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Will Britain Vote to Leave the EU?

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How would Britain vote in a referendum on the EU - and should Cameron or Miliband commit to calling one? Peter Kellner considers YouGov's latest poll results

According to the Observer, senior members of Labour’s shadow cabinet want Ed Miliband to commit Labour at the next election to an in-out referendum on the European Union. Is that wise?

YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times finds that only 28% of us would vote in such a referendum for Britain to stay in the EU – the lowest in recent times. Fifty-one per cent would vote to leave. As Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby would doubtless put it, a commitment by a pro-European party to such a referendum sounds appallingly courageous.

We need to separate out two sets of issues: what British people think of Europe today; and how they might vote in a future referendum. The first is, at best, an imperfect guide to the second.

Here is how YouGov has recorded attitudes over the past year to an in-out referendum:

  % who would vote for Britain to... 
  Stay in the EU  (a) Leave the EU (b) (b) minus (a): majority for leaving
June 2011 35 48 13
August 30 52 22
September 33 47 14
October 31 52 21
December 41 41 0
January 2012 34 44 10
April 31 49 18
May 28 51 23

Two things emerge from those figures.

The first is that there is some volatility, from a 23-point margin of victory for those who want Britain to leave, to level-pegging. The second is the reason for December’s dead heat. That poll was conducted a few days after David Cameron had kept the UK out of plans for a new EU treaty on the Eurozone’s financial arrangements. Many people who distrust Brussels felt that if Britain could retain vital financial powers, the need for complete withdrawal had receded. But as this spring’s Eurozone crisis intensified, the appetite for withdrawal has revived.

However, the message from the electorate in the latest Sunday Times poll is one that few politicians will find helpful.

As many as 81% think it is important for Britain’s economy that the Eurozone solves its debt crisis. By a 60-17% margin, we want Greece to leave the Eurozone. By two-to-one, we fear that if the Eurozone collapsed altogether, this would do more harm than good to Britain’s economy (though almost half the public don’t take sides).

'Britain has its own problems'

You might think that, with those figures, we would want Britain to help to tackle the crisis. But we don’t.

Only 24% of us think that ‘an economic crisis on the Eurozone would have a major impact on Britain’s economy, and Britain should contribute money to help solve the debt crisis’, while 57% think that ‘Britain is not in the Eurozone and has its own problems. We should not contribute any money to solve the debt crisis’.

Here’s the problem facing David Cameron and George Osborne. The chances are that, whether Greece (or Spain or Portugal or Italy) stays in the Eurozone or crashes out of it, an EU-wide strategy will be needed to prevent the whole of Europe, including Britain, spiralling into a deep depression. As a member of the EU, Britain will have to play its part, for this will no longer be a narrow matter of the operation of the Eurozone, but a massive challenge to the entire European Union. The International Monetary Fund may also need to get involved: an injection of IMF cash would also require a British contribution.

 

What then? Doubtless the clamour to leave the EU would grow. But this is something that cannot be done overnight. The need would remain to respond to EU and IMF demands for billions of pounds. Were Cameron and Osborne to agree, they would stand accused of defying public opinion. UKIP’s popularity could rise further. More to the point, the FEAR of a UKIP surge would surely terrify the Prime Minister and Chancellor.

Yet the alternative – refusing to pay up – might not be the route to popularity and electoral success. Suppose refusal means that the European rescue strategy is underpowered. Suppose the continental economies contract further. Suppose this leads to a loss of markets for UK exporters. Suppose our recession persists and unemployment rises. Will Britain’s voters say, ‘the government did the right thing. It can’t be blamed for what has happened since’? Or will they say: ‘Things are getting worse. We elect governments to get these things right. This one has failed’?

I am sure some people will give the first response; but I’d bet a fair sum – in pounds, dollars or New Deutschmarks: you choose – that far more will give the second. It’s a useful rule for politicians to assume that voters are a fickle bunch. Success is what counts. Consistency is for the birds.

So, if Cameron and Osborne think EU economic recovery requires British money, should they spend it, on the grounds that obeying voters will in fact lead to economic disaster and electoral defeat? Yes – but they had better make sure their recovery strategy really will work. There’s a case for defying the public when you are sure events will vindicate your judgement. But to defy that opinion and then fail: that’s a certain formula for political ruin.

Voting for the status quo?

The inconsistency of voters is something that concerns not just today’s views on Europe, but the prospects for a future referendum. To assess these, let’s start with a quick trip down memory lane. There have been two UK-wide referendums: one in 1975 on whether to leave the Common Market (as the EU then was), the other last year on whether to change our system for electing MPs.  Nine months before both referendums, the public divided three-to-two in favour of change. But in the referendum itself, we voted both times by two-to-one for the status quo: to remain in the Common Market and to stick with first-past-the-post.

Currently, we divide three-to-two in favour of leaving the EU. So, all else being equal, I would expect a real referendum to end up with a clear majority for remaining a member. It’s not just a matter of crudely expecting history to repeat itself, but because I believe the main reason for the big swing towards the status quo in 1975 and last year would apply to an EU in-out contest. What happened was that, as polling day approached, the mounting fear of change trumped its hypothetical benefits. Thus, the pro-Common Market campaign warned of the costs of isolation, and the anti-AV campaign painted a lurid picture of the horrors of abandoning our traditional methods of electing MPs.

That’s an all-else-being-equal analysis. But, of course, other things never are equal. Context matters. So let’s imagine a referendum after the next election on whether to leave the EU. Such a vote must surely be growing likelier by the day: if Labour does promise to hold one, can the Conservatives afford not to do so, too?

Here are three scenarios.

  1. Ed Miliband wins the next election, calls a referendum and campaigns for staying in the EU. The Lib Dems and many business leaders campaign with him, but the Tories are divided. However, assuming that Labour is sensible enough to hold its referendum soon after the election, during the honeymoon months, hostility from parts of a defeated and divided Tory party cuts little ice. A campaign for the status quo emphasises the dangers of withdrawal from the club of our biggest trading partners.
  2. Cameron wins the election and calls an early referendum in order to confirm Britain’s membership of the EU, remove the poison from his party’s bloodstream and puncture the UKIP bubble. This time all three main party leaders as well as the business community campaign against withdrawal. As with scenario 1, their campaign stresses the dangers of leaving the club.
  3. Cameron wins the election, calls an early referendum and campaigns for withdrawal. He will counter the fear arguments of the Labour and Lib Dem leaders by saying that the status quo is even more dangerous for Britain’s future, because the EU has become so dysfunctional.

I would expect scenarios 1 and 2 to lead to clear majorities for Britain remaining in the EU. The outcome of scenario 3 is harder to call. IF the EU is still in crisis, and IF, as a result, a significant number of British business leaders say publicly that their companies are more likely to prosper outside the EU, then ‘the grass is greener’ might prove more compelling than ‘keep a hold of nurse’.

For the moment I regard scenarios 1 or 2 as far more likely than scenario 3. But if scenario 3 is the one that comes to pass, it will be partly because the EU continues to fail, year after year for the next three years, to clamber out of the economic hole it’s in.

In which case, it won’t be just UK membership that’s in doubt, but the future of the whole continent.

See the survey details and full results for the latest Sunday Times poll here