If David Cameron expected voters to respect him for firming up his commitment to a referendum on the European Union, YouGov’s latest polling for The Times will disappoint him. Most Britons, including a majority of those who voted Conservative in 2010, think he is acting out of tactical calculation rather than because he feels deeply about the issue.
In contrast, most people credit Ukip's leader, Nigel Farage, for putting forward his policies on Europe because he feels strongly. This is what we found:
Q. Thinking about Britain's relationship with the European Union, do you think the following are putting forward their policies mainly because they feel strongly about the issue, or mainly because they are making a tactical calculation about what to say?
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party
Conservative ministers such as Kenneth Clarke who say they would vote for Britain to stay in the EU if a referendum were held now
Conservative ministers such as Michael Gove who say they would vote for Britain to leave the EU if a referendum were held now
Ed Miliband, Labour Party leader
David Cameron, the Prime Minister
It’s notable that two of Cameron’s Cabinet colleagues who have broken cover in recent days – eurosceptic Michael Gove and europhile Kenneth Clarke – are far more widely thought than the Prime Minister to put strength of feeling ahead of tactics. In contrast, Ed Miliband shares Cameron’s reputation for being driven mainly by tactical calculation.
Does this matter? Evidence from another YouGov survey conducted earlier this week suggests it does:
Q. In general, which do you respect more…
Politicians who do what they think is right, even if this means that they pursue policies you don't like
Politicians who pursue policies that you like, even if this means that they DON'T do what they think is right
These figures fit a broader picture. Voters, and especially floating voters, tend to decide which party to support on character more than policy. Parties and their leaders attract more support if they are regarded as principled and competent. If they are thought to be driven by tactics rather than belief, they risk being seen as weak and losing respect and votes.
That is the risk that Cameron now faces over Europe. He could end up losing more votes by appearing unprincipled than he gains from adopting a stance on the EU that appears to be closer to the public mood. In contrast, the popularity of UKIP and Farage is being driven not just by his stance on the EU, but also by respect for being thought to restore principles to politics.
Our polls also contain a clear message for Miliband. Like Cameron, he risks losing votes for being tactical rather than principled. At present he is resisting committing Labour to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, though he has not ruled out the option of matching Cameron’s commitment at the next election.
He needs to be careful. Like Cameron, any tactical shift designed to attract public support could backfire.
Opinion polls are sometimes criticised for distorting the political process by encouraging parties and their leaders to abandon principles and do what they think the public wants. Politicians are normally daft to act in this way. A proper reading of polling data, and certainly of this latest research, suggests that politicians should say and do what they genuinely think is right – not just because that is how people in leadership roles should behave anyway but because this is actually more likely to maximise their vote.