John Rentoul: Sick of the lot of them? That's normal

The coalition's ratings are low, but could be worse. More worrying is the Government's lack of political savvy

Share

Politics now seems like those books with titles along the lines of Why Everything Is Rubbish – only they don't use "rubbish"; they use crude and childish words that some people find funny. There is even a book called How Not to Talk Like an Arse. In which the first advice should be: don't use words such as "arse".

According to the opinion polls, all political parties are rubbish and all their leaders are – well, fill in your own crude and childish insult. One telling series is our ComRes ratings of the party leaders. Since the election, we have asked people if they agree or disagree that David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are turning out to be good at their jobs. From the start, their scores were all negative – that is, more people disagreed than agreed. Since then, they have all got worse, although the order has been unchanged. Miliband is more unpopular than Cameron, and Clegg is more unpopular still.

Cameron, as the least unpopular choice at the last election, managed to win without winning, and he is still the least unpopular leader. But, in the past few weeks, the margin by which he is deemed to be less useless than the other two has narrowed. Last month's Budget was a dose of polonium, with a half-life of several weeks, to Cameron's personal rating and the Tory party's opinion-poll standing. The damage to Tory internal organs has been shocking, and the injury to George Osborne's reputation quite possibly irrecoverable.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and a source of many wise and far-seeing judgements, but it was not needed in this case. All the disasters in the Budget speech were spotted by journalists, accountants, the Labour Party and several coalition MPs while the Chancellor was on his feet. The pasty and granny taxes blew up as soon as he sat down. The capping of tax relief for charitable donations, although slower to become a media crisis for the Government, was also spotted at the time.

On the day, it seemed that the cut in the top rate of income tax, which Osborne did quite deliberately, was his most serious mistake. So it may prove in the long run, but in the meantime the string of disasters that no one in the Government seems to have foreseen may cause more trouble.

The more the Budget unravels, the more we are entitled to ask, what did they think they were doing? How did the Quad – Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Danny Alexander – not see how VAT on hot takeaways, freezing pensioners' tax allowances and limiting charitable tax relief would be reported? This matters not because we think, as with the "tax cut for the rich", that their values are wrong, but because we think that they are incompetent. It causes us to wonder about the chiefs-to-indians ratio in the coalition's inner workings. Whose job was it to bombproof the Budget?

The charity tax bungle is perhaps the hardest to explain. We could deduce this from news clips of the Prime Minister, asked questions in Indonesia about Budget small print and needing two minutes for one answer. In which he said he wants to encourage philanthropy in the same sentence as saying that the tax relief has to be cut because it is being abused. This took longer to say than it should have done because he carefully avoided blaming Nick Clegg. That was very polite and coalition-minded of him, since it was the Deputy Prime Minister's bright idea of a "tycoon tax" that lies behind this bungle.

The tycoon tax – a minimum rate of income tax that everyone should pay, regardless of the reliefs and allowances they claim – gave Treasury officials an opening to try to limit the relief on charitable donations. As it happens, I agree with Janet Street-Porter, who argues today that the general taxpayer should not subsidise through tax relief the charitable priorities of the rich. Indeed, Clegg himself makes this argument in our interview with him today. But that is not the argument that Cameron or Osborne want to make, which is why they fall back on the unconvincing story about the tax relief being abused, for which the evidence is thin. Besides, if the tax relief is being abused, surely the abuse should be tackled or the relief abolished completely? Limiting abuse to 25 per cent of someone's income makes no sense.

Yet Clegg has so far managed to evade responsibility for the "charity tax" disaster. Strange how the requirements of coalition, so terrible for Clegg's popularity in the first two years, are now hurting the Conservatives. Just as the Tories benefited from the coalition having only one head of government at the talks in Brussels, when Cameron said no to the fiscal pact, so the Tories suffer from the coalition having only one Chancellor who presents a Budget. All the unpopular bits of the Budget, including the ones caused by the distractions and demands of the Liberal Democrats, are blamed on Osborne and his party.

Thus the three parties go on, locked in a struggle to be less unpopular than each other. This kind of negative politics reaches an interim conclusion in next month's local elections. For many London voters in particular, and especially habitual Labour ones, the mayoral election presents a difficult choice between two evils.

However, and the other reason why I dislike those Why Is Everything So Rubbish? books, neither life nor politics is more rubbish than it used to be. Certainly, it seems unusual that all three main party leaders should be so unpopular. But, actually, it isn't. Ipsos-MORI has opinion polls going back to March 1977, when 64 per cent were dissatisfied with the Callaghan government and only 27 per cent satisfied, yet 51 per cent were dissatisfied with Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the opposition, and only 36 per cent satisfied. For most of the next 35 years, voters were more dissatisfied than satisfied with all governments and all party leaders.

That is how politics is, and the people who are good at it are those who understand this.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rachel Hollis posted a photo of herself in a bikini on holiday online with the caption 'I'm proud of this body and every mark on it'  

At last there’s a new ‘bikini body’ ideal – and it’s one with stretch marks

Victoria Richards
Ed Miliband contends with difficult questions from Jeremy Paxman  

Battle for Number 10: Miliband survives a rough ride but Cameron takes the edge in first TV battle

John Curtice
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss