Decision time? “This is week that will decide the election,” wrote Trevor Kavanagh in anticipation of the Budget (£), yesterday. But is it? The above graph, which I first put together last year, tests the idea that poll ratings bounce after Budgets. It shows the gap between the governing party and the Opposition in the two YouGov polls before a Budget and the two after. There’s a slight methodological difference between the Labour and Tory years – YouGov began polling every day, rather than about once every week – but the point remains the same.
Possibly not. And what is the point? That Budgets seldom boost the party that authored them, at least not in any clear way. Over the past ten Budgets, the governing party’s poll lead has only really improved about three times: in 2006, 2011 and last year. In each case, their position relative to the Opposition’s improved by about four or five points; which isn’t so much once you’ve factored in the margin of error. And it’s even less when you consider what happened next. Judging by the graphs on UK Polling Report, there’s little evidence that the bounces were permanent.
Budgets are bad for Governments’ health. If anything, it’s more likely that Budgets will either leave voters unmoved or turn them against the Government. Look at the numbers for 2008 and 2009, in particular. Alistair Darling had little good news to impart, and voters had little good will in return. Labour lost about ten percentage points on the Tories. Again, these numbers changed with time, but it shows how the politics of Budget day are fraught with risk.
2012 and all that. The problem is compounded by how Budgets are delivered: the good stuff is highlighted in the Chancellor’s speech, whereas much of the bad stuff is identified by commentators in the days and weeks that follow. This effect was palpable after George Osborne’s infamous Budget of 2012. In the immediate aftermath, the polls held fast. But then, as the implications for grannies and pasties unwound, the Conservatives lost about ten points in a month. This was a Budget that, by cutting the 50p rate, not only underlined people’s negative perceptions of the Tories, but also undermined their perceptions of Tory competence.
General impressions are what matter. All of this overlaps with another To The Point post I wrote recently: incumbent parties do tend to recover before an election, but that recovery often exhausts itself before the time of the final Budget. It’s a fact of politics that polls tend to move not on one event or another, but on the steady accumulation of impressions. Will tomorrow’s Budget bolster the impression that Osborne is good for the economy? Will it add to the sense that the Tories are needed for another five years? That is probably the most that can be hoped for. A higher bounce is possible, particularly given the odd electoral physics of this Parliament, but there’s barely any precedent for it.