Is there a Plan B for the government?
For the first time since January 2008, they are level pegging with the Conservatives in terms of popular support; for the first time since May’s general election, more people are dissatisfied with the government than are pleased with it, and – perhaps most heartening of all for the opposition – three-quarters of the public would rather see slower public spending cuts than swift ones. And all that without Labour even having a leader.
Of course, it’s early days for the coalition – and no one would expect a government that’s spent almost every day since it was formed talking about cuts, austerity and tough times to be wildly popular. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg can certainly take solace, for example, from the data showing their personal approval ratings remain high. (Although interestingly – and highly unusually – Clegg remains more popular with Conservative voters than with his own party).
Professor Philip Cowley, a political scientist who is writing the definitive guide to the general election and who will be speaking at our debate on the spending review on Friday, argues government is unlikely to be too troubled by the findings. “Rather than leading to the downfall of the coalition, polls like this make its survival more likely, because they give neither partner any incentive to split away,” he told me, pointing out several historical examples – including after the May 1979 election – when Labour pulled ahead of the Conservatives following a national vote.
“No Conservative strategist will need reminding that the 1979 contest ushered in the longest period of one party-rule since Britain became a democracy,” Cowley noted.
True. But the findings of the political monitor show the government has not yet secured the buy-in for its economic policies it needs to retain popular support if things go awry in the economy. Voters are currently giving the government the benefit of the doubt. They would like to see the pace of spending cuts to be slow rather than swift, yet at the same time they believe the current government’s policies will improve the state of Britain’s economy.
This implies they either don’t realise at what record and untried pace the government plans to slash the deficit, or that they are adoting a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude. In other words, they’re willing to let the government have a go at its grand experiment, but will punish it severly if, as Labour predicts, it damages economic recovery.
This is what should trouble the coalition. Public adherence to its economic policy is weak. If the economy starts to turn and the coalition has failed to sufficiently prepare people for this level of pain, they could see a much sharper fall off in support.
Is there, then, a Plan B? If things start to look even uglier on the economy, can the government tone down its deficit-destruction rhetoric and slow the pace of cuts? Or does it need simply to do a better job of encouraging people to hold on for the ride? That must be a key question for party conference – and for the nervous months after October’s spending review.