That David Cameron and George Osborne are effectively the joint heads of this Government – at least at the Conservative end of it – is a truth that Party members are as likely to grasp as non-members are. Why, then, did the Chancellor’s net satisfaction rating in our last survey stand at +58, and the Prime Minister’s at +21 – over 30 points lower, and below those, for example, of Danny Alexander? My explanation is that while Cameron takes the flak for what members see as the leadership’s errors – Romanian and Bulgarian entry, onshore wind farms, same-sex marriage, the growth of UKIP, compromises with the Liberal Democrats – Osborne takes the credit for the recovering economy. This story is part of a wider picture. Only two Tory secretaries of state scored a lower poll rating that the Prime Minister did last month – and one of them is responsible for an portfolio that comes with an unpopular commitment (namely, to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid).
In other words, Cameron has come to be a kind of human shield for his Ministers. Michael Gove takes the credit for academies expansion; Iain Duncan Smith for getting claimants off benefit and into work; Theresa May for ridding Britain of Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza; Chris Grayling for imposing uniform conditions and TV restrictions on prisoners, Jeremy Hunt for fixing a new GPs’ contract designed to reduce pressure on A & E departments…while the Prime Minister, simply soaks up the blame for anything and everything that goes wrong. Since Cameron shares some of the responsibility for success as well as failure, it is unfair for him to be marked down in this way. But that’s politics – as he knows as well as anyone else. And there’s method in Party members’ apparent willfulness. The Prime Minister is doubtless being marked down not because of the Government’s problems, but because of his own strategic flip-flopping: the man who set out as the Heir to Blair is being gradually transformed into the Voice of Lynton (a change which, on the whole, we approve of). Margaret Thatcher tended to get the credit for her Government’s successes and her Ministers for its failures, at least until the poll tax and her overthrow. With Cameron, the reverse is true.
The Prime Minister will presumably find consolation in knowing that this Government will be remembered for a sweeping programme of public service reform, most of it good, and understanding that there’s much to be gained from simply letting your Ministers get on with it. What Party members think is one thing, of course, and what voters think is quite another. Cameron’s net ratings at IPSOS MORI are – 13, but this rating is “the highest since March 2012”, and Anthony Wells of YouGov reminds me that the Prime Minister continues to out-poll his Party. I have assumed to date that were Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister after the next election, Osborne would go down with Cameron’s ship. I still think this is the case (the Chancellor won only seven per cent in our last next leader poll), but am no longer absolutely sure. If Osborne continues to move up our popularity table as growth continues, members could come to look at him in a different light, even in the event of defeat.