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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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