Firing a Blank?

Posted on 29 April 2016 by John Curtice

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of being a politician is that you can fire what you think is some of your most powerful electoral ammunition – only to discover a few days later that, for all the media buzz and excitement you have generated, voters have seemingly been wholly unmoved.

The Remain campaign certainly assembled its firepower last week. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, unveiled a lengthy tome whose headline was that we would all be £4,300 a year worse off if we left the EU. Then, the President of the United States, Barak Obama weighed in, advising that Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ in any attempt to negotiate a trade deal from outside the EU. We were told by breathless journalists that the Remain camp now had momentum.

Not, it seems, according to the voters. None of the four polls published this week, all of which were taken either while President Obama was in London or soon after, uncovered a swing in favour of Remain. Rather, all four suggested there had been a swing of one to two points in the opposite direction as compared with the last time they had been conducted, which in all but one instance had been just a week to ten days previously.

Not that we should necessarily conclude that the interventions by George Osborne and Barack Obama backfired, although it is true that polling suggested that voters were inclined to the view that the US President should not have got involved in Britain’s European debate. As we recorded in our last blog, the polls that were unveiled last week (but conducted largely before the Chancellor and the President had attempted to apply their persuasive powers) had all, quite remarkably, shown a small swing to Remain. All that may have happened now is that the balance of opinion – if indeed it had ever really changed at all – has swung back to the equilibrium point on which it has been seemingly been resting for more months, and perhaps may have done so even if neither Mr Osborne nor President Osborne had uttered a word.

Certainly at Leave 51%, Remain 49% (after Don’t Knows are left aside) this week’s two internet polls (from ICM and YouGov) more or less simply replicated the even split that has persistently been in evidence in internet polls. Meanwhile, at 54% and 55% for Remain (46% and 45% for Leave), the week’s two phone polls (from Survation and ORB) were close to the average figure of 55% for Remain (and 45% for Leave) in recent phone polls.

In short, we still await a decisive movement in the balance of opinion in either direction. Not that the public have necessarily been wholly unmoved by the campaigning so far. As YouGov themselves noted, voters have become increasingly inclined to accept the Remain camp’s key argument that Britain’s economy would be worse off if we left the EU. Perhaps this an advance sign of a public that can eventually be expected to swing in Remain’s direction?

Not necessarily. For what YouGov’s latest polling revealed at the same time is that voters are also becoming increasingly convinced that immigration would be lower if Britain left the EU. In other words, what many regard as the Leave campaign’s most powerful argument is coming to be more popular too. At the same time, when YouGov asked their respondents which mattered to them more, free trade or control of immigration, they divided more or less evenly down the middle.

Progress by Remain in persuading voters of its key argument has, it seems, simply been matched by equivalent progress by Leave in respect of one of its major claims. Little wonder this referendum campaign is beginning to like a stalemate.

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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