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Birth of the Europe Factor

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David Cameron's decisions on Europe have sparked a Tory lead in the polls for 2 days running. Is the PM benefitting from a 'Europe factor', asks Peter Kellner

Almost twenty years ago, British troops regained control over a group of group of small, previously little-known, islands in the South Atlantic, and the Falklands Factor was born.

Before the Argentinian invasion, Margaret Thatcher was a deeply unpopular Prime Minister. Afterwards she could do little wrong. A year later she led the Conservatives to a landslide election victory.

Could a similar transformation of Britain’s political landscape be happening today? For the second consecutive day, YouGov’s tracking poll for the Sun reports a two-point Conservative lead, after a year of almost unbroken Labour leads. A single poll showing the Tories ahead might be a sampling fluke. Two in a row – following a narrowing Labour lead last week – suggests that the Tory lead is real. David Cameron seems to be benefitting from a 'Europe Factor'.

Indeed, his personal ratings have leapt. For our latest poll we repeated a question we last asked early last week – which attributes, from a list of eight, do people think each party leader possess? Here are our results:

 

Cameron

 Miliband

Clegg

Which qualities does each leader have? Dec 13-14 Change since Dec 4-5 Dec 13-14

Change since Dec 4-5 

Dec 13-14  Change since Dec 4-5 
 Sticks to what he believes in  39  +13  14  -3  10  0
Decisive  29  +9  6  -2  3  -3
 Strong  24  +5  6  -1  4  -1
 Charismatic  18  -4  4  -1  10  -4
 Good in a crisis  18  +5  3  -2  2  -2
 Honest  18  +4  16  -2  12  -1
 A natural leader  17  0  3  -1  4  -1
 In touch with the concerns of ordinary people  10  +3  20  -3  11  -2
 None of these  35  -7  50  0  58  +3
 Don't know  8  0  17  +2  13  +1

As the table shows, Cameron’s scores are up on six of the eight attributes, in two cases (decisive, and sticks to what he believes in) sharply. In contrast, Ed Milband’s and Nick Clegg’s ratings, already low, have slipped further. Miliband is ahead of his rivals on only one attribute, being in touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Half the public say Milband possesses none of the listed qualities; and Nick Clegg’s ‘none of these’ score is even higher – 58%. More than ever, Cameron commands public respect in ways that Clegg and Miliband seem unable to match.

(A note for nerds: when people are asked to choose ‘all that apply’ from a list such as this, they tend to pick the one, two or three that they think most apply – if they pick any at all. As a rule of thumb, anything above 20% is a reasonably good score. Cameron achieves this on three attributes and now comes close on another four. Miliband hits 20% on only one attribute, while Clegg comes nowhere near 20% on any of them.)

The broad parallels with the early stages of the Falklands War are uncanny. Then, as now, its origins lay in a diplomatic fiasco: in 1981-2 British ministers and officials failed to detect the threat of an Argentinian invasion; last week, ministers and officials failed to prepare the ground for negotiations over Britain’s concerns for the City of London. Then, as now, Britain’s Prime Minister gained credit for decisive action, and escaped public blame for the failings that precipitated the crisis. Then, as now, soaring personal ratings of a Conservative leader converted into extra support for their party.

What is less certain is whether the parallels will continue. The Falklands war culminated in a clear-cut victory. On June 14, 1982, Argentina’s General Menendez surrendered to the Royal Marines. Britain’s troops returned home in triumph. Margaret Thatcher’s decisive action was plainly vindicated. Could anything like that happen this time? It’s unlikely that we shall see Herman van Rompuy raising a white flag in Brussels and handing control of the EU’s economy to the Treasury. Indeed, the really awkward thing for Cameron is that the clearest vindication of Cameron’s stand – an untidy collapse of the Eurozone economies – would be terrible for British companies and British jobs.

In short, the improvement in the fortunes of Cameron and his party is real; what is less certain is whether it will last.

Here’s a different historical parallel that serves as a warning. In 1956, another Conservative Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, conspired with France and Israel to invade Egypt. At first, according to a Gallup poll, 64% backed the invasion.  Even after things went wrong, and Britain had to pull out, Eden remained popular for some weeks. But eventually the scale of the catastrophe became clear, Eden resigned, and ‘Suez’ became the four-letter word that defined Britain’s greatest post-war foreign policy disaster.

It may be well into next year before we know whether Cameron’s stand within the EU ends up like the Falklands victory, the Suez debacle, or something completely different.

See the survey details and full results for YouGov's latest Sun poll

See all of YouGov's political trackers, including voting intention, here