Lord Ashcroft might rank somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch in leftist demonology but, like it or not, his political analysis is usually spot-on. His elegant and passionately sane blog on ConservativeHome this morning is a perfect example. Ashcroft warns the Tories that they must, to quote David Cameron, stop “banging on about Europe” or risk losing the next election.
Monday’s display was damaging because it suggested to ordinary voters that the Conservatives are far away from them when it comes to priorities – the most important issues facing the country, and their families. The point is not whether they agree with us over Europe: the sceptical Tory view, articulated over many years by William Hague and others, is close to the centre of gravity in public opinion. The question is whether it matters to them as much as other things matter, and the fact is that it does not.
Ashcroft is right. As I noted in my blog on Cameron yesterday, while voters share the Tories’ euroscepticism they don’t share their obsession with the subject. Polling by Ipsos-MORI shows that they regard the economy (68 per cent), unemployment (30 per cent), immigration (24 per cent), crime (24 per cent) and the NHS (21 per cent) as the most “important issues facing Britain”. Just one per cent believe that the EU is the most important issue and only four per cent believe that it is one of the most important issues.
As the graph above shows, concern with Europe has remained consistently low since 2006. At various points in the last 20 years, such as the UK’s withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, the debate over the single currency during the 1997 election and the announcement of Gordon Brown’s “five tests” for euro membership in 2003, public concern over Europe has reached significant levels. But barring another significant transfer of powers to Brussels, it seems unlikely to do so again.
Those on the right who argue that David Cameron doesn’t talk enough about Europe are the mirror image of those on the left (most notably Tony Benn), who concluded, after Labour’s landslide defeat in 1983, that the party lost because it wasn’t radical enough. For them, Ashcroft has one message: enjoy the debate but you won’t win an election.
Finally, some will say principle dictates that we should spend our time debating what we believe to be important, regardless of the voters (or “the polls”, as they usually put it when making this point). In which case, I hope they enjoy themselves. But let’s hear no more from them about that majority.