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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Playing with political fire: Cameron, the Conservatives and the EU referendum

John Curtice sketches out the polling data on the EU referendum question, and finds a nation divided. With the prime minister’s negotiation demands now in the open, he asks, has Cameron set the bar too low to secure the support of his own party and his voters?

If there is one thing that we know about the European Union after over 40 years of membership, it is that the question of Britain’s relationship with that institution is potentially divisive and disruptive. After all, it was Labour rebels, led by Roy Jenkins, who played a crucial role in ensuring the passage of the 1972 European Communities Act that paved the way for Britain’s membership. Subsequently, the party’s divisions forced it into holding a referendum on the issue in 1975, and a campaign in which members of the then-Labour government fought on both sides. Later, in 1981, disagreements about Europe played a key role in the decision of the ‘gang of four’ to leave Labour and form the SDP.

At the same time, the Conservatives’ divisions on the issue were central to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and in turn made John Major’s life hell, as his government tried to secure parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht treaty. Meanwhile, most recently, the issue has helped to propel forward Ukip and the most substantial wholly independent challenge to the conventional party system that England has ever seen.

In short, there is every reason to believe that in opting to hold a second referendum on Britain’s membership David Cameron has chosen, politically speaking, to play with fire. What remains less clear, however, is who might end up getting burnt.

A nation split

For now at least, the outcome of the referendum is in considerable doubt. According to most polls, the country is almost evenly divided between those who say that they are inclined to vote to remain in the EU and those who say they are minded to vote to leave. Some 20 Britain-wide polls have invited their respondents to say how they will vote in response to the question that will appear on the ballot paper: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain in the European Union, or leave the European Union?’ On average, and excluding ‘don’t knows’, these polls have found 53 per cent in favour of remaining in compared with 47 per cent who would prefer to leave. Although the ‘Remain’ camp seems to have a narrow lead, the country is portrayed as being more or less evenly divided down the middle on the issue.

True, not all polls concur with this assessment. All but two of the 20 polls were conducted over the internet, while as many as half of them were undertaken by just one company, ICM. The two that were done over the phone both suggest that the stay-in camp is quite a long way ahead, with one putting it on 60 per cent support and the other on 59 per cent. It is too early to be sure whether this difference is an accident of sampling or whether it represents a systematic difference between internet and phone polls. But it is a warning that the polling industry, which is still trying to learn the lessons of what went wrong in the run-up to last May’s general election, is among the institutions that is at risk of getting its fingers burnt during the course of this referendum.

A party divided

Nevertheless, if the polls are at all correct, the Conservatives are seriously divided on Europe. It is clear that so long as he secures what he believes is a successful outcome in his renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership, the prime minister is minded to recommend to voters that they should vote to remain in the EU.

However, most polls suggest that among those who gave the Conservatives their election victory in May, more are currently inclined to vote to leave than to stay. On average, the five companies that have been polling on the issue (all via the internet) have in their most recent polls found that just 38 per cent of Conservative voters say they will vote to stay in, while 49 per cent say they are inclined to vote to leave. Only ComRes, in one of the two phone polls, suggests that the balance of opinion in the party is tilted in the opposite direction – though even then they find that just 55 per cent of Conservative voters are in favour of staying in, compared to 37 per cent who would prefer to leave.

If Cameron is to achieve his apparent objective of keeping Britain in the EU, he will evidently have to work hard to persuade supporters of his own party that Britain should stay in on his renegotiated terms. Otherwise, he is at risk of becoming a leader who is seriously adrift of the mood of much of his party’s membership, and could well find himself leaving his party just as divided and as bruised over the issue of Britain’s membership as it was when he first became leader nearly 10 years ago.

A prime minister in the spotlight

Nonetheless, his task may not be an impossible one. In recent years, YouGov has regularly asked people how they would vote if, after renegotiating Britain’s terms of membership, Cameron came back and ‘said that Britain’s interests were now protected’ and that voters should now vote to remain in the EU. When voters were presented with such a scenario, support for staying in among voters as a whole was regularly up by more than 10 points on what they initially said that they would do, primarily as a result of Conservative supporters changing their minds.

However, this is to present voters with an ideal scenario in which there is ostensibly no doubt about the success of the prime minister’s renegotiations. An alternative approach – recently pursued by academics Matthew Goodwin, Simon Hix and Mark Pickup – provides a more sober assessment of Cameron’s pulling power, including within his own party.[1] They asked one group of voters how they would vote by asking them the straightforward referendum question; another group was asked how they would vote ‘if David Cameron recommends people vote to remain a member of the European Union’. Using an experimental design like this reduces the risk that people are led into thinking they might vote differently based on the prime minister’s recommendation. In any event, overall, the latter group was only around two percentage points more likely than the former to say that they would vote to remain – and the difference among Conservative supporters was no greater than among voters in general.

But perhaps this divergence also suggests that what will matter in the end is not simply what Cameron recommends but what he is perceived to have achieved in his renegotiations. There is at least a risk that, having appeared to set his sights on what might be achievable in the renegotiation,[2] he is adjudged to have set the bar too low, so far as winning over his party is concerned. A Survation poll found that only 5 per cent of Conservative voters think that the most important thing that Cameron needs to achieve is to safeguard the position of the non-eurozone countries in the EU, while those prioritising cutting business regulation, securing an ‘opt-out’ from ‘ever closer union’ or giving national parliaments a greater role in the passage of European legislation also all stand at just 5 per cent. Even collectively these points matter less to Conservative voters than the proposal to deny EU migrants access to welfare benefits for five years. This is the top priority for 22 per cent of Conservative voters, but is widely thought to be the demand that the prime minister will find it most difficult to achieve. And its popularity is matched by items that are not on Cameron’s shopping list, such as giving the UK parliament a veto over European legislation (24 per cent) and ending freedom of movement (19 per cent).

