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The State of the Economy is Leaving the Tories Unscathed

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The economy is in the doldrums, the eurozone in crisis; so one might have expected a recent and marked rise in public disenchantment with the government. But it hasn't happened. Peter Kellner explains why not

This week's two big domestic events could shape the next few months, and even years, of British politics. They might leave the Conservatives lauded as heroes who steered our economy through troubled waters - or as incompetent ninnies who badly mismanaged tough times. Will George Osborne end up as hero or zero: as Clark Kent or Inspector Clousseau?

Ahead of these events, YouGov's evidence, from surveys for the Sun and Sunday Times, suggests that the government is not in a great place with the general public - but not nearly as bad as it might have feared.

Here's the bad news.

  • By a two-to-one majority (60-31%), voters think the coalition is managing the economy badly
  • Five times as many people (57%) think their family's financial situation will get worse rather than better (11%) over the next 12 months
  • Only 27% think the government is managing the public spending cuts fairly; 57% think they are being done unfairly.
  • More people think the cuts are too deep (43%) than too shallow (10%) or about right (27%)

Faced with these figures, most chancellors and prime ministers would be twitching uncomfortably. However, other YouGov data suggest reasons for surprising equanimity.

One major reason is that the figures quoted above have changed little in recent months. The past month or two has seen some stinking economic news, as spending cuts take effect and the ripples from the eurozone crisis lap at the shores of Britain's economy. Unemployment is up. Growth is anaemic. Expectations for next year are sharply down. One might have expected a marked rise in public disenchantment with the government.

It hasn't happened. The main indicators have been weak for much of this year, but have not weakened further this autumn. Why not? Here are some figures that help to explain what has, or rather has not, happened.

  • By two-to-one (56-27%) voters think the public spending cuts are necessary. The proportion saying 'necessary' has remained stable since February. The only change since then is that slightly FEWER people say the cuts are 'unnecessary', while slightly more don't know. The opponents of cuts have made no headway for the past nine months.
  • More people still blame Labour (38%) rather than the coalition (22%) for the current spending cuts. If anything, the coalition's position has slightly improved since the summer, when blame for the coalition reached 26% on a number of occasions.

In short, the Conservatives continue to win the argument that they are cleaning up a mess they inherited. Last autumn, I believed that Labour was losing this debate because it had spent the summer months engaged in its leadership contest; inevitably, it was talking to itself rather than the wider electorate.

But that contest ended 14 months ago. Labour has a settled duo at its helm: Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. They have not been short of opportunities to attack the government and proclaim their own alternative. Bluntly, they have failed to make an impact.

This is why Labour's voting-intention lead averages just 5%. At this stage in a parliament's life, as we approach its mid-term, an economy as weak as Britain's would normally expect to be accompanied by a double-digit lead for the opposition. Even worse for Labour, they actually lag behind on our 'forced choice' question: If you had to choose, which would you prefer to see after the next election, a Conservative government led by David Cameron or a Labour government led by Ed Miliband?

Our latest figures show Conservatives/Cameron on 40% and Labour/Miliband on 35%. This 5% lead is similar to what we found in the spring. Actually, Miliband caught up with Cameron, and briefly overtook him, in the summer, when the news was dominated by phone-hacking and, then, August's urban riots; but normality resumed when the news returned to the state of the economy.

As with financial investments, past performance offers no guarantee of future behaviour. This week's autumn statement and public sector strikes may cause many voters to revise their view of the government's competence. And, as time passes, if the economy stays weak, it is possible that more people will blame the Conservatives and fewer will blame Labour.

The next election is more than three years away: only a fool would say its outcome is a foregone conclusion. But for the moment, the Conservatives seem to have the Teflon factor on their side, for they have managed to stop the autumn's bad economic news from sticking to them and messing up their reputation.

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