Is David Cameron Now Leader of the Opposition?

Posted on 29 February 2016 by John Curtice

One key message from the opinion polls in advance of the conclusion of David Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership was that if the Prime Minister came back from Brussels with what he insisted was a good deal for Britain, then the public would swing in behind a Remain vote. YouGov, for example, consistently found that a clear majority said they would vote to Remain in the EU in those circumstances, even though that was far from being the position when the same respondents were simply asked how they would vote in a EU referendum now. Conservative supporters, in particular, seemed especially inclined to be willing to change their minds on the basis of a recommendation from David Cameron.

A week on from the announcement that the Prime Minister had concluded what he regarded as an acceptable deal with the rest of the European Union on Britain’s terms of membership, it does not look as though that in practice there has been a swing to Remain. None of the now six polls that have been wholly or mostly conducted since the conclusion of the talks in Brussels has detected a significant movement towards Remain, including, not least, amongst Conservative supporters.

Of the six polling companies in question, five of them also polled – using the same method – in the fortnight or so before a draft of the eventual deal was published on 1 February. At that time  those five polls (four of them conducted over the internet and one by phone) on average put Remain on 52.5% (once Don’t Knows are left aside) and Leave on 47.5%.

The equivalent figures for those five polls during the last week have been Remain 51%, Leave 49%. In other words, if anything, support for Remain appears to be slightly weaker now than it was before the details of the renegotiation first became public knowledge.

The sixth poll conducted since the conclusion of the renegotiation – a poll conducted by Survation over the telephone rather than over the internet  (as had previously been the company’s practice) – does not disturb this picture. At 59% its estimated share for Remain (once Don’t Knows are left aside) is in line with the average for all other telephone polls conducted since the New Year.

True, the position looks a little better now for Remain than it did in between the publication of the draft deal and the final agreement. Three of the six companies that have polled during the last week also polled during that interim period. These three polls now on average put Remain on 52%, up two points on the 50% with which it was credited after the publication of the draft deal, but still slightly less than the 53% that these same three polls gave Remain before the draft deal was published. That suggests that all that has happened Remain has reversed some of the apparent damage that immediate disappointment with the draft deal seemed to engender.

In line with the systematic difference between the results that they are obtaining more generally, most polls conducted over the internet suggest that a majority of Conservative supporters will vote to Leave the EU, while most polls done over the phone put Remain ahead amongst those who voted Tory last May. However, the polls agree that Conservative voters are seriously divided on the issue, and thus suggest that strengthening the level of support for remaining in the EU amongst Conservative supporters would be an obvious target for the Remain campaign. What better way of achieving that objective than a strong recommendation to Remain from the Leader of the Conservative Party?

So far at least, it has not turned out that way. On average the five polls from last week that were conducted using the same method as before suggest that, on average, 44% of those who voted for the Conservatives in May last year will vote to Remain, 56% to Leave. These figures are little different from the position before the publication of the draft deal, when in these same five polls 45% of Conservative supporters said they would vote to Remain and 55% indicated they preferred to Leave.

As a result, it now appears that Mr Cameron is embarked on a referendum campaign in which he looks more like the Leader of the Opposition than the Prime Minister of a majority Conservative government. According to last week’s polls, no more than one in four (24%) of those who intend to vote for Remain voted for the Conservatives last May. They are clearly outnumbered by those who voted Labour who comprise one in three (33%) of Remain supporters. Liberal Democrat and SNP supporters make up a further notable slice of Remain support too. In short, it looks as though the Prime Minister’s political future rests on his ability to retain the support of those who voted against his party twelve months ago – and at time when local and devolved elections at the beginning of May are likely to inhibit the room for cross-party collaboration of the kind that the Remain side looks as though it will need.

The reason for the Prime Minister’s predicament is, of course, because voters have not necessarily taken him at his word. True, ComRes’ phone poll found that 45% felt Mr Cameron had succeeded in improving Britain’s terms of membership, slightly more than the 42% who believed he had failed. In a similar vein, Survation’s phone poll found that rather more (35%) reckoned Mr Cameron had done well in the renegotiation than believed he had done badly (29%). However, these figures still represent less than the ringing endorsement for which Mr Cameron might have hoped.

Meanwhile, although in their internet poll YouGov found that the final agreement was rather less unpopular than the draft deal, still rather more (35%) believed it was a bad deal than reckoned it was a good one (26%). BMG (also via the internet) suggested voters might be even more critical than that, with just 13% reckoning the renegotiated terms represent a good deal for the UK and no less than 42% believing it to be a bad one. At the same time, ORB have found that on balance the developments of the last week have inclined rather more voters to vote to Leave (32%) than have edged them towards voting for Remain (24%).

The Prime Minister has become renown for his pumped up, jacket off, shirt-sleeves up style of campaigning. It looks as though he is going to have to be at his persuasive best in the coming weeks, for so far voters appeared to have been relatively unmoved by his efforts in Brussels.

John Curtice

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.

There are 31 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *