This last week, the media have given Rishi Sunak a kicking, and the public have followed their lead. This always happens post-financial statements, as the public rely heavily on the expert opinion they see in media coverage.
Reflecting this, the polls following the Spring Statement have been generally negative. YouGov showed that Sunak’s ratings fell ten points between before and after the Spring Statement. Elsewhere, there are suggestions people generally don’t think the measures announced will have much impact on their lives.
This is crucial: for some time, the polls have been showing the public believe we are entering a cost of living crisis, where rising bills and prices will put them under severe pressure. The polls have been flashing warning lights since at least the autumn. Voters don’t have much confidence that the Government can ultimately help, and don’t believe the Spring Statement was very helpful either.
Polling from Ipsos-Mori helps clarify this. In a poll published just before the Spring Statement, nearly half of voters doubted the Government’s policies would improve the state of the economy and 60 per cent doubted they would help improve public services in the long-term.
Comparing the Conservatives and Labour, the public are divided evenly between Johnson and Sunak or Starmer and Reeves as to who would do a better job managing the economy. The Conservatives are more trusted on growing the economy, while Labour are more trusted on the cost of living – but the numbers don’t fall decisively in any direction on any comparative question – though Ipsos-Mori have much higher ratings for Sunak.
While YouGov’s ratings for Rishi Sunak’s look very bad, it can be said that Spring Statement didn’t make any fundamental difference to the numbers. There was certainly no re-set and the Government’s numbers continue to slowly decline (slower post-invasion), even if they look better when direct comparisons with Labour are made. The public seem resigned to their fate for the next year or two.
What are the political implications of this? Above all, that public recognition of the scale of the crisis both limits prospective medium-term damage to the Government and their attractiveness too. Understanding the scale of our economic problems is going to limit the public’s anger with the Government. When they can see a Russian invasion and global inflationary pressures, they won’t blame politicians as quickly or simply as they might.
However, if the public don’t think Sunak or the Conservatives can make much difference, then it might make a Labour vote seem less risky. In the pandemic, the Government’s economic polling numbers went up because they were seen to be in control and certainly a more attractive option than Labour. This no longer appears to be the case. For the first time, Rishi Sunak is increasingly being viewed as “just another Tory”, and seeing his polling numbers decline with the rest of his party’s.
Only a “kitchen sink” strategy would make much difference – chucking everything at the problem. Sunak has seemingly partially accepted this. The Spring Statement went for breadth, not depth; he made lots of small-ish announcements designed to show the Government was doing its best on a range of issues. The problem for him is that the public don’t believe the Government has lifted the kitchen sink, let alone thrown it.
While the Chancellor is clearly right to manage public expectations, it’s hard not to think again about the issue that I raised in the autumn: the need to focus on waste. I wrote at the time: “So why look at Government waste now? Fundamentally, because it’s vital – in the context of a high tax economy and squeezed living standards – that voters see the Government go through a process of actively considering and cutting unnecessary spending wherever they can before retaining high taxes or considering new ones.” I still find it baffling the Treasury hasn’t pursued this. We should expect Labour to try to own it in the next few months.
In the pandemic, normal political business was suspended. The truth is, it still is. It is perfectly possible that we will see further significant financial measures announced soon; the Government doesn’t always have to wait for its major formal moments to announce new policy. Sunak can therefore be expected to do more at some point. The Government ought to be working on a kitchen sink strategy, with waste central. Without it, they will not turn things around.