Will ExpensesGate harden growing Euroscepticism?
With the exception of the Guardian’s new ICM poll yesterday, the general trend of the last three weeks has been a fall in major party support, with UKIP being the principle (measurable) beneficiaries.
Before the Telegraph began its campaign, I was of the (mainstream) opinion that UKIP would struggle to match their 2004 result, and that the behaviour of some of their members with regards to the ‘EU Gravy Train’ they purported to dispise would cost them dear. Yet in spite of some of their elected members having a rather chequered record with respect to financial and political probity, UKIP seemed (at least until yesterday’s poll) to have gained strength as Westminster (where UKIP is barely represented) was exposed to ridicule that has given minor parties their best chance in years.
There are a couple of explanations for this. One reads that, in fearing a massive rise in the BNP vote-share, major parties have gone easy on UKIP – allowing them votes that might otherwise go to an even-less-favoured adversary. I don’t buy this. The better explanation for me is that, by exposing the greed and hypocrisy of MPs at Westminster – who sit locally and in full view of the nation’s media – this expenses scandal has made people somewhat wary of the idea of a political class who legislate from much further away, and without the daily scrutiny of the British Fourth Estate. With the backdrop of the EU’s own corruption and lack of financial accountability, the expenses scandal seems to be hurting politics in general, especially politics conducted overseas and out of sight. This response, however, would only be measurable if it capitalised on a hefty wave of Euroscepticism already present.
On Thursday I was sent advance notice of an ICM poll commissioned by the Taxpayers’ Alliance which supplemented General and European voting intention questions with a series of positions designed to guage British attitudes towards Europe. The fieldwork was conducted between 1st and 4th May 2009 (a few days before the Telegraph first began reporting unredacted expenses).
The findings are very interesting – I was expecting the 75% v 23% split in favour of Lisbon referendum, and a referendum on any similar Treaty, but the strength and uniformity of anti-EU feeling was something of a surprise to me. When asked whether Britain should break EU rules, a majority of respondents from every social class, every geographical region, and from every political party agreed. A majority from each party said that Britain should refuse to pay fines to the EU for breaches of the rules, and with the exception of Labour voters (who voted 49% v 45% in favour) a majority of all political groupings (including Lib Dems) were in favour of unilateral repatriation of powers from the EU.
The poll also found opposition to Britain joining the Single Currency at its highest level since 1995 (75% v 23%), with even Lib Dem voters opposed by 58% to 40%. Opposition to the Euro has grown as a result of the economic crisis, with 29% less inclined as a result of the credit crunch vs 14% more in favour.
So with Euroscepticism apparently on the increase, UKIP climbing in the European Election polls, and the expenses scandal somewhat perversely manifesting itself as increased support for a party that have seen one of its former MEPs in the dock this last month, what lessons should be taken?
David Cameron has a difficult job with the European elections. Britain’s reduction in the number of its MEPs will hurt the Conservatives more than Labour or the Lib Dems, even if he beats their previous vote-share of 26.7%. If UKIP emulate their success from 2004, they could conceivably pick up seats rather than losing them, and should the perception be that UKIP have gained at the expense of Cameron’s Conservatives, that might be a difficult narrative to shift.
There is a little complacency out there amongst some of my Conservative friends, that whatever happens in the Europeans, that the vast majority of UKIP voters will support Cameron in a General Election. They may well be right, but its not the sort of behaviour I would encourage were I at CCHQ. Conservative voters are supporting UKIP because they do not feel the Conservatives have been eurosceptic enough, and if a message sent at the ballot box is ignored, there is a danger it will be repeated.
I recognise that Europe is not an issue that any Tory leader would want to resurrect in a hurry, but still think Cameron should consider re-examining his stance. Compared to the last Conservative government under John Major, his party is far less divided (there are precious few Europhiles left beyond Ken Clarke) and the country seems more receptive to Euroscepticism than at any other time.
It might not take much – perhaps a guarantee of a referendum on Lisbon, whether or not it has been ratified – but I would posit that David Cameron has much to gain and little to lose by tapping into the public’s anger over expenses and their growing suspicion of the EU project. There are literally millions of UKIP voters who are opting out of his fold – being able to bring them back to the Conservative Party, even at the European elections, would be a powerful statement that there is little but time keeping him away from the keys to Number 10.