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?

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?