Of course, Cameron is not the only Conservative politician who might be capable of persuading voters. In the end, the more Conservative MPs who come out in favour of a vote to leave, the greater the probability that Conservative voters will do likewise – and this is perhaps true if the Eurosceptics were to include in their number a charismatic figure such as Boris Johnson. In truth, should the Conservative party split on the issue as badly as that, the referendum would not just be about the future of Britain’s membership of the EU, but also about the future direction and leadership of the Conservative party.

The spectators jostling for position

So, does all this mean that Labour can (for once) simply relax and enjoy the spectacle of division on the Conservative benches? Hardly – for the truth is that the referendum presents Labour with potentially serious political risks too.

True, Labour voters are not as divided on Europe or potentially as at odds with the party leader as seems to be the case with Cameron and the Conservatives. In those same five internet polls that suggested a plurality of Conservative supporters would prefer to leave the EU, on average 60 per cent of those who voted Labour in May indicated they would vote to remain, while just 27 per cent said that they would prefer to leave. In the ComRes telephone poll (which registered stronger Tory voter support for staying in), as many as 70 per cent of Labour voters said they would vote to remain, compared to just 23 per cent who were minded to leave. Of course, this is far from a picture of perfect unity, but it does suggest that the bulk of the party’s supporters are at one with most of the parliamentary party in wishing to remain in the EU.

However, after its disappointing performance in May, Labour cannot afford simply to be concerned about the views of those who are currently in its ranks. It also has to worry about those to whom it might hope to appeal but whose support it so far it has not succeeding in securing. And there is one feature of the pattern of referendum sentiments that must generate a degree of unease within the party: the social profile of those who wish to leave. Every poll finds that the idea of leaving appeals primarily to those in working-class and less affluent households, while the stay-in camp is primarily populated by those in relatively secure middle-class jobs. On average – including in the two telephone polls we mentioned earlier – nearly half (47 per cent) of those in the lowest DE social grade say that they want to leave, while no more than 36 per cent would prefer to remain. In contrast, no less than 58 per cent of those in professional and managerial AB occupations are in favour of remaining, while just 31 per cent wish to leave.

Such a picture must give Labour pause for thought. If it is seen as advocating continued membership too enthusiastically, Labour’s predominantly middle-class parliamentary party is at risk of appearing out of touch with the working-class, less affluent section of British society whose interests the party claims to stand for. Perhaps of particular note is the fact that, for Labour voters, stopping EU migrants from being able to access welfare payments is at least as much a priority as it is for Conservative voters – nearly a quarter (24 per cent) say that it is their top priority. It would seem that this is one issue on which Labour has reason to hope that Cameron does enjoy a measure of success in his negotiations.

Meanwhile, the fact that Labour may well find itself campaigning on the same side as a (perhaps vulnerable) Conservative prime minister and big business may have uncomfortable echoes of the position the party found itself in during last year’s Scottish independence referendum – a position that, in the event, cost it dear. Even if the UK does vote to remain in the EU in much the same way that Scotland voted to stay within the UK, there would appear to be a risk that being on the winning side proves to be very costly in terms of the party’s prospects at the next election.

Certainly there is no doubt that, of all the parties, it is Ukip that is at one with its supporters on the question of Europe. Getting out of the EU is, of course, the party’s raison d’être, just as leaving the UK is the SNP’s defining objective. In our five recent internet polls, no less than 86 per cent of those who voted Ukip in May said they would vote to leave the EU, while just 8 per cent professed a desire to stay.

However, in contrast to the position that the SNP found itself in with respect to the Yes campaign last year, Ukip will not have the ‘leave’ campaign to itself. It will be joined by a potentially not inconsiderable phalanx of Conservative politicians, as well as a smaller body of Labour Eurosceptics. Each section of the coalition camp will have their own particular emphases and arguments, while its potentially fissiparous character is already reflected in the rivalry between the Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns.

As a result, Ukip is likely to find it more difficult to gather the vast bulk of the Leave vote under its own banner in the way that the SNP has corralled nearly all those who voted in favour of independence. But that does not mean that Ukip – whose 13 per cent support in the general election has held remarkably steady in polls since May – could not yet win over some of those who decide to vote to leave. And if Labour was to come to be seen as a principal cheerleader for remaining in the EU, that could be a development from which Labour suffers just as much as the Conservatives. Cameron may indeed be playing with fire, but Labour cannot afford to presume that its own house is fireproof.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for Juncture. He is currently running a website on public attitudes towards Europe at www.whatukthinks.org/eu

This article appears in edition 22.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.


[1] See Goodwin M, Hix S and Pickup M (2015) ‘Cameron, Corbyn and Farage: How might they affect the EU Referendum Vote?’, What UK Thinks website, 22 October 2015.

[2] Cameron’s stance in the negotiations is laid out in a letter to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, 10 November 2015.