We defer to the pollsters’ expertise. But we believe that there are usually three main measures which decide whether or not a Government gets re-elected.
First, whether the Prime Minister is better rated than the Opposition’s leader. Second, whether the Government is more trusted to handle the economy than the Opposition – for that abstract term, “the economy”, read the standard of living, public services, and quality of life. Finally, there is competence-with-a-purpose: does the Government have a plan, and is it delivering it effectively?
Mixed up with the last question is a sense that the Prime Minister’s party is closer to voters’ values, to “being on our side”, than the Opposition.
In the Conservative Party’s recent history, Margaret Thatcher passed this test three times, John Major succeeded once and failed once…and David Cameron led a coalition government, not a Tory one. None the less, he won a second term as Prime Minister because his party outscored Ed Miliband’s on all three measures – on the last, Lynton Crosby broadened the “long-term economic plan to appeal to “hard-working people who play by the rules”.
All of which takes us to our proprietor’s recent polling, about which he wrote on this site yesterday, and to Boris Johnson’s speech later this morning.
These are early days. On leadership, we don’t find it hard to imagine Boris Johnson’s rating eventually overtaking Keir Starmer’s. (Lord Ashcroft’s polling found that the verdict on the latter from more than a third of those questioned was: don’t know.)
On the economy – and everything that this site is trying to pack into that word – there is all to play for. It is impossible to know what living standards will be when the election is held, what people will think about the state of the public services, and what they will feel about their own prospects and those of the country.
On competence-with-a-purpose, though, the signs are not good. The main purpose of the Tory election campaign was to deliver Brexit. As far as most voters are concerned, that’s already been done, whether or not Britain ends up with a deal or no deal.
The rest of the Conservative Manifesto steered deliberately clear of any pledge that might provoke the electoral wrath that its 2017 predecessor brought down on the head of Theresa May. It’s leitmotif was more money for everything: nurses, doctors, police, science, bound together by the idea of “levelling up”.
The Government’s strategic messaging is poor (it’s worth noting in passing that the Chancellor’s more tactical communications are excellent: “eat out to help out”; “bounceback loans”; “kickstart”). But while it may not be projecting its efforts to spread prosperity and opportunity more evenly in Britain, these are there none the less.
Ministers are trying to spread public spending more evenly; the Prime Minister has a radical plan to deliver more housing; a rebalancing between higher and further education is in hand; Grant Shapps is leading the charge to get more infrastructure up outside the South-East. The Government is applying its shoulder to the wheel of levelling-up.
However, much of this is lost on voters – like the millions of extra pounds that are destined for the NHS, or the increased sentences that Robert Buckand is preparing for violent offenders. To some degree, this is always so in government: delivery doesn’t win headlines.
The extra reason for the Government’s troubles is so obvious that we don’t need to stress it – the Coronavirus and its consequences. Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that voters are divided down the middle on whether Ministers are doing a reasonable job of handling Covid-19.
This reflects an acknowledgement that Ministers have had successes (getting the Nightingale Hospitals built) as well as failures (protecting care homes). But, frankly, the Government’s strategy for dealing with the virus – testing-and-track – came late and isn’t working.
Until or unless it does, or a vaccine arrives and works quickly, or the disease simply burns itself out, the Government will stay divided at the top on whether to impose more restrictions, and aim to suppress the virus, or to lift them, and live with it.
Which suggests that before too long, the Conservative backbenches, and indeed the Commons – which also means Starmer – may step in and take control. The debate in the chamber this week on the ten o’clock closing time for pubs is shaping up to be another shot across the Prime Minister’s bows.
Conference speeches by Party leaders get little cut-through as a rule, and Johnson will not be helped today by having no live audience.
If he aims to do anything with this reduced opportunity, we hope that he won’t spend too much time on making policy announcements for the sake of making policy announcements, such as this morning’s trailing of more wind power. Rather, he should set out clearly how testing and tracking is going to work – and by when. For if the policy can’t be delivered, the Government’s Covid-19 policy will lack purpose, and events are likely to overhaul it.
As for competence, the state’s record so far in this crisis has been poor – think Public Health England, think Ofqal, think the stuttering story of the NHS app, think last weekend’s testing data cock-up.
But while Johnson’s ratings may get ahead of Starmer’s by the time the election comes – and the nation’s spirits may be on the rise, too – the Government’s sense of purpose, never clearly expressed, is being sapped by the virus. It must be added that projecting competence (rather than, say, uplift and cheer) has never been the Prime Minister’s strong suit.
Which is why he needs a formal deputy to help him find it, stabilise the Government and get Conservative MPs working together. Our choice is Michael Gove, but it he won’t have him, he should find someone else.