If Britain’s recovery is sustained and Cameron is able to maintain his lead over Miliband, then we are likely to see a swing back from Labour to Conservative over the next 12 months
David Cameron’s frustration must be acute. As MPs disperse for their Easter break, the Prime Minister will have hoped for better ratings. Voters liked last month’s Budget; and last week’s verdict from the International Monetary Fund – that Britain has the fastest growing economy of all major western countries – should have strengthened his party’s reputation for competence.
Instead, according to YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times, Cameron’s personal ratings have slipped, and his party’s support is back down to 32%, from 35-36% three weeks ago.
At times like this, we should filter the froth from the fundamentals: the short-term pressures from the long-term forces. The Conservatives’ latest dip bears all the signs of a brief, news-driven, wobble arising from the way Cameron handled Maria Miller’s resignation saga. Before long, the party’s fortunes should revive. Unless…. but wait: we shall come to the ‘unless’ a little later in this analysis.
Here are signs of the fundamentals.
- The economy is improving – and voters are noticing. A year ago, 74% said economy was in a bad state; just 4% said it was good. Today, just 43% say ‘bad’, while 22% say ‘good’. Add in the 32% who say ‘neither good nor bad’ (up from 19% a year ago) and 54% think Britain is no longer in the mire – a sharp contrast from 23% a year ago.
- This time last year, the verdict on the coalition’s handling of the economy was a terrible minus 35 (28% said ‘well’, 63% ‘badly’). Now, the gap has closed to just minus six – 42% well, 48% badly.
- A year ago, Labour and Conservative were running neck-and-neck on which of them would be better at running the economy. The Tories have now opened up an 11-point lead.
- Although Cameron’s personal rating has slipped in the past few days, from minus nine to minus 16 (38% say he is doing well, 54% badly), he is still ahead of where he was a year ago – and well ahead of both Ed Miliband (minus 26) and Nick Clegg (minus 51)
- Cameron also leads Miliband head-to-head when people are asked who would make the best Prime Minister; our latest figures put the Tory leader 16 points ahead, 36-20%.
To be sure, parties can still lose elections when they go into an election ahead on economic competence or personal leadership. In October 1964, Gallup found that the Tories enjoyed a 13-point lead over Labour when people were asked which would be better at ‘maintaining prosperity’ – yet Labour narrowly regained power. Six months before the 1979 election, James Callaghan trounced Margaret Thatcher by 50-26% when voters were asked who would make the best Prime Minister – yet this failed to save Labour from 18 years of opposition.
However, I can find no example of a party losing an election when it is ahead on both leadership and economic competence. If Britain’s recovery is sustained (especially if living standards start to improve) and Cameron is able to maintain his lead over Miliband, then we are likely to see a swing back from Labour to Conservative over the next 12 months – as we have every time in the past half century that a Conservative Prime Minister has led his or her party into a general election.
Cameron, then, has good reason to hope that the fundamentals will prevail and that he can win next year’s election – or, at least, ensure that his party remains the largest in the new Parliament. Unless… There are three obvious (and perhaps some less obvious) ways in which his hopes could be dashed.
The first is that the Maria Miller saga might not be a one-off. The weakest part of Cameron’s and his party’s reputation is that they are out of touch. The Prime Minister’s ‘chumocracy’ of old Etonians does not help. He risks deepening the gulf between his apparent softness towards Tory MPs on expenses and his harshness towards (say) families struggling with the bedroom tax. If that happens, then his remoteness from normal people’s lives could grow from a mild whiff that he can overcome, into a toxic fume that drives voters away.
The second is that the economy does not perform as well as Cameron wants and the IMF expects, and living standards don’t start to recover. If that happens AND Labour regains its credibility for managing the nation’s finances – both have to happen – then Miliband might be able to neutralise the economy as an issue holding Labour back.
The third, and most likely, way in which the fundamentals might move against Cameron concerns UKIP. The European parliament elections are less than six weeks away. UKIP has recovered the ground it lost around the time of the Budget. Unless something dramatic happens to undermine its appeal, it will win many more votes and seats than the Conservatives.
In itself that need not ruin Tory prospects. UKIP came second five years ago, just ahead of Labour, yet its support melted away to a mere 3% in the general election a year later. Cameron’s nightmare concerns not the night of May 25, when the votes are counted, but how his party reacts afterwards. If those Tory MPs who can’t stand him – for personal or political reasons, or both – demand changes that Cameron can’t or won’t deliver, and undermine his leadership, then the Tories might go into next year’s election badly divided.
In short, it’s not next month’s elections that threaten the Conservatives’ prospects, but the way the party responds to the result of those elections. The biggest threat to Cameron comes not from the economy (which probably has enough momentum to keep growing for the next 12 months) or accusations that the Tories are out of touch (awkward but probably not fatal), or even Ed Miliband. It comes from inside the Prime Minister’s own party.