Polls frequently show that Europe is not the biggest deal to voters but this week that theory was placed under a magnifying glass. In the immediate aftermath of David Cameron’s ‘veto’ of an EU deal, support for the Conservatives rose seven points in Ipsos MORI’s December Political Monitor for Reuters while satisfaction with David Cameron also rose significantly. So does Europe matter to the punters? Is it a vote winner? Or is this just a temporary bump?
As our polling shows – and that of other pollsters – the Tories have at the very least drawn level with Labour on voting intention making it hard to argue that Europe matters little. The boost in the polls can only be put down to Cameron’s stance on a deal with Europe. It is interesting then to try to understand British attitudes towards Europe.
It is true, we are more euro-sceptic as a nation in 2011 than we have been for almost 30 years. Just two months ago half the public said they would vote for Britain to leave the EU in a referendum, the highest we have recorded since 1983! Perhaps in the face of a national and international economic crisis we have become more inwardly-focused, indeed we have seen attitudes hardening against bailing out other countries and just four in ten people think ‘Merkozy’ and other European leaders are handling the crisis well.
Or it could be that the government’s line of blaming Europe for economic ills is taking its toll - the state of other countries’ economies is perceived as the number one threat to our national interest. Interestingly enough, in 2003 and every time we asked it going back to 1984, the British public rated the relationship with Europe as more important than with the United States – how would that sit now?
Yet despite all that, Europe per se is still a very low issue of importance to voters. Even with the current eurozone crisis (although admittedly before last week’s events) fewer than one in ten people name Europe as one of the most important issues facing the country. Recent elections also suggest that Europe is not an issue that determines how many people vote.
By far and away the most important issue dominating the concerns of people in Britain is the economy, closely followed by unemployment. These are the issues they want the government to tackle and perhaps the point is that Cameron was seen to be protecting the British economy, and demonstrating strong leadership in a crisis. Cameron already leads Miliband and Clegg on many qualities, but clearly there is a short term political benefit to the ‘veto’. A rise in the polls, and a bump in satisfaction ratings are something Cameron, his party and his government have rarely enjoyed this year. The big question is whether or not they can hold onto them.
What makes these boosts in the polls so remarkable is that they come just a few weeks after the Chancellor delivered a downbeat Autumn Statement, setting out tough times ahead. The answer to whether this is Cameron’s defining moment or if the polls will resume their previous position is likely to lie in how the economy pans out. The nation is divided over whether the government is making the right decisions or not on reducing the deficit; this may be a more important metric to watch than attitudes towards Europe.
Tom Mludzinski is Deputy Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI