It is Eurosceptics who push hardest for a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU largely because they think they would win a popular vote. But the remarkable thing about the ICM poll published yesterday was that 49% want the UK to quit and 40% want the UK to remain a member. Given the endless anti-EU stories churned out by the tabloid press combined with the fact that the EU is currently facing its most serious crisis in its existence, I would have expected the gap to be much wider.
An excellent article , written some months before the AV vote, predicted with confidence that the yes campaign would lose. This was on the basis that those who run referendum campaigns for a living at state level in the USA have two rules about whether a change proposal can be won. The first is that the proposal needs to be getting around 60% or above in polls before the referendum is called. The second is that there needs to be a killer economic argument in favour of the change. On neither of these measures would the eurosceptics win. The ICM poll shows lower support than is necessary. And, my personal opinion is that the economic argument actually plays far more strongly for those who would be arguing in favour of maintaining EU membership when one considers all the trade and jobs that could be lost should we leave the EU.
What I think the eurosceptics get wrong is the belief that the usual anti-european banter that sells papers and stimulates debate in pubs and workplaces across the UK can easily be transformed into a vote against EU membership. My hunch is that when the economic arguments in favour of staying in the EU are widely aired, old-fashioned British pragmatism would win out over the more ephemeral appeal of populist sentiment.
23/1/13 UPDATE: Cameron has just announced an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. The fact that the referendum will not happen for five years and after a possible renegotiation adds in variables which make it much harder to predict the outcome but I think the points above still bear consideration.