Stephan Shakespeare: Why David Cameron is still the most likely person to be Prime Minister after the next election
I wonder if there's ever been a government which didn't suffer from mid-term blues? The hard thing is working out whether the recent steep decline in the coalition's polling numbers is merely a dip or a lasting trend. There's no certain test, but one can check the full range of trackers to see if the drop in general popularity is reflected by a change in underlying assessments. The nation won't cheer a Prime Minister in recessionary times, but does it really believe there's a better alternative?
The picture is mixed. For a long time after the approval ratings turned negative, people continued to rate Cameron's job performance as better than Milliband's (both being heavily negative) and saw him as the best PM; they continued to prefer Osborne to Balls, and on the economy trusted the Conservatives more than Labour. Now? Cameron's job rating has slipped below Milliband's (though the recent local election effect is fading a little), but he is still preferred as PM; the Cameron/Osborne combo is still rated considably higher than Miliband/Balls; while on which party is most trusted on the economy, the Conservatives and the Labour are tied.
Interestingly, although the conventional voting intention question gives Labour a double figure lead, when asked if people would rather see a Cameron-led Conservative government after the next election or a Miliband-led Labour government, Labour's lead halves. This suggests Miliband, though improving, is still a drag on Labour's approval ratings.
My view is that Cameron is still the most likely person to be Prime Minister after the next election, though he is obviously very vulnerable, and it's very hard to predict the dynamics of coalition. For example, when YouGov asks people for whom thry could best say "The kind of society it wants is broadly the kind of society I want", Consevative plus LibDem outperforms Labour - but can Clegg and Cameron convince the public there is sufficient overlap between them - that it's really a shared vision, and not a sterile compromise for power? (Check out YouGov's figures on party image here and for the full range of trackers go here.)
While the Conservatives are more seen as being led by people of real ability than Labour, voters are more likely to think Labour's 'heart is in the right place' by a margin of two-to-one. This sets up a clear division. It's understandable that Tories should try to be better loved, but it's a waste of effort. This, I think, is worth highlighting: Conservatives beat Labour by a whopping margin if 50% to 10% on being 'willing to take tough and unpopular decisions'. This could be a very valuable perception if at election time people still feel as insecure as they do now. Remember, we are nowhere near half-way through the cuts; if the government sticks to its plans, there's a great swell of anger still to come. No-one will feel cuddly towards the Tories, no matter how hard they try to rebrand; the only positive for the Conservatives is if they are credited with being smart and competent: level-headed as well as hard-hearted. Giving up that reputation in return for being seen as more likeable could be a great mistake