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UK Politics

David Cameron's EU referendum bolsters support for membership

Poll indicates number of those who want to withdraw has dropped  to 39 per cent

David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum on Europe has boosted public support for staying in the EU, according to The Independent’s latest poll of polls.

Although Conservative Eurosceptics welcomed the Prime Minister’s pledge in January to hold a referendum by 2017, it appears to have set back their cause as people focused on the choice they would have to make in such a vote. His speech prompted warnings from some businessmen that withdrawal could harm job-creating trade and foreign investment in the UK.

Before Mr Cameron’s landmark announcement, opinion polls showed that 48 per cent of the public wanted to leave the EU, while only 31 per cent would vote to stay in. But four surveys taken after his speech averaged 39 per cent in favour of withdrawal, with the same proportion backing continued membership.

“It would appear that in opening up the prospect that Britain might be able to renegotiate its terms of membership of the EU, the Prime Minister’s speech has served to persuade some people that perhaps the EU is an institution that can be tolerated after all,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the poll of polls.

He said the apparent failure of the Cameron speech to stem the rise of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and  the apparent reduction of Euroscepticism, suggests that Tory MPs and strategists were misguided in thinking that Ukip’s rise is  simply a consequence of anti-EU feeling. Professor Curtice said there are two possible reasons why Ukip is still doing well – concern about immigration in an era of continuing austerity and because the Liberal Democrats are no longer available as a party to use to express dissatisfaction with the Government.

The latest weighted average of the polls conducted by ComRes, Ipsos Mori, ICM and Populus shows that Labour extended its lead over the Tories from 9 points in January to 13 points last month. Labour is now on 43 per cent (up 2 points on the previous month), the Tories 30 per cent (down 2 points), the Lib Dems 10 per cent (down 1 point), Ukip a record high of 9 per cent (up 1 point) and other parties 8 per cent (unchanged). These figures would give Labour an overall majority of 118 at a general election.

Today senior EU figures warned Mr Cameron that his apparent threat that Britain would leave the union unless it won a “new settlement” would backfire.

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, told a London conference staged by the Policy Network think tank: “How can you possibly convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle? How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat?”