British blame German bankers

THE IMMEDIATE effect of last week's sterling crisis has been to turn the British against Europe rather than against John Major and Norman Lamont.

Like any poll conducted at moments of great drama, NOP's survey for the Independent on Sunday must be seen as a snapshot: public attitudes could change as swiftly as Government policies. However, if there were to have been a public backlash against the Prime Minister and his chancellor, it would have come at the time NOP conducted its interviews - on Friday, after 72-hours of intensive media coverage of the crisis.

Instead, there are clear signs that public disenchantment is directed at people across the Channel, rather than here at home.

NOP asked interviewees to say whom they blamed for the crisis. They were given five options, and invited to name as many or as few as they wished. The two top targets were 'German bankers' (named by 38 per cent) and 'world financial markets' (37 per cent). Norman Lamont and John Major attracted fewer critics (30 per cent each). Margaret Thatcher - who used to attract most blame for Britain's economic problems - is no longer regarded as the main culprit. She was named by just 20 per cent.

Those figures suggest that the Prime Minister has persuaded many voters - and by no means just Tory supporters - that the Government has been a victim of forces outside its control, rather than the author of its own misfortunes.

That does not mean that the Government's reputation has survived entirely unscathed. Only 41 per cent now regard the Conservatives as 'very' or 'fairly' competent to manage the economy - down from 50 per cent during April's general election campaign and, for the first time in recent years, behind Labour, regarded as competent by 44 per cent.

However the striking thing is that the sudden collapse of the central plank of Tory strategy has produced only a modest nine-point decline in its competence rating. The worrying finding for Labour is that its rating is virtually unchanged on NOP's figures at the time of the election - despite both last week's crisis and John Smith's elevation to the party leadership. Those findings must give ministers hope that if their new policies produce an economic recovery, their competence rating will once again overtake Labour's.

In one respect the electorate's priorities differ from the Government's rhetoric. By a margin of more than 2-1 (68-28 per cent), electors think the reduction of unemployment should take priority over keeping down inflation. However the fact of devaluation (as distinct from the words surrounding it) is more likely to assist the battle to shorten the dole queues than to aid the fight against rising prices; so even this NOP finding is by no means bad news for ministers.

The cause that has suffered most as a result of last week's crisis is not government popularity but European unity. Only 24 per cent would now vote 'Yes' in a British referendum on the Maastricht treaty - a fall of 10-15 percentage points since similar polls conducted before last Wednesday. Forty-seven per cent would vote 'No' - an increase of 10-15 percentage points.

Disenchantment with Maastricht crosses party lines: only 22 per cent of Conservatives would vote 'Yes', a figure that rises only to 27 per cent among Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters.

A similar anti-Europe swing is revealed by answers to NOP's question on a single currency. Last December, at the time of Maastricht, opponents of a single currency outnumbered supporters by a relatively narrow 48-38 per cent margin. The gap has now tripled from 10 to 31 per cent: opponents now outnumber supporters by 59-28 per cent. Among Tories the gap is wider still: 65 per cent against a single currency, 21 per cent in favour.

If the French vote 'No' today, it is clear from NOP's survey that the Prime Minister will have public opinion on his side in pronouncing the Maastricht treaty dead.

Mr Major would have more difficulty if the French vote 'Yes' and he seeks to revive British enthusiasm for the treaty. He might find that, as with sterling, the public elevates the merits of a U-turn above the virtues of consistency.

NOP interviewed a representative quota sample of 1,063 electors face to face on Friday at 53 sampling points throughout Great Britain.

(Graphic omitted)

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