It looks as if the Conservatives have gained from the Prime Minister’s speech on the European Union – but only slightly. In YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times, the party scores 35%, its highest rating since mid-November. This compares with 31-34% in the previous 17 polls that we have conducted this month. Three other post-speech polls published in the Sunday papers put the Tory gains at two, three and five points; but the five-point gain recorded by ComRes may be artificially large, as it represents a recovery from an unusually low 28% in its previous comparable poll before Christmas.
All in all, it looks as if the Tories are up two-three points since David Cameron’s speech. His own rating is virtually unchanged. He has held the gains I reported last week, but not advanced further.
So the Tories have not bounced as high as they hoped or Labour or Ukip feared. Of course, these are early days. There is a school of thought that major policy announcements take longer to sink in. Look at the figures after ten days instead of two, say the folk in this camp.
Well, we’ll see: one of the advantages of YouGov conducting five polls a week is that we can track such changes, and also to tell in time which shifts are real and which are simply the result of sampling fluctuations.
One early comment could be taken either way. One of most astute of the BBC’s political team lamented that on the day of Cameron’s speech, when it dominated the news, the main report of it on the BBC’s website failed to make the top ten most viewed news stories. This could mean that the promise of a referendum has yet to sink in, but might do so in the days ahead – or that most voters simply aren’t that interested in the subject and are unlikely to be swayed by anything almost any politician says. If the second interpretation is right, then we can expect the continuing grim news about Britain’s flat lining economy will matter more to party fortunes, and the Tories will soon lose the modest bounce they have gained.
Why does this matter? Why should anyone beyond the world of obsessive number-crunchers care whether the bounce is two points or five, and whether it lasts two days or two months, more than two years before the next election?
The reason is this. A sustained bounce of four or five points would tell us that there are many voters for whom Europe and the prospect of a referendum are crucial to their choice of party at the next election. In particular, it would tell the prime minister that his best way of winning back the support his party has lost to Ukip is to maintain a tough Eurosceptic line and to attack the European Union whenever he can.
On the other hand, if the bounce in small and short-lived, the conclusion to be drawn is very different. It would suggest that Cameron made the right judgment when he first became party leader eight years ago: that the Conservatives don’t win support by ‘banging on about Europe’. Having delivered his speech – which contained a number of thoughtful ideas about EU reforms, including the expansion of the single market – he should now pipe down on the subject, and return to the task of burnishing his reputation as a caring and competent prime minister who has what it takes to rebuild Britain’s economy and improve our schools, hospitals and welfare system.
I suspect that piping down on Europe will serve him better than banging on. Which is the better course should become clear within the next few days.