Cameron can relax. The opinion polls now showing Gordon Brown with a fighting chance of a come-back are as frothy as the ones which showed David Cameron sailing off into the sunset with a twenty-five percent lead. Overreaction in both directions. What matters is that the Conservatives remain safely over the 40 percent threshold, I suspect all the way to a general election, and Labour will continue to struggle for anything beyond 35.
It’s not that the opinion polls are wrong – obviously I wouldn’t think that as (declaring an interest) my company YouGov supplies so many of them. What we record is accurate, but what we’re recording is people’s answers to our questions, not predictions of the future. By convention, pollsters ask an essentially false question: “Who would you vote for if a general election were held tomorrow”. There isn’t going to be an election tomorrow, so the question almost invites some kind of temporary modification of views based on recent circumstances. The pollster gives people a chance to punish or praise the Prime Minister for whatever’s just happened. We elicit overreaction to current events.
When people get frightened – and the past few weeks have been frightening for everyone – there’s obviously going to be a sense of relief when it looks as if disaster has been averted. And there will be some feeling of respect for the man who took the lead. To be fair, anything less would be churlish: Brown was at his best in this crucial period. True, he himself had contributed substantially to the problem in the first place; true, his fix may yet cost us more than anyone bargained for. But we shouldn’t be surprised if swing voters, those least entrenched in their politics, are likely to give him a little extra benefit of doubt.
I could imagine that if the general election were to be held while people were still feeling in crisis mode, and still seeing Brown as the man best placed to solve it, then maybe he could just about cling on with a hung parliament. Then David Cameron would have to wait a few months more. Much more likely is what usually happens after disaster: the voters will throw out the government that presided over it, and with some firmness.
Throwing out a government that has failed them is what voters do best. Voters have a very low expectation of government, and very high tolerance; so long as things are not totally messed up, they give them another chance. Better the devil you know, and all that. But a crisis followed by a recession? That would be unusual.
They don’t much like Brown, even if he isn’t quite the boobie that he recently seemed. I don’t think they’re especially fond of David Cameron either – why should they be, he’s a politician? But Labour have had a long time in government and it’s ending badly, while the Conservatives look a lot better than they used to. Unless they make some dreadful blunder, the Conservatives will be the next government.
Conservatives shouldn’t now overreact themselves, made anxious by a slightly deflated poll rating. Avoiding a blunder is probably all that’s needed. Not only can Cameron relax – he should relax.