Has Cameron's EU referendum gambit dissolved in voter mistrust?

The "game-changing" pledge may be seen as just another slippery politician's promise.

It now looks pretty clear that the Conservatives have not enjoyed a sustained "referendum" surge in opinion polls following David Cameron’s promise of an in/out vote on EU membership.

A new ICM poll for the Guardian has Labour on 41 per cent and the Tories on 29 per cent, respectively up threee points and down four on their January ratings. (The Lib Dems are down two to 13 per cent and Ukip are up three to 9 per cent). The daily YouGov tracker has been telling a similar story.

This will come as a bitter disappointment to those Conservative strategists who thought the referendum gambit would change the game at Westminster. On the day of the big speech there was some quite exuberant cherishing of the Prime Minister’s presumed master-stroke. (Some of us were, ahem, less sure about that.)

There are all sorts of reasons why the Tories might not have enjoyed a great revival on the back of a promise to hold a plebiscite in 2017 when, after all, they may no longer be in government. GDP figures showing the economy still lifeless took the rosy glow off that week’s news for Cameron. There has since been a carnival of Tory division, with mutterings about the leadership ambitions of obscure Conservative challengers and a parade of the dinosaur tendency in hostility to gay marriage.

Even so the Tories would have hoped to see Ukip floundering in the wake of the referendum offer and, perhaps, to have scooped up the support of some eurosceptic ex-Labour undecided voters. But for that to happen, there would have to be lots of people for whom Britain’s membership of the EU is a pressing issue. The evidence shows that isn’t the case, with the numbers citing it as a top concern in steady decline since the late 1990s. Interestingly, this latest ICM poll also shows a decline in the number of people citing eurozone turbulence as the likeliest cause of our economic travails. That makes sense since there have been far fewer Eurogeddon headlines this year as the debt crisis in the single currency area appears – for the time being at least – to have stabilised.

So the people who care passionately about the EU, or rather, who despise it with a passion and are minded to choose a party on that basis, are pretty much the same people who have always felt that way. There are enough of them to flatter Nigel Farage’s ego (and send shivers up the spines of Tory MPs), but not enough to turn the Tory poll deficit into a lead.

What is more, those who obsess about the EU and flirt with Ukip as a way of expressing that feeling are, as Lord Ashcroft’s detailed polling has shown, channelling a wider scorn for politics and mainstream parties in general. Their Europhobia is bundled up with anger about crime, immigration and an inchoate mix of dislocation and anxiety about British or English identity.

In that context, Cameron’s pledge to consult the country any time other than right now looks like just another sleight of hand. Anyone concerned enough about colonisation by Brussels to get really excited about a referendum will also remember the Tory leader’s "cast iron" pledge to hold a vote on the Lisbon Treaty, which melted away as soon as he moved into Downing Street.

Having been in Eastleigh, canvassing opinion ahead of the by-election for Chris Huhne’s old seat, I can report that no-one I spoke to thought a European referendum at all likely to make them vote Conservative. (Of course, journalists vox-popping random punters is no statistical measure of anything, so my experience doesn’t prove much.) I encountered some half-hearted Labour voters who wished Ed Miliband would come out and fight more vigorously in favour of our EU membership; I met a few Ukip voters – ex-Tories mainly – who said they didn’t care what Cameron said about referendums and whatnot because only Farage’s party was reliably dedicated to the anti-Brussels cause.

Senior Tories insist their referendum gambit was never meant to turn the party’s fortunes around overnight. (They also point, reasonably enough, to Cameron’s EU budget negotiation success last weekend as evidence to rebut the pro-European claim that his domestic manoeuvres guaranteed diplomatic isolation.) The view at Tory high command remains that, come a 2015 election, the broad swath of eurosceptic voters will face a choice between one plausible governing party that wants a referendum and one big challenger that doesn’t. The message is simple: if you want that referendum, vote Conservative. Even Ukip voters who might toy with Farage mid-term, when faced with the hazard of letting Ed Miliband into Downing Street, should then come home to the Tories in a general election.

That is quite possible. Yet I’m not entirely convinced it will work. For one thing, as I’ve argued before, if Miliband really needs a referendum in his manifesto he can hide behind belated support for the 2011 European Union act to smuggle one in. But more important, the problem of trust in Cameron on the right is not credibly addressed by a "jam tomorrow" referendum bid. Besides, the Prime Minister has said he passionately wants the UK to stay in the EU, albeit on renegotiated terms. For angry, disillusioned ex-Tories, that sentiment places him still on the wrong side of a cultural divide, lumped together with the other cosy Brussels-loving elitists. If the hardline Europhobic vote is indeed an expression of more profound, nationalistic alienation from the Westminster game, it seems doubtful that Cameron has the credentials to win it back for the Tories. He’ll have to find his poll surge elsewhere.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge