A plague on all your houses

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:54 AM GMT+0

Cast your mind back eleven weeks, to late September. Ed Miliband had just been elected Labour’s leader. David Cameron was preparing for the Conservatives' first conference in government for 14 years. Nick Clegg was basking in the glow of a successful and generally united Liberal Democrat conference.

YouGov’s figures for all three party leaders reflected these balmy times. Ed Miliband enjoyed a net score of plus 20 (43% thought he was doing well in his first hours as party leader, while 23% thought he was doing badly). Cameron was not far behind, on plus 16 (well 53%, badly 37%). Nick Clegg’s rating was the weakest but, at plus five, still in positive territory (well 46%, badly 41%).

Compare these with our latest figures for the Sunday Times. In the wake of last week’s Commons debate on student fees, all three party leaders now have their worst ratings since the election (or, in Miliband’s case, since he was elected party leader): Cameron, plus one (47-46%), Miliband, minus 15 (29-44%), Clegg, minus 29 (31-60%).

Cameron has least reason to be depressed: his net rating has slipped a relatively modest 15 points (from plus 16 to plus one), while Miliband (down 35) and Clegg (down 34) have had a torrid autumn. But compared with their post-election honeymoon phase, when both Cameron and Clegg had net ratings of better than plus 40, both the Prime Minister and, especially, his deputy, have tumbled massively.

Maybe we should not be too surprised. Honeymoons never last. The condition of the economy has forced the Government to take some tough decisions on public spending (though many voters believe that these have been tougher than necessary). Labour has yet to shrug off the poor reputation it suffered in its final years in government. And, as I discussed last week, the Liberal Democrats’ reputation for standing for a new, more honest, promise-keeping style of politics has been destroyed by its U-turn over tuition fees.

That said, something unusual and perhaps worrying is happening to British politics. Normally when one party leader becomes unpopular, another rises in voters’ affection. Think of how Margaret Thatcher battered Michael Foot, or Tony Blair trounced John Major, or David Cameron got the better of Gordon Brown. At other times when both main party leaders were in the doldrums, there were Roy Jenkins, Paddy Ashdown or Charles Kennedy who could command public affection.

Doubtless, had the Conservatives won this year’s election outright and the Lib Dems remained in opposition, Nick Clegg would now be denouncing the Government’s plans to impoverish our students, and we would be marvelling at his soaring popularity. Wistful commentators would be speculating that, had the Tories won just a few thousand fewer votes, they would have failed to win a majority – in which case we know that the Lib Dems would have stuck by their election manifesto and forced Cameron to abandon any thought of trebling tuition fees.

Daydream over. The cold reality is that electoral and financial reality have combined to deprive the public of a truly popular party leader who offers an attractive, alternative vision of the future.

I don’t buy the somewhat hysterical view that last week’s demonstrations over tuition fees have changed the nature of British politics. Our country is not about to become ungovernable. Laws will continue to be passed and, on the whole, obeyed. The violent fringe last week was unrepresentative of students, let alone the wider public. But the demos do symbolise something that should worry all political leaders: that we are entering three or four years of austerity at a time when politicians, post-expenses-row and grappling with the harsh politics of defeat (in Labour’s case) and coalition (in the case of the Tories and Lib Dems) mean that the very people who have to prescribe year after year of harsh medicine are less trusted and less respected than at any time in living memory.