Europe: Cameron as wily as Wilson?

Peter KellnerPresident
July 11, 2012, 9:22 AM UTC

Peter Kellner considers the evidence as detailed poll finds EU still unpopular among British public

New YouGov evidence confirms a suggestion I made a few weeks ago: that if David Cameron calls a referendum on British membership of the European Union, and recommends that we stay in, then there is a good chance that most voters will say ‘yes’ to EU membership.

We have conducted one of the most detailed surveys of recent years on Britain and Europe. It shows that the EU remains unpopular. Our survey, for the Sun, finds that:

  • By two-to-one, we think membership of the EU has been bad rather than good for Britain. When we asked the same question eight years ago, slightly more people said membership was good rather than bad.
  • When people are offered a broad range of options on the future of the EU, just one person in four wants it to continue to have its current powers (14%) or greater powers (10%). The biggest proportion, 37%, wants a looser relationship, while 26% want Britain to leave completely.
  • When we ask people how they would vote today in a straight in-or-out referendum, 31% say they would vote for Britain to remain a member, while 48% would vote to leave.

Not surprisingly, 67% support the idea of holding a referendum within the next few years, with only 19% opposed. There is, however, less agreement on the timing and circumstances of a referendum – now or later? Before or after any renegotiation of Britain’s relations with Europe?

My guess is that any referendum will be held after the Eurozone crisis is over (or at any rate less intense than it is today), and David Cameron is able to say that he has been able to negotiate a deal that protects Britain’s interests. So, suppose that is what transpires: what then?

We asked this question: ‘Imagine the British Government under David Cameron renegotiated our relationship with Europe and said that Britain's interests were now protected, and David Cameron recommended that Britain remain a member of the European Union on the new terms. How would you then vote in a referendum on the issue?’

This time, 42% say they would vote to stay in, while 34% would vote to leave. Tory voters swing right round, from 58-29% for leaving the EU when we ask the conventional in-out referendum question, to 55-34% for staying in, if that is what the Prime Minister recommends.

This echoes what happened in the run up to the last referendum on Europe in 1975. Then, as now, the Prime Minister, then Labour’s Harold Wilson, had a problem managing party divisions. Then, as now, most voters wanted to leave the Common Market (as it then was). Then, as now, polling (specifically, a Gallup Poll in November 1974) suggested that if the Prime Minister renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership and recommended acceptance of the new terms, opinion would swing in favour of British membership.

Wilson did talk to his European partners, and did claim a great victory (though dispassionate observers could find very little change in Britain’s membership terms). And voters duly rewarded him with a 2-1 majority for staying ‘in Europe’.

Plus ça change? Pro-Europeans should hope that Cameron is not so much heir to Blair but, rather, wily as Wilson.

See the survey details and full results