IT IS now possible to imagine Britain leaving the EU after a referendum only a small minority of the public really wanted, and through a stark in/out choice the majority of government rejects. While a “yes” vote to stay in is still the most likely outcome, the government has lost control of the debate and Ukip is rampant. Taking back control depends on understanding the four fundamentals of public opinion on Europe and acting on them.
The first fundamental is that no one cares about abstract political principles. Pundits are right that only a minority of people care about “Europe”. But this really means they do not care about how Tory politicians talk about Europe – their obsession with concepts like sovereignty and institutional reform. After all, the public hears little else.
The second is that people care more about Europe when it is linked with issues that do matter to them. The public does care when, for example, it hears EU contributions cost them money in hard times, or when it hears EU membership means unrestricted immigration from Europe. On the flip side, people care when pro-Europeans talk about how Europe creates jobs and trade.
This is because – the third fundamental – few people understand what the EU actually controls. Professional politicians and their advisers know the EU is responsible for policies on issues like trade, agriculture, business regulation, and so on (with our say, of course). But most people have little idea.
The fourth fundamental is that, regardless of how little they care about Europe or know what it is responsible for, practically everyone dislikes it. While opinion is divided on whether people would vote to leave, even those that want to remain in Europe dislike the EU. They dislike, admittedly passively, what they see as the interference, the corruption, and the lack of democracy. You could have a budget of several hundred million pounds for advertising and never make people love the EU.
What does all this mean for the Conservatives? Ultimately, assuming it wins the next election, the government has a referendum to deal with. Victory means forgetting counter-productive pro-European arguments and old-school Tory sovereignty chatter, and focusing instead on how it secured a great deal, in the face of European reluctance (yes, really), for British people on the issues that matter.
Above all, that means securing meaningful change in our relationship with the EU to reduce its cost and to boost British job creation. The government has to turn this into a British prosperity referendum, particularly amid a continued downturn, showing we will all be better off in the EU as a result of its hard-headed negotiating.
However, defining this as a prosperity referendum means shutting down any prospect of Ukip turning it into a border control referendum. Immigration and welfare will be the only issues that seriously rival jobs and trade to the public where the EU is concerned. They are so serious that, if a referendum were held tomorrow, you would expect the result to be a close one.
This takes us to the appalling complicating factor – the Conservatives need to win an election. For some reason, the government hoped its referendum pledge would take Europe off the agenda. It was clear it would do the opposite, and the government continues to entrench it at the forefront of debate. To stop Europe further running away, Tories have no option but to exert control over the debate now, pre-election.
With these fundamentals in mind, the Conservatives must set out their broad aspirations for renegotiation. It will not be credible to say they have no view on certain issues and will make up their minds later. That will provide the media and opposition parties with endless opportunities to point out the Tories have refused to say they will take action on important issues.
And these aspirations must form part of a popular, issues-based euroscepticism – designed to appeal to swing voters from the mainstream parties and from Ukip. That means clear ideas on cutting the cost of EU membership and boosting trade, but it also means a simple, workable, but sensitive approach to tricky issues like immigration, welfare reform, and human rights.
Tories that worry this will crowd out mainstream issues need a reality check: that ship has already sailed. They must make the EU a domestic issue – pointing out how reform on specific issues will benefit the British people – and challenge other parties to agree with them. That will cause some awkward moments for Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and will put the Conservatives on the front foot at last.
James Frayne is a communications consultant and worked on the No Campaign against the euro.