Fine as far as it goes – but it does not go far enough. That seems to be the message from voters on the draft deal that Mr Cameron has negotiated with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council – at least if a poll from YouGov for today’s Times, the first to be conducted since the agreement was published, is to be believed.
Voters approve of much of what the Prime Minister has secured. For example, no less than 72% back the commitment to reduce EU ‘red tape’ while 69% approve of the provisions designed to protect Britain and other non-Eurozone countries from decisions made by those in the Eurozone. Perhaps most importantly, 66% approve of the reduction in child benefit for the children of EU migrants living abroad, while 62% support the emergency brake that would limit the access of EU migrants to in-work benefits for four years.
Moreover, those who say they will vote to Leave the EU are especially likely to approve of these changes. As many as 77% of them, for example, like the reduction in child benefit, while the same proportion concur with the provisions to protect the interests of Britain and other non-Eurozone countries.
But none of this has apparently helped win over the electorate. Far from showing voters sweeping behind remaining in the EU in the wake of Mr Cameron’s deal, YouGov’s poll actually reports a 3.5% swing to Leave compared with a poll the company conducted just a week ago. Once those saying they do not know how they will vote are left to one side, just 44% say they will vote to Remain, while 56% state they wish to Leave. That represents the highest vote for Leave to have been reported by any poll since the wording of the question that will appear on the ballot paper was settled at the beginning of September.
In particular, Conservative voters – the one key constituency on whom it has been anticipated Mr Cameron would have an influence – appear to have been unmoved. No less than 48% now say they will vote to Leave (up a point on last week), while 30% indicate they would vote to Remain (down five points).
Why do voters like what is in the agreement, but are still inclined to vote to Leave anyway? Simply because, appreciated though the changes may be, they are not regarded as enough.
No less than 56% believe that the changes do not go far enough. 54% reckon they will not make much difference to the level of immigration, a half reckon that overall the package will not bring about much change in Britain’s relationship with the EU, while 46% reckon that overall the deal is a bad one.
As one might anticipate, these views are particularly common amongst Leave voters. However, they are not uncommon amongst Remain supporters too. Only 39% of them actually think Mr Cameron has won a good deal, 46% accept that it will not make much difference to Britain’s relationship with the EU, while almost as many think the deal does not go far enough (28%) as reckon the Prime Minister has got the balance right (33%).
In short, it seems that, so far at least, Mr Cameron’s deal has failed to persuade Leave voters to change their minds while leaving Remain voters unmoved by the outcome of a process for which many of them had relatively little enthusiasm in the first place. At the same time, despite being delivered by their own party leader, Conservative voters are decidedly unimpressed. No less than 64% believe the changes do not go far enough, while rather more reckon it is a bad deal (41%) than believe it is a good one (34%).
Rather than sealing Britain’s place in Europe as the Prime Minister intended, it now looks as though there is a risk that the renegotiation could end up leaving him politically high and dry.
That said, of course, the health warnings need to be borne in mind. Internet polls in general, and YouGov’s in particular, have tended to report relatively high shares for Leave. The picture painted by the telephone polls has consistently been a different one. Even if YouGov are right in identifying that there has been a move towards Leave (and we will need more polls before we can be sure that this is the case), that could still mean that some 56-57% are still in favour of remaining if the telephone polls are in fact the more accurate guide to the balance of public opinion. Even so, that would still point to a notably narrower and less certain referendum race than had hitherto appeared to be the case.
Meanwhile, perhaps the Prime Minister will not be entirely unhappy about the appearance of this poll. It could strengthen his arm in his attempts to persuade fellow EU leaders that they need to accept the agreement if they want Britain to stay in the EU. At the same time, however, maybe some of those Tory MPs who are still wavering about what to do might conclude that the Leave cause is not necessarily a lost one after all – and decide to throw in their lot with Lord Lawson and his eurosceptic colleagues after all. The next fortnight looks as though it is going to be a crucial one.
By John Curtice
John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.