Monday 25 January 2016 2:06 pm

EU referendum: New YouGov poll finds big companies and startups want to stay in the EU while small businesses more divided

The majority of bosses at Britain's biggest businesses want the UK to remain in the EU, even if their companies have not publicly stated a view on the issue, according to new research out today from YouGov. 

YouGov polled leading figures from 11 FTSE 100 organisations, three FTSE 250 firms, and two larger private companies. The executives surveyed included senior management at BT, Whitbread, Diageo, HSBC and Centrica. 

Among the business leaders polled, all but one of the executives at the listed companies said they personally supported the UK remaining in the EU, but only five of their firms had published an official pro-EU company view. Among the two private companies, one was for remaining and the other backed leaving.

In interviews with YouGov, the pro-EU business leaders cited a "fear of the unknown" and potential risks to trade as reasons to oppose Brexit.

YouGov also polled 42 so-called digital entrepreneurs in the UK, who were in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union by a seven-to-one margin. Nearly all said they believed Britain's position as a "global tech gateway" would be negatively affected by Brexit. Two-thirds said the UK leaving the EU would hurt their firm's ability to attract talent.

Pollsters asked similar questions to more than 500 small business owners, however, and found a more mixed picture. Of the owners and managing directors surveyed, 47 per cent said they are in favour of the UK staying in the EU, while 42 per cent said they want the UK to leave.

The smallest companies were also more likely to back Brexit rather than slightly larger SMEs, according to the pollsters.

Commenting on the findings, YouGov chief executive Stephan Shakespeare, said: "Business is going to play a crucial part in the EU referendum. This is both in terms of the key economic questions involved – such as our place as a trading nation – but also their role as employers and how this ties to the big social issues, not least immigration.

"Our research shows that we cannot treat businesses as a unified whole. The business community is diverse, both in terms of the size of companies but also in terms of what they do and who owns them.

“It is clear that a chief executive of a large multi-national based in the City has a very different business perspective on the EU compared to both a digital entrepreneur, and a small start-up company."