Thursday 13th December 2012 | 20:00
The Knowledge: Trusting austerity?
Why, when Labour are leading in the polls, do the public still rate George Osborne above Ed Balls asks Mark Gettleson
WORDS: MARK GETTLESON
If 2010 was the year of Nick Clegg (mania then phobia), 2011 perhaps grudgingly given to Andrew Lansley for the extraordinary ability of his healthcare reforms to retoxify the Conservatives on the NHS, the politics of 2012 were shaped by George Osborne.
The Chancellor’s decision to reduce the 50% rate in his March budget, whatever the economics of the matter, sent out a message that made “we’re all in this together” much harder to defend. As Ian Birrell, a former Cameron speechwriter, predicted at the time, it was an announcement that sent a “missile into six years of Tory modernisation”.
The budget represented a turning point, whereby the previous period of a narrow gap between the Conservatives and Labour became a consistent ten point lead for Mr Miliband’s party in most polls.
But salvation for the Conservatives in 2015 may also lie with the economy. Last weekend, Matthew Parris put forward the counterintuitive proposition that a furthering of Britain’s economic malaise would favour the blues. He points to 1992, when Neil Kinnock was not trusted with handling a downturn and 1997, where the economy had recovered enough to switch horses.
Mr Parris makes the argument that “the overwhelming majority of the electorate are now persuaded, or strongly suspect, that as a country we have been living beyond our means, that governments have overspent and that it cannot carry on like this”.
This may be overplaying it slightly, but there is a sense that the country must ‘take its medicine’. The economic masochism to which many progressives refer is not without its allure. Moreover, when YouGov asked people directly whether they preferred the Government’s ‘Plan A’ or Labour’s ‘Plan B’ (without mentioning those supporting each), the lead that the latter enjoyed in the summer has been eroded back to levels seen a year ago.
Similarly, the Chancellor’s approval rating among people who voted Conservative in 2010 has shot back up from -5 in early June to +30 now. This may not be unlinked to his attacks on Mr Balls’ positions.
Moreover, it’s not simply a question of the future, but one of record. The same pollster’s excellent tracker on ‘who is most to blame’ for the current spending cuts reveals that the number solely blaming the Coalition has indeed increased since the start of the year and those solely blaming Labour waned a little. That said, however, Mr Miliband’s party still holds a nine point lead on this emotive metric. This may be a key reason why the public continue to rate George Osborne above Ed Balls as their preferred Chancellor, albeit by a narrow margin, at a time when the Labour poll lead is considerable.