Brian Monteith: Polls can’t be relied on

Rumblings of a coup against Cameron if the May elections are very bad. Picture: Neil Hanna
Rumblings of a coup against Cameron if the May elections are very bad. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Polls can’t be relied on, so events and how politicians react are the only pointers to results, writes Brian Monteith

There is an easy temptation, and I admit I have fallen for it once myself, to rely too heavily on polling as a guide to electoral outcomes, especially if the statistics show little change over a protracted period of time.

Nearly everybody was caught out by Alex Salmond’s outright victory in the last Scottish Parliament elections, especially as he looked to be struggling to gain traction with the electorate as he entered the new year of 2011. This has the benefit of making the strategists in the No campaign very wary of complacency as the September referendum approaches.

What is often forgotten is Harold MacMillan’s old dictum of “events, dear boy, events” and how the completely unexpected can throw fresh light on an issue – such as Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom – and make people vote in an altogether different way.

One such event is slowly coming to a head and has huge potential to throw both the Yes and No camps into a wobbly moment of self-doubt that will cause great stress as they question what they do next. This event is the European Parliament elections in the last weekend of May and the scale of defeat that Cameron’s Conservatives might suffer.

It is widely expected that the fight for winning most MEPs will be between Labour and Ukip with the Conservatives coming third. For David Cameron’s party to improve upon that result would be seen as a personal triumph for the Prime Minister, but that is not what the smart money is on. The real question that is being discussed in the corridors of Westminster by Conservative backbenchers is the scale of the coming defeat – and what this will mean for the Prime Minister’s credibility.

It could be argued that this is nothing more than Tory nervousness; nobody is questioning the fact that the Liberal Democrats are expected to come fourth and that if they do Nick Clegg should be forced to resign. Nor did it seem sensible back in 2009 to start questioning Gordon Brown’s leadership when in that year’s European elections Labour was pushed into third place by Ukip. That was a bigger surprise then than it would be for Nigel Farage to lead his party to first place this year.

Nevertheless Gordon Brown had missed his opportunity to go to the country in 2007 – before the great recession – and electoral defeat followed the year after the European elections. Tory backbenchers are alive to this fact.

The result is that quite open rumblings are being made about a coup against Cameron if the May elections are very bad and fresh demands are being placed upon him to announce a more robust approach to Europe and immigration. It is no coincidence these are the two issues upon which Ukip is attracting traditional Tory voters.

Earlier this month senior Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin sent a letter to the Prime Minister, signed by 95 Conservative members, urging that UK law be changed “to give the Commons authority to block new EU legislation and repeal existing measures that threaten Britain’s ‘national interests’”. Allowing individual states to pick and choose which EU laws to apply would be unworkable and unacceptable to Brussels. It was tantamount to saying the UK should be prepared to leave the EU.

There are 125 Tory MPs serving as ministers and parliamentary private secretaries, leaving 178 backbenchers, which puts the 95 in the majority, ahead of the 82 that declined to sign. As if that warning was not enough for Cameron, senior figures – including David Davies, the man he beat to become party leader – have called for a detailed strategy on renegotiating Britain’s EU membership by the end of February. Without such a publicly robust statement of intent they believe the Tories will be toast by the end of May.

The Westminster members are not so worried about the fortunes of their brethren serving in Brussels; what really concentrates their minds is how it warns them about the threat from Ukip in their own parliamentary divisions next year. It was this type of nervousness that led to Margaret Thatcher being ousted.

The likelihood of a challenge against the Prime Minister must remain remote, for it would be most unlikely to bring electoral resurrection and save Conservative MPs from defeat as the political landscape is quite different from the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the very fact it is being talked about is unsettling and allows the Conservative Party’s critics to point to division that eats away at public trust. Unless Cameron takes charge of the issue – something he has not been good at in the past – then the various groups will be entering into a deathly embrace that will guarantee Ed Miliband comes to power.

What it means for the Yes and No campaigns is that the Prime Minister would go into the 18 September referendum electorally wounded, appearing to be fighting a constant rearguard action to maintain his authority. It could scunner the Scottish public, who might understandably tire of the Conservative fixation with Europe, even though polling suggests Scots are only marginally less Eurosceptic than the rest of Britain on EU and the euro. SNP figures, always quick to praise ever greater European integration, would see the opportunity to say we should be rid of little Englanders by voting Yes.

But events rarely play out with such simplicity. The fact that Cameron may be mortally wounded could mean that the Scottish public discount the Yes Scotland focus on escaping Tory-ruled England and instead settle down for many more years of Labour rule. With deep irony, the Tory backbenchers might, unwittingly, be securing the British Union while trying to end the European one.

And then there’s another unspoken issue that at some point nearer the referendum will attract whispering behind the scenes: what would a Yes vote mean for David Cameron? Could he continue as Prime Minister after suffering such a seismic shift in the make-up of the United Kingdom? Would the opportunity of decapitating the Tory leadership give greater encouragement to Yes voters to land a blow for freedom, not only returning independence but metaphorically killing the English king? A political revenge for the death of James IV at Flodden on the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn?

The polls can only tell us so much; events and how our politicians react to them is what will decide the outcome.