Popularity, not policy, could decide the EU referendum

23 Feb 2016


After months of late-night meetings, heated debates, and endless speculation, we have finally received concrete confirmation that politics’ worst kept secret is in fact correct: a referendum on Britain’s place in the European Union will take place on 23rd June. As he recited a carefully worded statement from a lectern outside 10 Downing Street last week, David Cameron returned to a phrase that has become a favourite of his in recent months, that this referendum will be “the biggest decision of our lifetime”.


To give Cameron his due, he has worked extremely hard to achieve a deal that, rightly or wrongly, he has described as being a victory for Britain. Bleary-eyed and harassed by the press, he spent several months flying to every corner of Europe in an attempt to schmooze his fellow heads of state, piecing together a deal that was finally completed late on Friday night.


Heading into last week’s summit in Brussels, it looked unlikely that many of Cameron’s initial demands would be achieved. On the issue of migrant benefits in particular, the Prime Minister faced considerable opposition from the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), all of whom were worried about the impact that any sort of crackdown on benefits would have on their citizens currently working in Britain.


But after hours of intense discussion, Cameron left with substantial agreements. The big question now is whether or not Cameron’s “victories” will do enough to sway undecided voters or, better yet, change the minds of those that are currently backing Brexit. Despite what he may say and no matter how he tries to dress up his deal, the nature of British scepticism towards the EU is deeply engrained and the limitations of his reform proposals mean that he won’t win the argument at a waltz.


Immigration has consistently ranked at the top of voters’ concerns, overtaking both the National Health Service and the economy. Linked to this is the hostility surrounding the issue of freedom of movement for EU citizens – an issue that has a considerable effect on voting intentions when factored into polling questions.


Indeed, in October last year a poll conducted by Ipsos Mori showed that support for the EU drops substantially when it is hypothetically suggested that freedom of movement cannot be limited. The poll indicated that nearly six in ten Britons want freedom of movement to be restricted, with just 16% believing that it should either be kept in its current form or that controls should be abolished altogether.


As such, any changes that Cameron may have won are unlikely to make a difference to Eurosceptic voters’ intentions. One of the biggest disappointments for Cameron will be the hostility with which his EU deal has been received by voters since a draft deal was first announced in the early days of February.


With Cameron’s changes largely failing to calm the fears of voters, it paves the way for another factor to emerge in the debate, and that is the issue of popularity. Much has been said about the ‘big beasts’ of Cameron’s Cabinet who, since having their shackles removed by the Prime Minister on Saturday, have announced their voting intentions. When examining the polls, it has to be argued that most of the politicians seen as important by the public are largely concentrated in the Remain camp.


Despite concerns and grievances over his deal, Cameron is still by far the politician with the most swaying power when it comes to influencing voting intentions. In a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Mori, 44% of voters said that the Prime Minister is important for them in deciding how they will vote in the referendum, whilst Theresa May, George Osborne, and, interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn made up three of the top five politicians with 28, 28, and 27%, respectively. All have announced their support for Britain to remain in the EU.


However, there is still hope for the Leave camp, and it lies firmly in one man: Boris Johnson. Consistently topping polls as the country’s most popular politician, and second only to Cameron in his ability to influence EU referendum voting intentions, Johnson was the one politician that both sides of the argument were desperate to claim for their own. After, in his own words, spending weeks “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”, Sunday afternoon finally saw Boris make the vital decision to defy Cameron and back Brexit.


After struggling to attract big names that will resonate with undecided voters, the Leave camp has now been handed a huge boost with the inclusion of Johnson, the biggest of the beasts. Whilst there is undoubtedly truth in the opinion that Michael Gove will bring intellectual credibility to the Brexit campaign, his consistently poor approval ratings are unlikely to result in swathes of voters suddenly joining the Leave camp en masse. Similar is the situation surrounding Iain Duncan Smith – another Cabinet member who is backing Brexit – whilst both Nigel Farage and George Galloway are incredibly divisive figures who enjoy little popularity amongst voters that are detached from them politically.


As a result, the hopes of the Leave camp are now lying firmly with Johnson as it heads into what is sure to be a frantic and intense four-month period. Whilst it is unclear exactly what role he is going to play, by backing Brexit the Mayor of London has put himself forward for a leading role, as all involved are well aware just how important he is going to be in appealing to undecided voters.


With Cameron’s treaty changes largely failing to resonate with voters, popularity not policy is now set to take centre stage, and Johnson could prove to be the big beast that decides whether or not Britain votes to leave the EU.

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