All governments suffer from mid-term blues, but for the current administration, it appears to be getting worse and worse. Since Chancellor George Osborne’s spring budget, the Conservative party’s poll ratings have fallen to their lowest in eight years.
Beyond the double-dip recession, the government has encountered negative press coverage regarding granny taxes, pasty taxes, charity taxes, caravan taxes and IMF loans. Furthermore, serious questions have been raised over the Home Secretary Teresa May’s inability to deport the hate preacher Abu Qatada and the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s dealings with News International over the BSkyB takeover. It was finally capped off after one Tory backbencher labelled both the Chancellor and Prime Minister David Cameron as ‘two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’.
By all precedents, the government of the day should not be too concerned about ratings half way through a Parliament. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher suffered terrible poll ratings, only 18 months into her tenure. Likewise, Tony Blair and New Labour faced an internal meltdown after the 2000 autumn fuel protests. Both went onto to win comfortably in the ensuing general elections.
As ridiculous as it sounds, the government of the day must also be prepared to take a battering in local and other elections. In 2008, during a recession and the unfolding days of Gordon Brown, New Labour lost the mayoralty election in London, nine councils and 334 councillors. When voters go to the ballot box this week, Labour will expect a host of victories across the country, whereas the Tories and Liberal Democrats should expect a decline in the polls. It is an ongoing exercise of electoral swings and roundabouts.
Strategically, the government’s main concern will be focussed on the next general election, probably in 2015. It is a time when voters truly voice their views on the current administration and whether they deserve another term in office. For the Tories, at this midterm point, the possibility of a majority government looks rather bleak. Despite a raft of radical policies including education and welfare reform, the payback is by no means guaranteed. Not only are they shackled to the electorally unpopular Lib Dems and face a slumping economy, but fundamentally, the Tories are still failing to shake off their image as a party of the rich.
Despite the government’s mission to reduce the size of the state and tackle the burden of a welfare culture, the Labour party constantly harangues the government’s ‘all in this together’ message and the current Cabinet’s composition of millionaires. Introducing reform to the NHS is portrayed as privatisation. Reducing the higher rate of tax from 50p to 45p, though economically sensible, is viewed as a tax break for millionaires, not so wise at a time of wage freezes, high unemployment and high inflation. It should be noted that Labour, still burdened as economically incompetent by the electorate, has yet to announce any of their own policies.
These problems link to the government’s ineffective communication strategy. Not only is the message weak, but it lacks the hard hitters to consistently reaffirm it. Mrs Thatcher’s attack dog was Norman Tebbit, whilst New Labour wasn’t afraid to throw John Prescott or John Reid to fend off the media. Despite the obvious constraints of dealing with a coalition government, even Conservative-only issues such as the current involving Jeremy Hunt lack any high-fliers to defend him. Apparently BBC Newsnight could only find backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg willing to appear on air. In a world of Twitter and 24-hour news,where opponents have a platform to criticise you immediately, it is important to have lieutenants in place to control the message.
It is twenty years since John Major was elected as Prime Minister in the 1992 election. Amazingly, Major polled over 14 million votes; the highest by any British party leader, even Blair and Thatcher. Perhaps it is more extraordinary when one contends the discontent regarding the poll tax and the effects of the ‘Lawson boom’. Certainly, no leader could expect such a result with the growth in regional parties such as Plaid Cymru and the SNP, but how ascertainable is winning a majority?
A recent poll by the Conservative Home website states that only 23% of party members believe that David Cameron can win a majority in the next election. Cameron is an extremely talented politician and continuously has better poll ratings than his party, not to mention other party leaders. Since his leadership victory in 2005, he has helped the Tories rebrand themselves as greener and more caring. However, no inquiry has taken place as yet to see why the Conservatives did not win an outright majority in the 2010 election. Why was it that a tired and economically-imprudent Labour party managed to hang on to as many seats as they did? According to some sources it is something you dare not speak about when in Number 10.
As the story in today’s Sunday Times suggests, ethnic minority voters are still wary to vote Tory. In fact, only 16% voted Conservative in the last election. This should be concerning because beyond the fact that this population is set to make of a fifth of the electorate by 2050, many of the party’s traditional pro-business and pro-family policies should attract these voters, not deter them. It highlights not what the party represents but what it says and looks like. There are few Tory MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds and we certainly don’t hear from them. It is the same in regards to the north. Maybe besides Eric Pickles, we rarely hear any northern accents. The party’s policy agenda has been impressive, yet it tends to be the same old faces that we hear from.
Maybe it is possible to over analyse these things, particularly halfway through an election cycle and when things look slightly unfavourable. As Norman Tebbit says, “if suspected terrorists were being kicked out, taxes and unemployment were going down and pay going up, it wouldn’t matter if it was being reported that the Prime Minister liked to lay in the baths full of champagne drinking Chateau Laffite, after a hard day’s hunting on one of Rebekah Brooks’s horses, the public wouldn’t give a damn.” Probably true as well.
If Cameron fails to win the next election, no matter how popular and reforming he may be, he will always be held in a lower regard. Certainly lower than Thatcher, most likely Major and perpetually compared to Heath. It will not be Osborne stepping up, but one Boris Johnson.