Cameron’s EU tactics backfire

Cameron’s EU tactics backfire

YouGov President, Peter Kellner, analyses David Cameron's approach to the EU

If David Cameron expected voters to respect him for firming up his commitment to a referendum on the European Union, YouGov’s latest polling for The Times will disappoint him. Most Britons, including a majority of those who voted Conservative in 2010, think he is acting out of tactical calculation rather than because he feels deeply about the issue.

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In contrast, most people credit UKIPs leader, Nigel Farage, for putting forward his policies on Europe because he feels strongly. This is what we found:

Q. Thinking about Britain's relationship with the European Union, do you think the following are putting forward their policies mainly because they feel strongly about the issue, or mainly because they are making a tactical calculation about what to say?

 

Feel strongly

%

Tactical calculation

%

Don't know

%

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party

55

22

22

Conservative ministers such as Kenneth Clarke who say they would vote for Britain to stay in the EU if a referendum were held now

43

32

24

Conservative ministers such as Michael Gove who say they would vote for Britain to leave the EU if a referendum were held now

36

41

23

Ed Miliband, Labour Party leader

20

52

28

David Cameron, the Prime Minister

17

64

19

It’s notable that two of Cameron’s Cabinet colleagues who have broken cover in recent days – eurosceptic Michael Gove and europhile Kenneth Clarke – are far more widely thought than the Prime Minister to put strength of feeling ahead of tactics. In contrast, Ed Miliband shares Cameron’s reputation for being driven mainly by tactical calculation.

Does this matter? Evidence from another YouGov survey conducted earlier this week suggests it does:

Q. In general, which do you respect more…

 

Politicians who do what they think is right, even if this means that they pursue policies you don't like

53%

Politicians who pursue policies that you like, even if this means that they DON'T do what they think is right

23%

Don't know

24%

These figures fit a broader picture. Voters, and especially floating voters, tend to decide which party to support on character more than policy. Parties and their leaders attract more support if they are regarded as principled and competent. If they are thought to be driven by tactics rather than belief, they risk being seen as weak and losing respect and votes.

That is the risk that Cameron now faces over Europe. He could end up losing more votes by appearing unprincipled than he gains from adopting a stance on the EU that appears to be closer to the public mood. In contrast, the popularity of UKIP and Farage is being driven not just by his stance on the EU, but also by respect for being thought to restore principles to politics.

Our polls also contain a clear message for Miliband. Like Cameron, he risks losing votes for being tactical rather than principled. At present he is resisting committing Labour to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, though he has not ruled out the option of matching Cameron’s commitment at the next election.

He needs to be careful. Like Cameron, any tactical shift designed to attract public support could backfire.

Opinion polls are sometimes criticised for distorting the political process by encouraging parties and their leaders to abandon principles and do what they think the public wants. Politicians are normally daft to act in this way. A proper reading of polling data, and certainly of this latest research, suggests that politicians should say and do what they genuinely think is right – not just because that is how people in leadership roles should behave anyway but because this is actually more likely to maximise their vote. 

See the European tactics results

See the respect for politicians results

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Authors

Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner is a journalist, political commentator, and President of YouGov. See Peter's full bio