Under pressure in the wake of the Panama Papers leak, David Cameron’s popularity with the electorate is rapidly declining. The details revealed in the leak have hurt the Prime Minister, whose carefully constructed plan to hide details about the vast majority of his wealth in an attempt to avoid the Conservatives being seen as “the party of the rich” has backfired, resulting in serious questions being asked about his future.
Despite managing to weather the early (and most violent) part of the storm, he is not out of the woods just yet, and the continuing scrutiny being put on his financial dealings has resulted in a significant downturn in support for both him and his party. A YouGov poll released two weeks ago put Labour three percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, their largest lead since last year’s general election. Even more damaging for Cameron was the violent slump in his personal approval ratings, which now lie at -24%, two points lower than Jeremy Corbyn’s, and the PM’s lowest since July 2013.
It is a commonly held view that if the British public vote to leave the European Union, Cameron will have to resign. The pressure being put on him by Eurosceptic Conservatives is increasing by the day, and with the ever popular Boris Johnson waiting silently (though at times noisily) in the shadows, this is set to reach fever pitch in the case of a Brexit. A significant worry for the PM now is the emergence of a link between his personal unpopularity and a rise in “Leave” voters, a real possibility due to the hands-on approach to the issue that he has undertaken. If voters sceptical about Cameron’s credentials begin to see the upcoming referendum as an opportunity to damage him with a vote of no confidence, that could spell serious trouble for the cross-party fight to remain in the EU.
This is why Jeremy Corbyn will play such a vital role between now and the 23rd June. Even before the Panama Papers leak, Cameron and the rest of the pro-EU politicians on both sides of the aisle were well aware how important the Labour leader is to their chances of avoiding Brexit - which is why his prolonged silence on the matter was greeted with such frustration. Labour voters are largely pro-EU, and with Conservative opinion so deeply split over Britain’s future relationship with the rest of Europe, those on the left of the political spectrum arguably hold all the power.
The problem, however, lies in complacency. Those that are ardently anti-EU need no persuasion to turn out and cast their vote, for the referendum is the monumental occasion for which they have been waiting their entire life. There are, however, very few members of the electorate who are passionate about voting “Remain”. As a result, a large amount of votes will (as always) come from those who see themselves as being neither strongly on one side nor the other. This group of voters is a significant proportion for an issue as complex and multifaceted as our membership of the EU.
This has been a feature of referendum voting intention polls since the start of the year, all of which make for interesting reading. According to YouGov, over the past two months around a sixth of the population have consistently indicated that they are undecided as to which way they will vote. Even more significant is the fact that when pollsters ask how sure respondents are that they will stick with the side they have chosen to support, the proportion of voters who aren’t entirely certain rises to 42%. This is a worrying statistic for both sides but particularly for those in the Remain camp, who have largely led the way in opinion polls but are struggling to lock down votes as uncertainty continues to reign, even amongst those who are (broadly speaking) open to the idea of Britain remaining in the EU.
Enter Corbyn. With the battle such a closely fought one, and with both sides of the argument taking turns in leading polls on an almost weekly basis, every bit of support counts, and Corbyn’s rather hesitant and unenthusiastic backing of the EU is, ironically, just the sort of endorsement that can make a big difference. This is primarily because whether or not their beliefs closely mirror Corbyn’s on issues such as immigration and integration, a large section of the electorate share the Labour leader’s overall position on Europe - and that is that the EU as an institution is far from perfect but, overall, is one of which it is probably better to be a member than not. As such, Corbyn, as someone with a platform to speak to those that may be hesitant about casting their vote for Remain, and (most importantly) who disapprove of Cameron, must appeal to their heads rather than their hearts in an attempt to show them that the positives, while not great, outweigh the negatives.
This will particularly be the case with regards to young voters, many of whom are positioned on the left of the political spectrum and voted in their thousands for Corbyn in last year’s Labour leadership election. As I have written before, popularity not policy could end up deciding the referendum, and Corbyn has the best chance of reaching out to disaffected young voters that may be hesitant about voting for Remain, or even voting at all.
After months of speculation about what sort of role he would play in the referendum campaign (and even what side of the argument he may end up supporting), this is what he finally did in his recent speech at Senate House, during which he outlined his belief that “you can’t build a better world unless you engage with it” as the EU offers “the best chance of meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century”. Added to this, Corbyn mentioned his previous hostility to the EU and admitted that he still has issues with the institution in its current form. Speaking in such an open and honest way by admitting his reservations is only going to help him resonate with undecided voters, many of whom feel a similar way.
One of Corbyn’s most admired traits is his authenticity. No one can deny that he firmly believes what he says, and this honesty is why his statements on the EU will arguably have a greater effect on undecided voters than any other politician. The hope for the Remain camp is that he continues to speak as honestly and openly as he did at Senate House, allowing them to paint Britain’s continuing membership in the EU as the most sensible and safe option, despite the many problems that it may have.
It surely must make him feel slightly uncomfortable, but David Cameron is now well aware that his future as Prime Minister and, most importantly, the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union lies in the hands of a man that he has so often publicly derided. Now, it is up to that man to deliver.