June 22, 2016
Still too close to call
Today is the last day of campaigning in the British referendum. The average of the last six opinion polls gives us a very clear picture: it is exactly 50-50. The FT's poll of polls has Leave ahead of Remain by 45-44, but note that gap are drowned by the error margin which must be at least 3% on either side. That's only the statistical error, not the invariable systematic errors related to whether people change their mind, tell the truth, whether they vote at all, let alone whether the sample is representative. We can conclude that, based on the polling that is available so far, the result is too close to call. And that statement is technically even true if you choose to believe any single one of the polls.
The campaign has reached a stage where everything has been said. There is no new information. It is our sense that the murder of Jo Cox last week halted the momentum behind the build-up in support for Leave but that it has not fundamentally changed the debate, or the general attitudes. All the Leavers we know peronally - and we know quite a few - are still Leavers. We are also wondering whether we may be seeing a re-run of the "Shy-Tory" phenomenon in the 1980s, which led opinion polls to underestimate Tory support systematically because people were simply too embarrassed to admit that they supported Margaret Thatcher. We suspect that the Queen may be one of those Shy Leavers. There is a report out this morning that she asked guests at a dinner party to give her three reasons why the UK should remain in the EU. While Buckingham Palace was trying hard to pretend that this question did not reveal a preference, we all know that this is not a question somebody would ask if they were convinced of the case for Remain.
British newspapers are also divided - including those of within the same stable. The Sun is for Brexit, the Times is for Remain. The Daily Mail is for Leave; the Mail on Sunday is for Remain; and the Scottish Daily Mail is also for Remain. Journalists and publishers with conservative instincts are conflicted between their own inherent euroscepticism and their loyalty to David Cameron and the Conservative government.
Commentators have also declared their preferences. It is no surprise that all the FT commentators are all in favour of Remain. We especially liked Martin Wolf's column today. If Remain and its supporters had campaigned on those lines all the way, we would be in a different situation today. We quote his conclusion:
"UK withdrawal would herald western weakness and global disarray. This is why all the UK’s friends favour its membership. Withdrawal might mark the beginning of a dissolution into growing disorder, not only in Europe but also far beyond.
Nobody can fail to recognise the profound distrust of elites that animates the Brexit campaign. But xenophobic populism is never the right answer. At the end of this wearying campaign, the voters must realise who they are and the weight of what they must decide. Yes, the British might well survive on their own. But why should they try? Britain can be far better than that. Let it choose engagement. Let it choose Europe."
We know that Remain supporters have become more emotional and truthful as they stare at the possibility of defeat. The number of newspapers and commentators in favour of Remain is surprising large. But after decades' worth of anti-European rhetoric, we doubt that these endorsements will have much of an impact.