This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics magazine
For those who still bear the scars of the 2010 general election, this is the last year without a major set of elections until 2016 – so enjoy it.
Against all intuition, David Cameron is reported to be “radiating optimism” and “irrationally exuberant” at his party’s prospects in 2015, but how irrational is he being? Here are 10 reasons why the probable answer is “very”.
Decline in perceived prime ministerial competence. The received wisdom is that Cameron’s trump card was his positive rating over Ed Miliband. However, this does not bear close inspection: on the measure, ‘Is turning out to be a good prime minister’, Cameron’s net rating has stuck at around -25 since the back end of 2011. By contrast, Miliband’s rating has steadily, if slowly, improved, from an appallingly low base, to a moderately OK -19.
Falling economic trust. The net ratings for the Cameron-Osborne duet have been sliding to -30 from -15 a year ago, while the two Eds have flatlined at -31 over the same period. On this and the previous measure, Cameron’s relative advantage has been eliminated, a decline precipitated by the disastrous 2012 budget and the subsequent lack of good economic news.
Has the pain been worth it? Most voters are still unaware that the government is actually planning to be £600bn further in debt by the end of this Parliament than when it began. In fact, in a recent ComRes/ITV News poll only six per cent realised the real direction of debt travel. The problem for the Conservatives is that their supporters are the most mistaken in thinking that their government is succeeding in reducing the country’s debt. They will not be happy to discover that’s not the case.
UKIP is hoovering up disgruntled ex-Tory votes. These voters are highly likely to vote, and they include more than one in five people aged 65+ who are not flippant switchers. Once lost, they’re hard to recover – certainly as long as Cameron is leader. Furthermore, between now and 2015 there are plenty of opportunities for further UKIP progress, not least aiming towards the tantalising and distinctly possible target of winning the 2014 European elections.
The modernisers’ triangulation strategy has not worked – except to lose its own core voters over issues such as the arguably misjudged proposal to introduce gay marriage. There’s plenty of evidence that not only has that lost votes and failed to win new ones, but also the people who supported the modernisers in 2010 and who no longer do are, by a ratio of nine to one, less likely to vote Conservative as a direct result. Also, the party machinery is stalling, with fully half of all constituency chairmen reporting membership losses as a direct consequence.
The Conservatives are seen as the party of the posh; only 16 per cent in the most recent ComRes/ITV News poll believe the coalition “understands the concerns of people on low incomes”, while 74 per cent do not. By contrast, 73 per cent believe it understands “the concerns of people on high incomes” while 16 per cent do not. At any time in the economic cycle – let alone at a time of severe financial pain – this is extremely dangerous.
Without boundary changes, the Conservatives still need, as they did in 2010, to be a whopping 11 per cent ahead of Labour to win a majority of one. Even with new boundaries, they’d still need to be seven per cent ahead. For the record, the average Labour lead throughout 2012 was just over six per cent.
The leader debates are already causing controversy, with Nigel Farage positioning himself to be included and Cameron talking them down. The media would sooner ‘empty chair’ the PM than take no for an answer, but even if he participates, the debates are unlikely to present an opportunity for the incumbent to shine. If Farage is included, they’ll be blockbuster viewing.
History is against a second Cameron term: diminishing returns set in as soon as a new PM walks into Downing Street. If neither Tony Blair nor Margaret Thatcher managed to increase their vote share from one election to the next – including, in the latter’s case, one called within a year of the Falklands victory – can Cameron succeed where they both failed?
If Cameron is “radiating optimism”, then No 10 risks a bad case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. The numbers are far worse than many realise: Labour would be the largest party with a swing of just two per cent, and gain a majority of seats with a majority of five per cent. The average swing to Labour in polling during the second half of 2012 was nearly eight per cent.
It’s never too late to kick-start a recovery, but it looks awfully like the 2015 election is already slipping away from the Conservatives’ grasp. If so, Cameron will join the ranks of Edward Heath and Sir Alec Douglas Home in having been a one-term wonder. The question is whether the country is ready for prime minister Miliband.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes
Behind the figure
In the wake of the various inquiries into management failings at the BBC, the corporation will look closely at how quickly it can resume its place in the nation’s hearts. Its trust rating fell from 69 per cent (ICM) in 2009 to just 45 per cent (ComRes) in October 2012. Over the same period, its rating as a national institution “of which we should be proud” fell from 77 per cent to 62 per cent. Intriguingly, older people, the generation who grew up watching Jim’ll Fix It, are more negative than younger people, perhaps because they feel betrayed by an organisation they once very much trusted.
Poll to watch
Timed to coincide with its Dryathlon campaign, which encourages people to take a month off boozing in January, Cancer Research UK published a poll (December 2012) showing that men are more likely than women to think that alcohol makes them funnier, more attractive and a better dancer than when they are stone-cold sober. 42 per cent of women apparently “hate it” when a partner is drunk. So, if you can’t manage to give up alcohol for the sake of your health, do it for your love life.