immigration and the economy meet.

The results showed that 28% of Leave voters thought it was good, 16% thought it had no impact and 47% thought it was bad while 10% were Don’t Know. The combination of the 28% and the 16% comes to 44% of Leavers who thought it either good or had no impact.

The Lord Ashcroft poll was very large with over 12,000 people in the sample, and it looked at who voted and why they voted the way they did. For us, the two key graphics produced by Lord Ashcroft polls are as follows:

The first thing to note is that immigration & border control did NOT form the top issue for Leave voters. The top issue was instead that of sovereignty — that “decisions about the UK should be made in the UK”.

On the second graphic covering attitudes, a few things stand out on the right-hand side. Firstly that roughly 30% of Leavers (29% and 32%) thought multiculturalism and social liberalism were forces for good. And that 38% also thought the Green movement was a force for good.

The most marked divide was on immigration but notably — and for us, most importantly — 21% thought it was a force for good.

This was “The Happy Poll”, providing an initial gauge of how happy people were with the referendum result:

However it also noted Leave voters’ priorities when voting, and like the Ashcroft poll found that immigration was firmly second in priority behind Britain’s ability to make its own laws:

This poll showed two tables of interest. The first showed a ‘Liberal Leave’ figure (12%) much lower than anything else found in other polls:

The second table showed expectations on immigration. The full question was:

“Thinking about the next few years, do you think the amount of immigration will …..?” and then various grades of going up or going down.

What was notable was that 37% of Leave voters expected immigration to either go up or stay the same. Only 16% expected it to “go down a lot” which seems significant when considering the question of “betrayal” over the coming years. Even the 41% who expect the amount of immigration to “go down a little” may well be satisfied if there is a natural drop in net immigration, as has been predicted by some (as Eastern Europe migration peaks and then declines).

This necessarily limited poll was useful in providing an insight into a more politically active section of voters who are split between voting Remain and Leave. The key table here, showed that 19% of members who voted Leave would support a negotiation that set up “a free trade deal with the rest of the European union even if it means allowing EU citizens the right to live and work in Britain.” For the record, 40% of all Conservative party members agreed with that proposition.

The key graphic and table of interest from this poll showed an overall majority for staying in the single market instead of ending free movement.

Of the Leavers, 14% explicitly wanted to stay in the single market “even if it means allowing free movement of labour”. There was also a rather high number of Don’t Knows (28%) to this question.

This poll found that across the whole sample of Remainers and Leavers, 42% thought the UK should continue to allow EU citizens to live and work in Britain in return for access to the single market, whereas 38% thought the reverse.

Of Leavers, 18% wanted to retain single market access in these circumstances, with 66% opposed while 16% were Don’t Knows.

This headline figure for this online poll of 2042 adults was that there more felt it important to stay in the single market than to limit immigration from the EU (48%-37%).

The other figure of interest to us is that 20% of Leave voters support this proposition.

This poll was included on the BBC’s 10pm news on 13th July and was pitched by Mark Easton as showing more than two to one (66%/33%)in favour of the maintaining the single market. Easton also noted that 42% of Leave voters also preferred this route. These numbers were very similar to those reported by the Yougov poll for the Adam Smith Institute a month before. Indeed the 42% figure was identical. But the wording that elicited these responses was less clear on the implications of the single market, but balanced against that, the immigration answer that was offered was clear that it meant reducing EU immigration.

This Yougov poll sought to establish whether there was any will to reverse the referendum result (basically, no there wasn’t) and also put a few scenarios to the sample including EFTA/Norway. Again, the number of Leave voters happy with this scenario is over 20% despite an alternative and attractive-sounding Canada-type deal being offered in the poll’s previous question.

Separate questions were asked about whether Britain should strike a deal with the EU on exit and whether to accept single market regulations as part of the price of a Brexit deal. What was interesting here was not only the 20% of Leavers who thought accepting EU single market regulations would be acceptable but the further 30% of Leavers who thought “it is not desirable but may be a price worth paying for free trade with the EU”.

Taken together, these two figures add up to around a half of all Leavers — the upper end of estimates in other polls (especially the Yougov/Adam Smith Institute poll and Comres/BBC poll):


My best conclusion to all of this data is that about 20% of Leavers can be regularly classed as liberal Leavers.

Those who are very firm in their stance are probably fewer— down to as low as 12%-14%. But it does seem to be about 20% who consistently turn up in polls.

But there are fair numbers of people who gather above my 20% baseline figure. The figure may well reach 30% of Leavers when including those who are open/agnostic about the liberal Leave position and may be an even higher number (up to a half) who could be persuaded with the right leadership and the right EU deal package. The Comres/BBC poll, the Yougov/Adam Smith Institute poll, and the Yougov poll on 1st August all provided the highest scores with around half of Leavers being apparently open to the position.

By contrast, the lowest score was shown in the Yougov poll of 28th June where only 12% supported the liberal Leave position, although a further 10% supported other positions covering “Don’t Know” (7%), “None of these” (1%) and even trying to reverse the Leave vote (2%). Of course it may be possible since the result that the regular narrative pushed by some on the Leave straight after the vote that it was “all about free movement” may have had some impact on the public.

In all the polls, there are Remain voters who are different to the Remain camp’s natural position i.e. who are worried about immigration or who now want a deal that stops free movement. But as I have discovered, particularly since the referendum result, there are a number of Remainers out there who seem keen to interpret what they think Leavers want and to then ape that imagined position. Some even try to out-Leave the Leavers.

The key point in all of this is that liberal Leavers made a decisive difference to the close referendum result (52/48). Had such people decided, before voting, that it was impossible to get a relatively economically-neutral “liberal Leave deal” in the event of a Leave vote, who knows how they may have voted?

As Jonathan Portes has previously noted, if the result had gone the other way so that Remain emerged victorious, the question about allowing free movement to continue as now would have been stated as “settled” and indeed accepted.

To leap from that position to one that says “free movement must be instantly stopped” after a narrow Leave victory, especially as this victory was only achieved with the help of liberal Leavers, seems like a leap too far.

Roland Smith

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Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Brexitologist. Globalist. #Brexit