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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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.”