16 December 2015

At tomorrow’s European Council, David Cameron will present his case for EU reform to fellow EU leaders amid some reports in recent days that he was preparing to back down on key renegotiation objectives including the four-year ban on new EU migrants claiming in-work benefits. While the veracity of these reports is questionable, we know that there is considerable opposition to the changes, our poll shows just how crucial the renegotiation will be in terms of determining the outcome of the referendum – failure to secure agreement on key objectives significantly increases the prospect of a Leave vote. The results of the poll should be a message and a warning to those, particularly on the Remain side, who have talked down the need for EU reform.

Here are the key findings:

Remain in the lead for the moment: Our poll found that if the referendum were held tomorrow, 56% of voters would vote to remain in the EU compared to 35% who would vote to leave, with 9% undecided. Remain leads across all ages other than over 65s, across all socio-economic groups and UK regions, and among voters of all parties other than UKIP. However, as in other polls, support for Leave is higher among voters with working class backgrounds and in England.

Support for Remain is higher in our poll than in many recent polls; the poll of polls currently puts Remain on 51% and Leave on 49%, but this masks big differences between individual polls. The key factor explaining the disparities is methodology – our poll was conducted by telephone, which seems to explain differences with online polls which currently have a closer race.

Economic governance and benefit reforms seen as most important: When asked to assess the personal importance of David Cameron’s stated EU renegotiation demands, the three issues held to be most important by the British public are: providing measures to ensure the UK will not be disadvantaged by decisions taken by the Eurozone states (76%), strengthening the European single market (76%), and ensuring that new migrants coming to the UK from EU countries cannot receive in-work benefits, such as child benefits or tax credits, for four years (74%).

Granting national parliaments a collective veto right – a so-called ‘red card’ – (69%) and ensuring that the EU’s commitment to ever closer union no longer applies to the UK (60%) are seen as important by fewer Britons.

Successful renegotiation could lead to comfortable Remain vote: When asked how they would vote if David Cameron was successful in securing agreement on all of his demands, 65% of voters said that they would vote to remain compared to 26% of voters who would still vote to leave. Interestingly, even 20% of UKIP voters claimed they would vote to remain under this scenario (up from 12% without any reforms).

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But failure to secure reform would significantly boost Remain vote: Respondents were then asked specifically how they would vote if Cameron failed to achieve agreement on each of his five stated renegotiation demands in order to test their relative power to sway the vote. Unsurprisingly, failure to secure the objectives led to a drop in support in each case, although failure to achieve safeguards for non-Euro member states and the four year ban on new EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits had the most pronounced effect.

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Failure to secure the safeguards for non-Euro members (see here for some ideas for our ideas on how these could look like in practice) sees support for Remain drop to 45%, while support for leaving increases to 46% – an eleven percentage point swing which results in a net lead for Brexit.

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Failure to secure the four-year ban on new EU migrants claiming in-work benefits has the second largest impact with support for Remain dropping to 48% and support for leaving increasing to 45% – a nine percentage point swing.

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Despite being identified as an important demand in the renegotiation to respondents personally, failure to strengthen the single market by reducing regulation on business and making trading within the EU easier is the demand that least sways the voting intention – 54% of respondents said they would vote to remain in the EU while 38% said they would leave.

Tory backers are key swing voters: Conservative voters are the most likely to change their vote according to the outcome of the renegotiation. Failure to secure measures to ensure the UK will not be disadvantaged by decisions taken by the Eurozone states would see Conservative voters’ support for leaving increase 15 percentage points (from 41% to 56%), while failure to restrict new EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits for four years would see support for leaving the EU increase 13 percentage points (from 41% to 54%).

To see the full poll results, breakdown tables and the poll methodology click here.