YouGov's Anthony Wells wrote in a detailed piece on the EU and polling, some 18 months ago, that the best means of following public attitudes on the EU is IPSOS/Mori's public opinion tracker, since its questions are unprompted. The tracker finds that the percentage of respondents who raised the EU in the first three months of this year was six, nine and seven.
In other words, the salience of the EU issue among voters is relatively low – certainly when compared to crime, the NHS, unemployment and, above all, the economy. We also know from Lord Ashcroft's research that the UKIP threat is not about Europe, and that older YouGov polling and James Bethell's focus groups drew the same conclusion.
If the issue is of so little importance even to UKIP voters, why should the Conservatives bother with it at all? The obvious riposte is: because it's important. Quite so. And, thankfully, an In/Out referendum will take place if David Cameron wins a majority in 2015 – so in that event we will all be able to express a view. I expect that I will vote Out, as I would were the poll held now.
Between now and then, it is vital that a proper package for the repatriation of powers is drawn up for the Conservative Manifesto. The sequence of events would then be as follows: Cameron wins the election, negotiates with his EU partners on the basis of the manifesto, comes back from the negotiation, and makes a recommendation. We then all campaign and vote as we please.
It follows that Tory MPs are well employed lobbying for the repatriation of powers proposals they want. (I suspect that many would want the foundation of these to be an opt-out from the EU's political structure.) But that is not what some of them are expending their energies on. There are proposals for a referendum bill and a mandate referendum. Let's look at each in turn:
- A Referendum Bill. The idea behind John Baron's plan is that a bill be presented to the Commons to write into law the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed, partly in order to persuade voters that the poll will actually take place. Were I in the Commons, I would cheerfully vote for it, but its merits are limited. If voters are disillusioned with Cameron, Westminster and the entire Parliamentary game, few will change their minds on the basis of a single vote. The counter-argument is that if Labour and Liberal Democrats oppose a bill, they will be seen by voters to be anti-democratic. To which my threefold answer is: the reaction to Cameron's EU veto indicates that any Europe-related poll boost for his party is likely to be shortlived; the EU issue has limited salience anyway (see above), and voters don't take Westminster manoevres that seriously. In short, a Referendum Bill will do little to improve the party's prospects – and nothing to change Britain's relationship with the EU, either.
- A Mandate Referendum Bill. John Redwood set out the case for this measure on this site earlier this week. The essence of the proposal is that a referendum be held in this Parliament on the question: “Do you want the UK government to negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on trade and political co-ooperation?” The logic behind it is that the Prime Minister, armed with a Yes answer supplied by the voters, would have a mandate with which to negotiate – or else can embarrass other parties for voting a bill down. I am very dubious. Perhaps the idea is indeed a wizard wheeze. Perhaps voters would turn on Labour and the Liberal Democrats were the measure defeated. Or perhaps, were it to pass through Parliament, they would turn out for a referendum in large numbers. But what if they greet a bill's defeat in the Commons with a bemused shrug? Or what if it passes, and the proposal is then defeated in the popular vote – or, more likely, invalidated by a low turnout? What if the only vote the people want is a clear In-Out one, and the mandate referendum is scornfully dismissed as a piece of Westminster process politics?
The Prime Minister's traditional view of his Euro-sceptic critics is: Don't Feed The Crocodile. In other words, if concessions are made to them, they will only come back for more – because their appetite is inexhaustible and, in the end, they will eat you up. On the whole, this is unfair. Back in the 1990s, the Tory MPs who wanted Euro membership ruled out altogether were right.
Bill Cash was correct about Maastricht. The tireless campaigning of the /Carswell/Hannan/Reckless axis ("Cannonless?") for an In/Out poll helped to give voters the chance of having a say, and will allow Tories and others with different views to honourably go their different ways. (The most likely result will be a Yes vote…but you can't have everything.)
Indeed, Cameron's main Euro-difficulty had nothing much to with those critics. The fading in the Conservative poll ratings in opposition began when he was seen to retreat from his pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Why so, if the EU matters so little to voters? Because of a more simple, primal point: he was viewed as just another politician – going back on his word.
None the less, it seems to me that some Euro-sceptic MPs may be about to prove the Prime Minister right. As Nick Pickles suggested on this site earlier this week, they are over-estimating the salience of the EU issue, the notice that voters take of what happens in the Commons, and the impact on public consciousness of Parliamentary manoevres.
Cameron has pledged an EU referendum. Good. So aren't the energies of his Euro-sceptic colleagues now best deployed in trying to ensure that he actually gets it? I can hear the chorus from Number 10: "Never smile at a crocodile/No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile/Don't be taken in by his welcome grin/He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin…"