Two cheers for Cameron on Euro

Peter KellnerPresident
December 13, 2011, 11:29 AM GMT+0

As the dust settles after Cameron’s EU veto decision, YouGov President Peter Kellner looks at what it means for public opinion

The Prime Minister has good reason to be pleased with the public’s initial reaction to last week’s European Union summit. However, undercurrents of doubt appear in Britain’s first full survey since David Cameron cast his veto and Nick Clegg voiced his opposition to what happened.

YouGov’s poll for the Sun also suggests that the Prime Minister’s actions have reduced the public’s appetite for leaving the EU altogether.

By almost three-to-one (58%-21%), voters think Cameron was right to veto the treaty proposed by other EU member states. And by a similar margin (53%-17%), Britons regard Cameron’s veto as a sign of strength rather than weakness. In both cases, substantial numbers of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters take the Prime Minister’s side.

Cameron also comes out on top when each of the three party leaders is assessed on whether they are trusted to look after Britain’s interests in Europe. 51% trust the Prime Minister ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’, whereas 39% do NOT trust him ‘a lot’ or ‘at all’. This gives him a net score of plus 12. Ed Miliband’s net score is minus 21, and Nick Clegg’s minus 45. Compared with our previous survey, conducted last week, Cameron’s rating is slightly up, and Clegg’s slightly down.

So far, so good for the PM. Other results, however, suggest that while Cameron enjoys majority support for what he did, the public mood is closer to worried defiance than joyful jingoism. Just 24% think the outcome of the summit is good for Britain, while 31% say it is bad, 23% say neither and a substantial 22% don’t know.

Impact on the economy

As for the expected impact on Britain’s economy, voters are even more concerned. A mere 15% (and only 25% of Conservative voters) think the outcome is good for the economy while more than twice as many, 34% fear it will be bad. Half the public either don’t know or say it will make no difference – and given the prevailing pessimism about jobs and growth, ‘no difference’ is a pessimistic response.

We also repeated two questions we have asked in the past, one about Britain’s overall relationship with the EU, the other a straight in-or-out referendum question. In both cases, we found a marked decline in the number wanting to leave the EU. On the referendum question, 43% now want Britain to leave while 36% think Britain should remain a member.

This is the narrowest results that YouGov has detected in recent times. As recently August, 52% said they would vote to leave, while 30% would remain a member.

What will people think when the dust settles? At the moment, voters are reacting to the dramas of the past week. In a year or two’s time they will be reacting to the consequences of Cameron’s actions. If Britain’s economy does better than those in the Eurozone, and some kind of calm, however awkward, returns to our relations with the rest of the EU, then the Prime Minister’s stance will have been vindicated, and his party is likely to be rewarded with extra votes and seats at the next election.

If, however, our economy stumbles and enough voters blame at least part of this on Cameron’s veto, then the Tories could well suffer.

As for the outcome of a future referendum on EU membership, history suggests that, on the day, many people will fear the change and that this will trump their instinctive euroscepticism. All else being equal, I would predict a majority in favour of the UK remaining a member.

However, the one thing of which we can be certain is that all else will NOT be equal. If a referendum is called, it will have its own specific context. Suppose the Conservatives include in their next election manifesto a promise to hold an in-or-out referendum early in the next parliament. If they do that, and if they win a clear majority in the new House of Commons, then we can expect a referendum in the autumn of 2015 and the spring of 2016. The state of Britain’s, and the Eurozone’s, economies will play a big part in shaping public attitudes.

Even more important, however, is likely to be the stance taken by Cameron and, if he is still Foreign Secretary, William Hague. Should they campaign for the UK to remain a member, the overwhelming likelihood is that most voters will back their view, and put the matter to rest for a good number of years. But if their campaign stance is, in effect: ‘we have tried our best to work with our European neighbours but have come reluctantly to the conclusion that they want to place too many restrictions on our ability to take decisions in the national interest’, then there is a very real prospect that the UK will vote to pull out.

In short, the real task facing the leave-the-EU lobby is not simply to win a referendum but, more importantly, to persuade Cameron and Hague actively to promote withdrawal. It is on whether the circumstances will arise in which the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary decide to back that cause that the future of Britain’s long-term relations with the rest of Europe now largely depend.

See the survey details and full results here