It's not Panama that's hurting David Cameron. It's his pro-Europeanism

David Cameron's falling approval ratings are bad news for the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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David Cameron’s difficult week just got a little bit worse, as a YouGov poll showed his approval rating falling to minus 22 per cent – level with Jeremy Corbyn. And in terms of numbers disapproving, his figures are actually a little bit worse than his Labour counterpart, at 58 per cent saying Cameron is doing his job badly against 52 per cent who say that Corbyn is doing badly at his. And worse could still be to come: the majority of the fieldwork for this poll was conducted before Cameron revealed that he had shares in an offshore fund.

Could the Panama Papers have the same effect on the Conservatives in 2016 as “Black Wednesday” – the day that Britain slipped out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, destroying the party’s credibility for over a decade – did in 1992?

I’m not convinced.

When Piggate erupted, I wrote that “my hunch is we all assume that posh people are up to all sorts of weird sex things anyway”, and that Cameron would survive unscathed. My hunch now is that we all assume that the ultra-wealthy are doing whatever they can to keep hold of as much money as possible, and that Cameron’s standing will be similarly unharmed.

That YouGov’s poll also finds that just eight per cent of respondents were “surprised” by the Panama revelations suggests that people were already inclined to believe that the Conservatives were engaged in dodgy financial dealings. That Boris Johnson, who has yet to be involved in the row, is just as distrusted when it comes to dealing with tax havens as Cameron or George Osborne suggests that, in general, it is a Conservative failing – rather than one that is simply about Cameron or his Chancellor.

Remember that the Tories’ image as a party only for the rich has never gone away; in both parties’ focus groups, people consistently pick out the posh couple from Gogglebox as one that would do well under the Conservatives.

And Cameron’s approval ratings have been falling for some time, well before this latest row over his financial affairs. Since recording his highest ratings since he became Prime Minister, Cameron’s ratings have declined steadily since November, from -6 per cent to -24 per cent today.

It is not Labour voters who are driving the fall, but supporters of the Conservatives and Ukip. Among Ukip supporters, the number saying Cameron is performing well as Prime Minister has fallen from 35 per cent to just 18 per cent. Among Conservatives, he has declined 14 points to 69 per cent.

It’s not Panama that’s hurting Cameron – it’s the European Union.

That should send alarm bells ringing in the pro-European camp. As I write in today’s i, nine million votes could be enough to take Britain out of the EU – fewer than Ed Miliband got in defeat last May. 10 million votes should be enough to keep Britain in the European Union. The expectation is that the bulk of pro-EU votes will come from Labour voters, with the SNP hopefully adding close to a million. But to get over the line and to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union will require the votes of at least some Conservatives – and that pro-Europeanism is hurting Cameron among his own supporters should raise alarm bells. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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