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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder