Everyone thinks David Cameron has screwed up over the EU - except for the voting public

The main story this week for journalists has been the Conservative decision to stage a case study in disunity - but is that what most interests the public?

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Of all the things that were said in the House of Commons this week, one unexpectedly stood out. Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, said: “I want us to stay in the European Union; I’m absolutely clear about that.” It has come to something that this, the conventional view of British politics for the past 40 years, should now be notable. It is notable because it no longer appears to be the view of the British people. Ever since the general election, which coincided with the start of the euro crisis, a majority have said they would vote to leave the EU if there were a referendum.

That is why we should ask whether the story that interests journalists, “Tory disarray over Europe”, is as important as the one that interests the voters: “Tories don’t like the EU”.

The main story of this week, for most journalists, has been the Conservative decision to stage, as if for educational purposes, a case study in disunity. In Wednesday’s vote, 55 per cent of Tory backbenchers voted the way David Cameron didn’t want them to. His people told journalists how relaxed he was about the vote, while William Hague, “my deputy in all but name”, pleaded with Tory MPs not to vote for the amendment regretting the absence of an EU referendum Bill. The blogger Hopi Sen called it the “moon on a stick” amendment, and most Tory MPs responded by saying: “We want a moon on a stick. Now.”

But it is always useful to imagine ourselves in a focus group in Harlow. They will not be interested in the precedents for a partial free vote on the Queen’s Speech. They may have formed a general impression that the politicians are squabbling again and that Cameron is not a particularly strong Prime Minister. The inescapable comparison with John Major – even if Cameron doesn’t tuck his shirt into his underpants – is about as wounding as an insult can be. But ask them about the EU and they will have opinions – opinions that will not tend to be perfectly aligned with the Labour position as spelt out with such admirable clarity by Ed Balls.

At this point, it is customary to point out – I have done it myself – that the Tory party is convulsed about a subject which ranks about 10th in the list of “most important issues facing Britain today” when opinion pollsters ask one of their open-ended questions. But the more I think about it, the more I think this is a misreading of public opinion. Immigration is the second most important issue (after the economy) in the most recent Ipsos MORI poll, and a lot of immigration is the result of the right of freedom of movement for workers in the EU.

That is why I would say that a fuss about Europe is not just bad news for Cameron. For all the amusement in the Westminster fun house about symbolic votes on a symbolic amendment and a symbolic Private Member’s Bill, in focus-group terms Cameron doesn’t like the EU much and wants to do something about it. It is not merely that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are opposed to a referendum, which allows the Tories to say that Labour refuses to let the people have a say, but that Cameron’s policy is closer to public opinion.

The difficulty for the Prime Minister is that Europe is not a yes-no question (although if there is a referendum it will be). If this week were just about being pro-EU or anti-, then the Tories would be on the right side of public opinion. But Cameron agrees with Balls. He has used those same words: “I want us to stay in the European Union.” He wants to renegotiate the terms of our membership and then to hold a referendum – in order to stay in.

Yet there are increasing numbers in his own party who think that renegotiation would be cosmetic, as it was for Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in 1974-75. They don’t think other members of the EU would agree to the sort of changes they want and so they are preparing to pull out. Or they just want to get out anyway. On the other side, the difference between Cameron and Labour is that the Prime Minister is prepared to use the threat of withdrawal as a bargaining lever. He doesn’t want to say it because it is not diplomatic, and Michael Gove may have gone “10 per cent too far” – as one of Cameron’s people said to me – in his TV interview at the weekend, saying that he would vote to leave the EU if a referendum were held now. But even George Osborne, the Chancellor, has said there is no point in a negotiation unless you are prepared to walk away. Whereas the Labour line is reform-by-bear-hug. Ed Balls said this week: “We will not get the reform that we need by walking out of the room in a flounce.”

As ever, politics is rich in paradox. The Tory irreconcilables think that they have public opinion on their side because, if asked the Gove question about a referendum now, most people say they would vote to leave. But YouGov asks another 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?” Put like that, people say they would vote by about 60 to 40 per cent to stay in.

There are, then, three positions: stay in; renegotiate and stay in; or leave. Of these, the middle one, Cameron’s position, is the one that commands the most popular support. But the furies of the Better Off Outers in his own party threaten to frustrate him. The parallel with John Major’s government is complete: Major sought to keep the option of the euro open but the disunity caused by the antis helped to clear the way for the election of a Labour government committed in principle to joining the single currency.

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