For the first time in the current parliament, more people would vote for Britain to stay in the European Union than to leave. The six-point margin is not large. Future polls may well tell a different story. But as David Cameron prepares to deliver his long-awaited speech on Britain and the EU, YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times finds that the public mood is more pro-membership than for some years.
The shift in recent weeks has been marked. Here are the results of YouGov’s four most recent polls when we have asked: If there was a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, how would you vote?
In less than two months, a 21-point lead for leaving the EU has been replaced by a six-point lead for remaining a member. Some clues to what has happened come from the following breakdown by party.
Majority for staying in (+) or leaving (-) the EU
As those figures show, there has been a marked shift among the supporters of all three parties; but the biggest shift has been among those who voted Labour at the last election. (I have used past vote, rather than current vote, so that we are able to make a like-with-like comparison of the same groups of voters. Opinions by current party support can be found in our detailed tables, but some of the changes in attitude from one poll to the next may reflect the ebbs and flows of people moving to and from each party.)
It seems that some of the shift can be explained by the clear support for remaining in the EU expressed by Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, his shadow foreign secretary. Maybe the widely reported views of President Obama, an especial favourite with Labour voters, have also played a part.
That said, the shifts among Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters are also significant. Our results are especially comforting for the prime minister.
- Cameron’s approval rating, minus 14, is his best since last March. He has recovered from a low point of minus 30, last May.
- He runs well ahead of his party on Europe. When people are asked which PARTY they trust most ‘to look after Britain’s interests in Europe’, Labour (23%), leads the Conservatives (20%), Ukip (15%) and the Lib Dems (7%). But when the same people are asked which party leader they trust most ‘to negotiate with the European Union on Britain’s behalf’, Cameron (26%) holds a clear lead over Miliband (18%), Ukip’s Nigel Farage (11%) and Nick Clegg (5%).
- Perhaps most encouraging of all for Cameron, Ukip’s support in our latest survey is down to 7%, its lowest since mid-November. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Ukip and the Lib Dems were running neck-and-neck, typically with 9-10% support each. Since the new year, the Lib Dems have edged up to almost 11%, while Ukip has slipped back.
- The swing away from Ukip is even more marked when we ask people how they would vote in elections to the European Parliament. A week ago, Ukip, on 17%, was just ten points behind the Conservatives’ 27%. In our latest poll the gap has almost doubled, with Ukip down to 12% and the Tories up to 30%.
As always with sharp movements in public attitudes, we shall not know for some time whether we are seeing a blip or a trend. Britain and the EU has been the top domestic political news story for the past fortnight. Maybe, when it recedes from the headlines, views about the EU will revert to their normal ‘peacetime’ default position in which the centre of gravity lies somewhere between scepticism and hostility.
On the other hand, if a referendum IS held at some point in the next few years, then Europe will become a headline issue once again; and our latest results confirm the pattern of the past four decades – that when Europe lurks at the backs of peoples’ minds, we would rather keep our distance; but when the talk turns to a decision to withdraw, we start to contemplate the prospects of life outside the EU and fear that this might not be so attractive after all.