The claim

“Vote for a referendum because that is what the overwhelming majority of people want as today’s polling shows”

Former Conservative cabinet minister John Redwood, BBC Politics Show, 23 October 2011

The background

Rebel Tory MPs are defying their party to call for a referendum on the UK’s European Union membership. And according to John Redwood, the “overwhelming majority” of the British public is up in arms about it too.

But Mr Redwood’s comment rang rather hollow with one of our Twitter followers, Jamie Robertson, who asked us to check it out.

The public hasn’t been consulted on the issue for 35 years, but do they care now? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

Mr Redwood refers in his blog to the latest YouGov polling figures – and these do indeed show that 67 per cent of those surveyed last week were “for the motion”, while just 16 per cent said they were against it.

But, just to confuse matters, YouGov’s Associate Director Anthony Wells said: “Polls nearly always show a large majority in favour of a referendum, a result that should largely be ignored”.

Ignore an overwhelming majority of people? Mr Wells explains: “Referendums are popular per se and I have yet to see any poll showing, in a straight question, that people think there should not be a referendum on an issue”.

The question then, becomes: is a referendum on EU membership more popular than anything else?

David Cameron says there are more important things to worry about right now.

And indeed, the Economist/Ipsos Mori issues index in September revealed that the economy is people’s biggest worry. The EU comes in at number 21 with less than half a percent rating it as Britain’s biggest issue.

Six months before the election, Europe was an important issue to just 3 per cent of voters surveyed by Ipsos.

Looking back at Ipsos polls, which begin in the mid-90s, it is an issue that has never been taken up by the majority, with at most  30 per cent registering it as the most important problem facing Britain in 1999.

The verdict

When pushed, 67 per cent of those polled by YouGov last month said they would rather have a referendum on Britain’s EU membership than not.

But they had to be pushed – because actually, they don’t really care. Take a closer look at the latest polls, and what you see is that a massive 97 per cent don’t consider the EU a big issue right now.

What’s more, YouGov’s very own Anthony Wells said that polls showing a large majority in favour of a referendum should be ignored.

Bearing this in mind, FactCheck can’t help but notice that a YouGov constitutional poll last year showed that a referendum on the voting system was considered the second most wanted, after an EU referendum.

Nick Clegg promised the AV referendum would be the “biggest shakeup of our democracy since 1892”, yet the turnout was far from overwhelming.

By Emma Thelwell