The current humanitarian crisis is making a Yes vote less certainby Peter Kellner / September 4, 2015 / Leave a comment
Until a few weeks ago, I thought that it was at least 90 per cent certain that the UK would vote in the coming referendum to remain a member of the European Union. YouGov polls this year had shown a consistent, if modest, lead for staying in rather than leaving. Typically, the balance was around 45-35 per cent for staying in rather than leaving, with the rest saying “don’t know”. With the fear-factor likely to intensify as polling day approaches, and some voters in the end wanting to avoid the risks of Brexit, we were set for a comfortable majority for sustaining our membership of the EU.
The last few weeks have changed the odds. I still think a vote to stay in is more likely than a vote to leave; but instead of being 90 per cent sure of the outcome, I am now only 60 per cent sure. Whereas before, I thought it would take a bolt from the blue to change the outcome, I can now envisage the scenario that results in Brexit.
This is partly because YouGov’s latest survey puts the lead for staying in the EU at just two points, the lowest since January. Statistically, the two sides are now level-pegging. On its own, this does not change the outlook: there was always likely to be the occasional blip in the polling numbers. Rather, it’s the reason behind our latest figures that should worry pro-Europeans, alongside a second factor that has yet to come into play: the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn will either campaign for Brexit or play an equivocal role, allowing, and perhaps encouraging, left-wingers in the party and the unions to do so.
The issue that is bigger, and more likely to change the odds, is the current twin crisis over immigration and refugees. They are, of course, very different matters. The Government’s complete failure to meet its own target of reducing net immigration to below 100,000 a year is one thing. The plight of people fleeing the horrors of Syria’s civil war is quite another.
However, in the public mind they feed a single narrative: that Britain is being swamped by new arrivals and the EU carries much of the blame. We are an island; outside the EU—so the argument runs—we could protect our borders and decide for ourselves whom to let in and whom to keep out. Come the referendum and that simple argument could trump the more complex economic proposition about the possible harm that Brexit could do to jobs and investment.
I see little chance that either the refugee problem or the wider issue of immigration numbers will go away between now and the referendum. Add in the impact on the campaign of both the populist Right and, following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, a more vocal populist Left, and the final result looks far less certain than it did.
One final point. If the UK does vote for Brexit, then unless the majority is overwhelming, Scotland will vote to remain in the EU. Scotland’s SNP government will have the excuse they need to demand a new referendum on independence. Ministers at Westminster the prospect of a double headache: negotiating with Brussels to unravel the links that, for more than 40 years, have bound the UK to the continent; and responding to the clamour from Edinburgh for a new vote to break up the UK. We could be in for—how shall I put this?—terrifyingly interesting times.