Nick Clegg’s decision to stay away from David Cameron’s statement on the EU was based on the view that his presence would serve as a “distraction” (his absence certainly did) and that it would be politically damaging for him to be seen alongside the Prime Minister. But rather than principled, Clegg’s actions simply made him look inconsistent. The Deputy PM was on the frontbench when the government tripled tuition fees, when it cut child benefit and when it raised VAT to 20 per cent (all policies his party opposed at the election), his decision to change tack now undermines all his previous attempts to present himself as a responsible politician.
And will he even be rewarded for his protest? Yesterday’s Times/Populus poll (£) showed that no less than 49 per cent of those who voted Lib Dem at the last election agreed with Cameron’s stance (20 per cent disagreed). Lib Dem voters are, in general, less eurosceptic than Tory and Labour supporters but sceptic they remain. The recent Guardian/ICM poll on EU membership found that 44 per cent of the party’s current supporters would vote to leave the union. As John Harris writes in today’s Guardian, if anyone thinks euroscepticism is a phenomenon “restricted to the Thatcherite heartlands”, they should have a look at the polling numbers. None of which, of course, means that pro-Europeans should change their position, rather that they must argue much more persuasively for it.
It remains to be seen what effect (if any) the EU saga has on Thursday’s by-election in Feltham. Polling by Ipsos-MORI has consistently shown that only a small percentage of voters (4 per cent at the last count) regard Europe as one of the most important issues facing the country. It’s those numbers that explain why David Cameron was right when he told his party in 2006 to stop “banging on about Europe”. Voters might have shared William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith’s euroscepticism but they didn’t share their fixation with the subject. They were more interested in hearing how the Tories would improve the NHS than how they would repatriate employment powers from Brussels.
But there’s already some evidence that Cameron’s bulldoggery has benefited the Tories. As PoliticalBetting’s Mike Smithson notes, support for Ukip, which has been as high as seven per cent in some recent polls, is down to just four per cent in the lastest YouGov poll. It’s a finding that will come as a relief to Tory strategists. Nigel Farage’s party cost the Conservatives up to 21 seats at the last election (there were 21 constituencies in which the UKIP vote exceeded the Labour majority) enough to deny them a majority. Provided he remembers to eventually change the subject, Cameron’s euroscepticism will do him no harm come polling day.