Dan Byles is a member of the Energy & Climate Change Select Committee and MP for North Warwickshire & Bedworth
The evidence is now fairly strong that the UK economy is in recovery mode following the deepest recession in a generation. Growth is finally steady, unemployment falling, confidence returning and manufacturing output rising. The conditions appear set for George Osborne’s lead over Ed Balls on ‘economic competence’ to strengthen over the coming year. Many see this as a key driver for the next election, in contrast to Labour’s ‘cost of living’ narrative. Against that context, the results of Edelman’s 14th Annual Trust Barometer published yesterday make interesting and worrying reading.
Only 25 per cent of respondents credit the Government with the economic recovery. Instead, 52 per cent give the credit for our improved economic performance to ‘business’. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given 50 per cent of people say their trust in government has fallen since last year. Politicians have seldom been held in high regard, especially in recent years; but as trust in politicians of all hues continues to fall, the particular worry for the Government is the extent to which this lack of trust appears to be hindering its ability to get the message across on the economy.
One consolation for us Conservatives is that Ed Miliband is no more trusted than David Cameron. The real question, though, is: does the continued decline in the reputations of politicians (albeit from an already low base) represent a growing impediment to the ability of any government, present or future, to carry the country with it on key issues? All those tough choices, hard compromises and complex negotiation which have characterised this Government, could be for nothing if voters simply do not have enough faith in government to credit them with the positive outcomes.
Unsurprisingly, the two business sectors now least trusted are financial services and energy. A whopping 73 per cent want to see greater regulation of the energy sector, in which trust levels of fell by six points over the year to just 32 per cent. This shows the scale of the public challenge facing the industry at a time when consumer prices are likely to continue rising (regardless of Ed Miliband’s magic energy wand) and energy policy is becoming more complicated for a myriad of reasons. It also cuts to the heart of the dilemma for Conservatives during a crisis of public trust: the desire to impose a burdensome regulatory framework on business is simply not in our DNA, yet these figures show that consumers simply will not allow the status quo to persist. They want to see Government get tough. Ed Miliband’s price freeze – blunt, headline grabbing instrument that it is – is a response to a clear public sentiment borne out by this data. Our response of course is not more regulation, but better regulation – but this is of course easier said than done.
The UK is not unique, it seems. The Trust Barometer shows a 20 point gap in trust between business and government in almost half of the 27 counties covered by the survey, but that fact will be of little comfort to the UK government. The challenges we as a Party now face are how to get the message across that the economic recovery didn’t happen by itself, but is the result of the Government making difficult decisions and sticking to them; and how to navigate the tightrope between effective regulation of unpopular industries like banking and energy, without simply making them scapegoats and throwing them to the wind. As always, anyone who tells you that politics is easy doesn’t really understand it.