The policy contained in the Prime Minister’s speech of ten days ago was a good answer to the question “what should we do about Europe?” It was never, I hope, supposed to answer the question “what will ensure we win?” If anyone expected an immediate leap in the Conservative Party’s popularity, the evidence should by now have disabused them of the notion. Polling I completed earlier this week shows little change in the bigger political picture.
As with most of the published polls since The Speech, I found a small increase in the Conservative vote share; my poll put Labour ahead by just to 38% to 33%. Analysis of the numbers shows much of this is down to some 2010 Tory voters. Back in December less than three in five of 2010 Tory voters said they would vote Conservative in an election tomorrow; after the speech that number had risen to two in three. Existing supporters also say they are marginally more likely to turn out and vote this month than last.
In other words, The Speech, and more importantly the policy it articulated, has made Tories feel better about being Tories. This is not to be sneezed at – but let’s not confuse it with having changed anybody’s mind.
One thing it did achieve was a small but measurable boost to David Cameron’s leadership ratings. I found people were more likely to say they were satisfied with him as Prime Minister, and those who were dissatisfied were slightly less likely to say they would rather have Ed Miliband instead. Cameron’s advantage on representing Britain in international negotiations, having a clear idea what he wants to achieve, being able to lead a team and doing the job of Prime Minister overall was enhanced.
Otherwise little has changed. Though the coalition remains more trusted than Labour to manage the economy overall, people are if anything less optimistic about economic prospects than they were at the end of last year. While the Conservatives retain a small lead on steering the economy through difficult times, Labour have edged ahead on helping businesses grow and recover; the Opposition’s lead on getting the balance right between tax rises and spending cuts is, at 11 points, as big as the Tories’ had been in September 2010.
The 34-point leads the Conservatives enjoyed four months after the last election on tackling abuse in the welfare system and dealing with immigration have been cut to 6 points and 10 points respectively.
The Conservatives are no more likely to be seen as united, or to have clear plans to deal with Britain’s problems, than they were last autumn. Not surprisingly, given all this, the promise of an EU referendum has not unleashed a desire for an overall Conservative majority. Just under a third (32%) of voters told us last weekend that this would be their preferred outcome of the next election – a proportion unchanged since last November. A Labour government remains the most popular choice, with 38%; 17% would rather have a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. Another round of what we have now is the least popular choice, with 13%.
None of this is to say that The Speech was in any way undesirable. The issue needed to be dealt with, and it has been. It showed David Cameron as a strong leader, taking the initiative and enhancing his credentials as a Prime Minister who stands up for Britain. But the lack of movement in overall perceptions of the party is instructive.
The effect of the referendum policy on attitudes to Europe has been interesting. There has been a small boost in the numbers saying they feel positive about Britain’s EU membership (from 18% to 22% since December). However, a substantial fall in the numbers saying they feel negative about EU membership and that Britain would be better off out (from 34% to 26%), and a smaller decline in those saying they are negative about it but we are better off in (by 1 point to 19%), has been accompanied by an increase in the number with no strong views either way (from 28% to 33%). While most Conservatives are excited by the in-out part of the policy, others have registered the negotiate-and-decide part.
In debating the question in the coming years we must remember that there is only so much oxygen in the room. Most people do not pay much attention to politics at all; when they do, let’s make sure they hear something that changes their view of the Conservative Party, not just of Europe.
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