This is the third in a series of reviews of the state of public opinion for each of the parties to coincide with the conference season. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.
David Cameron and his party will have two troubling thoughts to mull over when they convene in Birmingham: they are in their worst polling position for years, and are most likely the authors of their own misfortune.
Our chart of the Conservatives’ position closely tracks the rising and falling fortunes of the government. The early honeymoon period of the Coalition is reflected in a surge, peaking in mid-summer 2010, when the Conservatives stood at around 41% of the vote, close to five points up on what they managed at the general election. The polls then slipped back a little through the autumn, before going into their first nosedive in October, around the time George Osborne’s first Comprehensive Spending Review laid bare the gory details of the coming cuts, and slumping through the winter as the row over student fees reached its peak. All told, we estimate the Conservatives lost about 5 percentage points in just three months during the autumn of 2010.
Things levelled off in 2011, although not because of any let up in the political drama. Britain was rocked by strikes, riots, a popular uprising against Tripoli in Libya (which Cameron supported) and a popular revolt against Brussels on the Conservative back benches (which he did not). For weeks, the nation was held transfixed by images from a Commons committee room, as the inner workings of the Murdoch media empire were publicly dissected for the first time. Through all of this, the Conservatives sailed serenely on, stable at around 35% from spring all the way to autumn.
Cameron then earned his party a second brief surge in the polls by imitating his party’s great heroine, Mrs. Thatcher. Cameron’s stubborn refusal to accept EU treaty changes at a summit on December 9th, like Mrs T’s “No. No. No.” , played well at home, though it was roundly ignored by his fellow summiteers. Cameron failed to win a single ally to his standard among the 26 other leaders present yet managed, for a few weeks, that rare trick of making this disastrous diplomatic failure look like a triumphant stand on principle. The Conservatives’ poll ratings duly bounced by 3 percentage points, closing the gap with Labour.
The Christmas bonus only lasted till the spring, when Conservative polling once again fell off a cliff, falling nearly 8 points to a low in early May, when the party was handed a drubbing in the local elections. Since then, things have once again levelled off, but at a share of 30-32% the party is now about as popular as it was under Cameron’s predecessors Michael Howard and Iain Duncan-Smith.
The first slump in Conservative polling is pretty easy to understand – post-election honeymoons rarely last, particularly for a government committed to painful public spending cuts. The second is a bit trickier to explain. Austerity was no longer a novelty, and the stable polls of the previous year suggested a public willingness to accept that the medicine was tough, but necessary. Why did one fifth of the Tory coalition, loyal through riots, strikes, and war, suddenly rush for the exit? The polling alone cannot give us an answer, but a solution may lie in symbols and reputation as much as substance. In particular, two reputational weaknesses Cameron had worked hard to repair in opposition resurfaced in the spring of 2012.
The first was the mage of a divisive and “nasty” party, resurrected by Osborne’s budget (and arguably personified by the Chancellor himself). Osborne underestimated the resonance of income tax rates: he may have been right to argue that the 50% rate brought in little money, but what the public saw was a tax cut for the wealthiest from a government saying everyone else had to endure austerity. Osborne made things worse by simultaneously raising taxes on Cornish pasties and freezing the pensioners’ tax allowance, so turning himself into a reverse Robin Hood. Although none of these measures made huge differences to the government’s budgetary position, they had an enormous symbolic impact: after the top rate tax cut, Conservative claims that “we are all in this together” no longer passed the laugh test with the public.
The Osborne budget, and its shambolic spinning, were accompanied by a series of policy and administrative disasters including a fuel crisis, the blundering and failed efforts to deport Abu Hamza, and a scandal over “cash for access”. In each case, the government’s response was flat footed, raising the John Major-esque spectre of an incompetent government hostage to events it could neither understand nor control. This may well have had a lasting impact, as much recent academic research suggests perceptions of competence have a decisive impact on many voters’ choice of party. Many of those who were never convinced about the Conservatives’ ideological values may have been willing to give them a chance because they seemed like a better team of managers than Gordon Brown’s Labour party. A lot of these voters may have changed their minds after spring 2012, and the continuing stream of policy own-goals since then – A level marking, London Met, and the West Coast Mainline – have given them little reason to reconsider.
So the Conservatives have plenty to worry about, their leader in particular. After losing power in 1997, it took them eight years to find a figure capable of moving them back to the centre ground and reconnecting with the public by convincing them he and his party were moderate and competent. Many of the true blue believers never warmed to Cameron, but they accepted that, like Tony Blair, he was valuable because he made their party more electable. But in two and a half years in government, Prime Minister Cameron has lost all the gains won by Leader of the Opposition leader Cameron.
Can they turn things around? It is possible, with well over two years to go, particularly as many Tory voters have switched to UKIP, who still have serious credibility issues of their own. A strong economic recovery would help, though it does not seem forthcoming. How about the ghosts of Thatcher and Major? Gestures towards more caring, centrist politics are likely to enrage Conservative backbenchers, who are the most right wing and the most rebellious in living memory, and in any case will likely be regarded as efforts to appease the Liberal Democrats. The most obvious way to demonstrate a more moderate approach – firing Osborne – is fraught with risk, angering right wing back benchers and providing them with a figure to rally around. Thatcher’s ghost looks set to haunt the Conservatives through to election day.
If he can’t reclaim his party’s reputation for moderation, perhaps Cameron can rebuild his association with competence? There may be hope on this front: after all, a well run Olympics has done wonders for the image of Boris Johnson. Some more policy successes would certainly help, although this largely lies beyond the control of the Prime Minister. He must simply wait and hope that the large scale reforms being undertaken on several fronts will yield results before polling day.
But Cameron does have some room for manoeuvre – hiring and firing. One of the emerging trends in Cameron’s premiership is a reluctance to wield the axe: a lengthening list of ministers have presided over departmental disasters and kept their jobs. Some, such as Liam Fox, have eventually been axed but only after weeks of negative headlines. Others, such as Jeremy Hunt, have been promoted despite widespread media and public criticism. Cameron’s approach may reflect laudable aims such as policy continuity and a desire not to hold ministers responsible for things beyond their control. But such goals cut little ice with voters, who only see Major’s ghost: an incompetent, out of touch elite unwilling to take responsibility for its mistakes. A more ruthless streak might help lay this ghost to rest. Time to sharpen that axe, Mr Cameron?
Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup