So, we’re still waiting for Cameron’s big speech on Europe, which has grown a Twitter hashtag (#TheSpeech) during its repeated postponements. Curiously, if the prime minister had set out to make the case for the European Union, he couldn’t have done better. As the dithering continues, the polls are shifting steadily towards more support for staying in the EU.
This is in the context of a longer-term swing back. In May, YouGov’s polling found that 51% of those polled would vote to leave. By the end of the year, this was down to 46%, and a week ago, 42%, with a matching increase in the vote to stay in. As the chart above shows, the lines have now crossed over. Even before the cross-over, more people thought that things would be worse outside the EU on the economy, on jobs, on their own personal interest, on the UK’s relationship with the US, and on UK foreign policy in general.
Meanwhile, there’s been something of an elite mobilisation, with the newly deployed psuedo-thinktank the Centre for British Influence rounding up 16 Tory MPs to write to the prime minister (I was surprised they found so many) and managing to place a succession of “pro-European thinks Cameron is wrong” headlines in the papers.
One of the most surprising discoveries of this latest go-round of the Tories’ conflicts on Europe is that UKIP has stopped being a party that is primarily about the EU, in the sense that its voters don’t care about it. In general, British electors rank Europe relatively low among their priorities. For normal people, it tends to be a strong opinion but weakly held. Astonishingly, it turns out that UKIP voters are no different – their polling profile is basically identical to that of Tories.
This is important and interesting. It shows up that both the Tories and UKIP have a problem. The Tories’ problems are as follows – they’re competing for votes on both flanks, to the centre and to the extreme right (the polling is clear that UKIP wins votes from Tories), and they’re forced by their internal politics to spend time and effort making speeches about Europe and the nature of Britishness, which isn’t a productive activity. UKIP’s problem is more subtle; its leaders are fascinated by the EU. It’s why they do it. But their voters aren’t – only 27% of them rate the EU among their top three issues.
Over time, UKIP has evolved in a libertarian direction. Its leadership basically believe two things: we should get out of the EU, in order to be more neoliberal. The problem here is that libertarianism is very much a minority opinion. Most British people don’t want it or anything like it. Polling of UKIP voters shows they are no different. Instead, they seem to be Tories, but more so. They vote UKIP to register protest against the Tory leadership for compromising with the electorate and the Lib Dems.
For their part, the Tory Eurosceptics are trying to compete with UKIP in Euroscepticism and libertarianism. Therefore, the “Fresh Start” group wants David Cameron to demand three policies: an opt-out from the working time directive, and another from financial services policy. This is apparently meant to be popular. The Fresh Starters say some remarkable things – apparently the EU wants to “shut down financial services” – but it seems unlikely that the British people are desperate to avoid regulating the banks, and it is actually the declared policy of the government that the economy should be rebalanced to rely less on the City. (And they want to stop sending the European Parliament to Strasbourg, but then everybody wants that bar the mayor of Strasbourg.)
But this speaks to an important point. It’s meant to be about sovereignty, no less, and this is all they can think of to do with it?
Another interesting point. Is it really better for the public to believe in “Europe” abstractly by large majorities, and to be convinced that it is basically against their interests on concrete questions of fact, or to be suspicious of the windy speeches and wandering parliaments but to think that it’s probably better than the alternatives on real issues?