'Omnishambles' has become the word often used in the Westminster village to describe the current predicament the coalition finds itself in, and the series of unfortunate events that have unravelled since the Chancellor George Osborne gave his Budget Statement over a month ago. At this point in a Parliament – three years out from a general election - what is important for the government, and the Conservatives in particular, is the perception of credibility and competence. These facets of leadership can overcome negative perceptions, such as those levelled by some that the prime minister and his party are out of touch with ordinary people. But if that slips, what is left?
Polling since the March Budget has some bad news for the government – in particular the Conservatives. While the Ipsos MORI Political Monitor for the Evening Standard last week did not show a major shift in voting intentions (some comfort to the Conservatives), the satisfaction ratings – often just as useful a barometer of the political climate this far away from a general election – bare the results of a difficult month. The public’s satisfaction with the way this government is running the country is at its lowest point since the coalition was formed. With two in three adults dissatisfied with the government, satisfaction with the government is now around the lowly levels Labour experienced in the months prior to the 2010 general election.
Perhaps more worrying are David Cameron’s own ratings. He has long been seen as an electoral asset to the Conservatives, often far out performing his own party in the polls. However, this month his satisfaction ratings have fallen to all time low, not only as prime minister but in his time as Leader of the Conservative Party with just under six in ten Britons now dissatisfied with his performance as prime minister.
The Chancellor George Osborne – whose Budget Statement, some say, began the decline in the polls – has also suffered a dramatic fall in his own satisfaction ratings. In the government’s honeymoon period back in June 2010 the Chancellor had a net satisfaction rating of +17 (percentage of public satisfied minus percentage of public dissatisfied). Almost two years later, and with six in ten of the public believing the Budget proposals are bad for them personally, the Chancellor’s ratings have fallen to -30, with just 28% satisfied with Mr Osborne and 58% dissatisfied. This is the lowest we have recorded for any Chancellor since Ken Clarke in 1994 – a comparison the Chancellor is sure to want to shake, especially as Clarke’s next few Budgets were also badly received by the public.
Also worrying for Osborne is that older people – those aged 65 and over – a key group of voters, not only because they are most likely to turnout and vote, but also traditionally strong Conservative supporters, have moved from being the most satisfied with the Chancellor to the least satisfied. The effects of the “granny tax” manifesting itself?
These findings are in stark contrast to the end of 2011 when the economic crisis in Europe was peaking. The British public were even more pessimistic about our economic future than they are now, but Osborne’s ratings were stable – certainly better than they are now. This was in part because he and the Prime Minister were seen to be handling the crisis well, and standing up for Britain - but a badly received Budget has had the opposite effect.
Accusations that the Conservatives and Messrs Cameron and Osborne are “out of touch” are nothing new, the public have by and large made their mind up on that. And to a certain extent voters are willing to overlook that if they can be convinced that you can successfully run the country. It is for this reason that these satisfaction ratings are so important, if they prove to be more than a one-off and begin to indicate a longer term eradication of the image of competence, that could spell real problems for the Conservatives, but only of course, if Labour can take advantage.
Tom Mludzinski is the deputy head of political research at Ipsos MORI. Follow him on Twitter as @tom_mlud