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Polling Observatory #14: Cameron in Crisis? Conservative collapse continues

This is the fourteenth of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls.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 noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and 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.

Last month we observed the first decisive shift in public opinion since the turn against the Liberal Democrats in the early months of coalition, with the Conservatives losing nearly 4 points in as many weeks. At the time, it was unclear if this was a minor bump in the road, a reaction to an unusual run of bad news stories following a poorly received budget, a flash panic over fuel protests and the “cash for access” scandal.

If the Conservatives were hoping for a change in fortune in April, they hoped in vain. Headlines about dodgy party treasurers and angry tanker drivers were replaced with the omnipresent “omnishambles” – the embarrassing mismanagement by Theresa May’s Home Office of Abu Qatada. When critics were not savaging the familiar target of the Home Office, they were sharpening their pens to condemn Britain’s slide back into recession, or to highlight growing discontent with Cameron and Osborne’s leadership, symbolised most dramatically by backbencher Nadine Dorries’ attack on them as “arrogant posh boys

Our new polling estimates suggest the main governing party’s woes are taking a growing toll on their public support. We estimate Conservative support at the end of April at 30.8%, a drop of 2.5 points on last month’s figures, which was already the lowest showing of the government’s term to date.

The Liberal Democrats, whose own collapse is now a distant memory, remain stable, as they have for more than a year, up 0.6 percentage points at 8.2%. Labour consolidate the gain they made last month, but make no further advance, falling 0.2 points to 40.4%.

As we noted last month, there are many possible explanations for this big shift in public judgements. The problems we identified for the Conservatives last month – perceptions of incompetence, elitism and negative public stereotypes – have all continued this month, as has the corrosive cumulative impact of a seemingly never ending stream of disappointing economic statistics. A governing party which just six months ago was perceived as united, focussed and pragmatic is now being seen by growing numbers of voters as divided, ideologically extreme and failing on both its core economic policies and in more specific areas such as health and security.

The one bright spot in this gloomy picture for Conservatives is that they no longer seem to be leaking support to either of their mainstream political rivals. At present we do not estimate support for UKIP, but their recent uptick in support has been widely documented by the individual pollsters, and was confirmed in local elections. Conservatives can take some comfort from this: much of the present UKIP support may be a temporary expression of discontent by voters who will ultimately drift back to the party, and even if some reflects more deep seated discontent, the strategic position of UKIP leave them poorly placed to exploit it in a general election. Their support is evenly spread across seats, giving them little chance of breaking through under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Many UKIP supporters may decide to vote strategically for the Conservatives when they are confronted with the brutal arithmetic in their constituencies.

That said, UKIP’s rise as the main repository for right wing discontent with the Coalition is clearly one of the big stories in recent polling. We intend to respond to this by adding an estimate of UKIP support to our model, which will appear in the next few months. With more trouble brewing in the EU and European Parliament elections looming in two years, there is every chance that UKIP will continue to poll well for the foreseeable future. This is a trend that we will monitor closely in coming months.


Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Published inBritish PoliticsPolling Observatory

One Comment

  1. Good, measured piece. I did wonder at the time whether killing AV in the referendum was a short-term tactical win for the Tories but in the long term a mistake, given that the Conservatives might benefit from second preferences from both UKIP and the Lib Dems as coalition partners.

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