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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”