The Government is lucky it's so far just a phoney war

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 5:09 AM GMT+0

The phoney war starts to wind down this week, with the Liberal Democrat party conference. On Saturday we shall know who will lead Labour. In four weeks time George Osborne will reveal the Government’s plans for public spending. Next spring his cuts will start to take effect. Only then will the shape of the real war between government and opposition become clear.

Meanwhile, some straws in the wind should give David Cameron and Nick Clegg cause for concern. The Conservatives continue to score consistently above 40%, and therefore significantly more than the 37% they won on election day; but the Lib Dems have lost half their support since May 6 (though I should not be surprised if they enjoy a conference bounce later this week).

However, of potentially more significance are the answers to two questions about the economy that YouGov asks every fortnight: are the Government’s plans to cut public spending good for the economy; and are they fair?

The government’s ratings on both issues were healthy at first, reaching their peak immediately after Osborne’s emergency Budget on June 22. In a poll conducted that evening and the following day, we found that 53% thought the Government’s spending plans good for the economy, while only 28% thought they were bad. In our latest survey, the proportion saying ‘good’ is down to 40%, while the proportion saying ‘bad’ is up to 43%. A net score (‘good’ minus ‘bad’) of plus 25 three months ago has slumped to minus three this week.

As for fairness, a net score of plus 11 on June 22-23 (fair 45%, unfair 34%) has now slipped to minus 21 (fair 30%, unfair 21%). As few Labour voters thought the plans fair in the first place, we should not be surprised that disenchantment has grown most among Conservatives and the diminishing number of Liberal Democrat supporters. Among Tories, the net score has declined from plus 80 to plus 47; among Lib Dems, it’s down from plus 21 to minus three.

These figures should give heart to whichever Miliband leads Labour from this weekend. If the Government’s reputation can decline so sharply when Labour’s leadership has been in limbo (though Ed Balls has undoubtedly landed some blows on both the Government’s economic strategy and, specifically, its plans for education), a fresh, coherent assault from the party’s new leader could dent the government’s reputation for fairness even more.

But the long-term point remains the same. In time, it will be reality – or the version of reality that voters experience for themselves – that will matter most. One Lib Dem minister is reported to have said his party could then slide to 5% in the polls. They haven’t been this low since October 1989, when Gallup reported just 4.5% support.

Such a low rating is improbable. The gloomy prediction is more likely to be a case of lowering expectations, so that if the Lib Dems are hammered in next May’s Scottish, Welsh and local elections, they will say ‘it could have been worse’. In truth, any rating below 10% would be bad for the Lib Dems. After all, when they dipped this low in the late 1980’s, it was partly because the media largely ignored them. A single-figure rating today would represent the public’s verdict of a party that is seldom out of the news. It would not necessarily be fatal, but it would be seriously worrying.