The Tories win an EU poll bounce but Labour shouldn't panic

Labour's lead falls to just six points after Cameron's EU referendum pledge but returning UKIP supporters aren't enough to transform Tory fortunes.

Just like his EU "veto" in December 2011, David Cameron's promise of a referendum on UK membership has won the Tories a poll bounce. A ComRes survey for tomorrow's Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror shows that Cameron's referendum pledge has boosted support for the Conservatives by five points and more than halved Labour's lead to six (although support for the latter is unchanged at 39 per cent). The rise in Tory support from 28 per cent last month to 33 per cent has come almost entirely at the expense of UKIP, which is down four points to 10 per cent. At the same time, the number of people agreeing that Cameron "is turning out to be a good Prime Minister" has risen by five points to 32 per cent, while the number disagreeing has fallen by six to 46 per cent, giving him a net approval rating of -14, his best score since June 2011.

The sudden surge in Tory support, albeit from an unusually low base of 28 per cent, will cause some discomfort in Labour circles and lead more to conclude that Ed Miliband has miscalculated by refusing to match Cameron's offer of a referendum. If the Tories are only six points behind in mid-term, who's to say they won't win the next election?

There are, however, at least two reasons why Labour shouldn't panic. First, just like the Tory poll bounce following the PM's EU "veto", the surge in support may prove to be only temporary. After a week of favourable coverage from the media (almost all of the fieldwork took place before the negative GDP figure was released), it would be unusual if the Tories' standing hadn't improved. One of Miliband's strengths is that he isn't swayed by short-term fluctuations in the polls and I expect this occasion will prove no exception.

Second, it was always likely that a large number of UKIP supporters would return to the Conservative fold before the next general election. Cameron's promise of a referendum may merely have accelerated the process. The biggest problem for the Tories remains that they are in retreat in those areas - the north, Scotland, Wales - that denied them a majority at the last election.

Finally, it's worth remembering that just six per cent of voters regard the EU as one of the most "important issues" facing Britain. The outcome of the next election will be determined by growth, jobs and public services - the issues that matter to most people. The promise of an EU referendum might have won the Tories back some support from UKIP but, on its own, it won't be enough to transform the party's fortunes.

Update: Part of the shift in support for the parties is attributable to a change in methodology by ComRes. At UK Polling Report, Anthony Wells calculates that without this the numbers would have been: Labour 37 (-2), Conservatives 32 (+4), Liberal Democrats 11 (+2), UKIP 13 (-1), so there would have been a slightly smaller increase in support for the Tories and a significantly smaller fall in support for UKIP.

YouGov's poll for the Sunday Times also shows an increase in support for the Tories, who are up two points to 35 per cent, their best rating in a YouGov survey this year. Labour are down two points to 41 per cent, with the Lib Dems up two to 12 per cent and UKIP down two to seven per cent.

A Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday has the Conservatives up two to 31 per cent, Labour unchanged on 38 per cent, the Lib Dems down one to 10 per cent and UKIP down two to 14 per cent.

David Cameron delivers his speech on the EU at Bloomberg's headquarters in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.