The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said that the EU’s migration crisis is linked to the argument the government is trying to make for EU reform.  Indeed it is.  But perhaps not in the way he implied.

The refugee crisis is making it harder for the government to pick the date for the referendum.  And making it harder to win the vote when it comes.

When the Prime Minister committed his party to an in-out referendum – in response to the then growing threat from UKIP – the context was very different.  Mr Cameron had in mind some clear objectives:

  • To deflate UKIP
  • To hold his party together
  • To close down the EU membership argument
  • To achieve substantial reform in the EU
  • To secure for himself a positive legacy

Now, thanks in large part, to the refugee crisis, these are all in doubt.

It’s now hard to pick the ideal time for the vote.  It must be sometime in the next 24 months.  But it can’t be soon, because the refugee crisis is battering public opinion, and Britain’s EU partners have not had the time or the will to engage seriously in addressing the UK’s wish list, which, itself, is still not fully developed.

The refugee crisis is pushing the date further out.  But that runs the risk of giving the ‘out’ side time to organise and to define its messages.  Eurosceptics within the Conservative party –who are a hard core – also favour delay, for the same reasons.  The refugee crisis is aiding their cause.

It’s now harder to guarantee an ‘in’ victory.  The refugee crisis is moving the polling.  Before the crisis erupted all polling organisations were pointing to a very comfortable lead for ‘in’.  Some even had the in:out ratio at close to 2:1.  Not anymore.  All polling organisations now show a distinct tightening of the position.  The average lead for ‘in’ is down to single figures.  Survation has reported a narrow ‘out’ lead.

A number of factors are moving opinion, but the refugee crisis is upper-most.  It is showing the EU in a poor light, making it look disunited and ineffectual.  It’s not a good advert for the club.  But, more importantly, it is bringing the vexed issue of immigration to the fore, and causing the EU ‘in-out’ decision to be seen for many through the prism of immigration.  Voters see the EU making a poor fist of this issue, and they see the UK government in the same light; only 17% of voters see the UK government as handling the issue well.  The EU appears unable to solve a problem voters are worried about; so its efficacy is damaged as a result.

It’s getting harder to secure an answer that matches the question.  The question, at surface level, is clear enough: in or out?  The problem is that the UK’s membership of the EU is not a priority issue for voters.  It is identified as a main issue by just 7% of voters.  Many more issues rank higher in the public’s list of concerns, with immigration now at the top.

Unless the crisis can be resolved well before the referendum, there is a risk that the vote is more about immigration (border control) than about EU membership itself.  In their latest poll, YouGov tested the strength of support for the two sides.  Definite ‘ins’ run at 31% and definite ‘outs’ at 23%.  Significantly, 19% of voters are leaning ‘ins’; but 1 in every 5 of them say they could switch to ‘out’ because of their worries about immigration.

The risk for the Prime Minister is that the voters may change the question, from one in which they are not that bothered, to one about which they are very anxious.  And the EU, at the moment, is on the wrong side of that issue.

Conventionally, referenda are thought to favour the status quo.  But the Electoral Commission has tilted the balance a bit by rewording the question, changing it from an endorsement of how things are to a choice about how things should be.  More significantly, voters are not exactly impressed with status quo any more – the mood is quite different, much more anti-establishment and much more cynical.  It’s not an easy context in which to sell the grand ideals of the EU.

It’s getting harder to reform the EU.  Significant reform needs strong allies, and it needs them to be engaged with you in a discussion framed on your terms.  Mr Cameron is in a strong headwind here.  The migration crisis is a big distraction for one thing.  It’s shortening the time for taking up the UK’s agenda, and thus reducing the scope for change.

To have realistic hope of pulling the debate back onto EU issues and away from migration, the renegotiation has to amount to something of substance.  It has to be more than about New Zealand butter this time!

It could prove difficult to keep the Conservative Party together.  The tighter the vote looks, the greater the tensions inside the Conservative party.  Euro-sceptics will be more energised, and may gain recruits from those currently wavering.  Those with an eye on the post-Cameron era may calculate that it is more advantageous to align with ‘out’ than with ‘in’.  Current polling shows an ‘out’ lead amongst Conservative voters.

It’s getting harder to settle the issue.  After the 1975 referendum, Harold Wilson declared the national debate to be over.  A 67% ‘yes’ vote on a 65% turnout was conclusive, he claimed.  Well it was for about 40 years.  What the ‘in’ team now have to contemplate is that the turnout will be much lower, and the result much tighter.  A wafer-thin ‘in’ on a turnout of under 50% would hardly settle anything.

Of course, it may all come right on the night.  The real campaigning has yet to get going.  But the refugee crisis and its implications have surely made it a lot harder for the Prime Minister to meet his objectives.

James Plaskitt