YouGov President, Peter Kellner, analyses the challenges facing the Chancellor after his Budget
If George Osborne were subject to a political rating, he would have been downgraded to BBB some months ago – and each B stands for a challenge that last week’s Budget was designed to address. Those challenges have been sharpened by the rows over his help-to-buy homes scheme and the predictions of future tax rises, for they speak to the very issues of fairness and competence that may well dominate the next general election.
YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times suggests that, post-Budget, the Chancellor is still in a BBB-rated hole – but, for the moment, Labour is in a bigger one.
The Conservatives’ biggest image problem is that they are seen as the party of the rich, not ordinary voters – of former members of the Bullingdon Club, such as Osborne and Cameron, rather than regulars at the Bull and Bush. It’s one reason why up to one in six people who voted Tory in 2010 now say they would vote UKIP. These switchers tend to be older and less well-off than loyal Tories, and most of them are men. Hence the targeted Budget sweeteners, for parents, beer-drinkers, home-buyers and low-paid workers.
However, they have done him less good than he hoped. While an overwhelming majority, 89%, back the increased tax allowance, support for his other eye-catching measures is more muted, with 50% backing his plans to help home buyers, 41% the 1p cut in beer duty and 39% his childcare subsidy.
Overall, voters think the Budget has helped the rich far more than families on low and middle incomes. No wonder the Conservatives remained marooned on 30% in our latest poll, the first to be conducted after voters had a chance to digest the details of the Budget. Unless Osborne can fend off the Labour charge that Help-to-Buy will boost the fortunes of millionaire families, the Bullingdon problem will continue to impede a Tory revival.
After three years of austerity, Osborne cannot be surprised that his own ratings are bumping along the bottom. Following the Budget, as many as 63% say he is doing badly as Chancellor, only slightly better than last week’s 67%.
However, he can, and does, seek to deflect blame for causing the problems he is trying to solve. On this he is having mixed success. The bad news is that 53% blame the Government “a great deal” or “a fair amount” for missing its targets for growth and borrowing. The better news is that even more, 57%, blame Labour – and fully 67% blame conditions in the rest of Europe. If Osborne were in court, accused of grievous economic harm, the jury would view him not so much as a man with a spotless character as a dodgy defendant with two good alibis.
The big question is whether voters will feel the same in two years’ time. There are scant signs that Europe’s economy will revive any time soon; that may give the Chancellor some political cover if Britain’s growth continues to falter.
At some point, if the economy fails to pick up, voters are likely to blame Gordon Brown’s government less and David Cameron’s government more. If that happens before May 2015, the Tories risk going into the next election being seen as both mean and incompetent.
3. Plan B
Last week’s Budget has done little to persuade voters that Plan A is working, Just 24% think the Government’s policies have either started to work (9%) or will do so “fairly soon” (15%).
Would Cameron and the Tories benefit if the Government changed direction and/or Chancellor? More people, 41%, would like a new, growth-oriented strategy, than want to stick to its current commitment to reducing the deficit (32%). And by 46%-27%, voters want Cameron to sack Osborne.
It’s clear that confidence in the present Chancellor is low and that last week’s Budget has made little difference; but the clamour for change is not as loud as ministers might have feared or the opposition hoped. Besides, Cameron has repeatedly stressed his commitment both to the man and the measures, so he can change neither his Chancellor nor his strategy without calling his own judgement into question.
Politically the Prime Minister has little choice but to adopt Churchill’s approach during the darkest days of the Second World War and KBO – keep buggering on – and augment it with KBL – keep blaming Labour.
An edited version of this commentary appeared in the Sunday Times