By Lauren Dorling
Essex University’s leading expert on opinion polling has dismissed David Cameron’s deal on a reformed relationship for Britain in the EU as irrelevant mere days after the prime minister announced his settlement.
After two days of agonising talks and only three hours of sleep, Cameron was finally able to achieve a deal for Britain, leading him to set the date of the referendum for 23 June.
The prime minister assured the public he had secured a “special status” for the UK, but two Essex experts say the deal is of little worth to voters, who they believe will ignore the finer details in favour of their gut instinct.
Professor Paul Whiteley rejected any reform obtained by Cameron as “no big deal”, saying the intricacies will only complicate what is an already difficult decision.
“Contrary to popular opinion, not everything is dependent on the deal. It’s more about how people feel.”
In the deal agreed to by EU leaders, British taxpayers will not be expected to bail out countries in the Eurozone, nor will British businesses face discrimination for being outside the Eurozone.
Furthermore, EU treaties will be amended to exempt the UK from the requirement of an ever closer union.
But in the areas causing the most concern, namely freedom of movement and the repatriation of powers, Cameron was unable to get any real changes.
Nor could he persuade other EU leaders to support a 13 year emergency brake on EU welfare claims, settling for 7 years instead; and the curbing of child benefit payment to children not resident in the UK won’t come into effect until 2020 for existing claimants.
“People look for simple rules of thumbs to help them make decisions in a complex environment; the costs and benefits of membership, identity, and guidance from the people they trust,” the expert in political behaviour and the analysis of public opinion said.
“People who identify with only one area tend to be Eurosceptic, whereas multiple identities promote support for the European Union.”
Voters tend to look to their party for what to do, according to the professor, who envisions Tory supporters being very confused as the Conservatives divide for the next four months.
Tory MPs Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Chris Grayling, and Michael Gove have all declared they will be joining the Leave campaign, as the culmination of the discussions also marked the official waving of collective responsibility.
With Eurosceptic cabinet ministers finally able to speak freely without fear of reproach, it is hoped that what has till now been a lacklustre campaign will start to come to life. Both sides are expected to exploit the public’s propensity to stick with inertia.
“Since 2012, opinions have been swinging more in favour of staying in”, says Whiteley. “No one knows what will happen – not even the experts. We’re struggling for certainties that don’t really exist, so people will say ‘Let’s stick with what I know and vote yes.’”
If Dr Rob Kemp is right that what the British population is “most concerned about at any given time depends partly on their own narrow self-interest and partly on what is at the top of the news agenda at the time,” then Cameron’s failure to fulfil his promises won’t matter.
“The British are temperamentally inclined to stick with the devil they know rather than take a leap into an uncertain future.”
The former professor at the University of Essex, whose PhD thesis – Dealing with Defeat – analysed the record of British opposition parties in their efforts to regain popularity after losing elections, believes that once the campaigning starts and the opposing camps put their own spin on the deal, voters will end up being more confused than ever about what they should do.
Should this be the case, he thinks they will “turn to other sources of information, or perhaps leave the decision to other people.
“It’s very unlikely, though, that the mass of the electorate will look closely at the details of any renegotiation of British membership.”