Robert Worcester: Voters rate Tory leader's performance as worse than Kinnock's

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Howard is struggling to make his mark with the electorate. But failing, so far, to engage floating voters. The election is likely to be called next April, just nine months away, for a 5 May election day.

Michael Howard is struggling to make his mark with the electorate. But failing, so far, to engage floating voters. The election is likely to be called next April, just nine months away, for a 5 May election day.

After Mr Howard's election as Conservative leader nine months ago, morale soared among Tory MPs as he tore into Labour at the dispatch box and on television. Recently, however, they've sat on their hands. Nothing he has done seems to have persuaded floating voters that he is Jack the Giant-Killer who will topple Tony Blair.

Tory poll ratings have held pretty solid in most public opinion polls these past six months, around 33 per cent, plus or minus 2 per cent - just where they were at the last election when they were swamped in a second Labour landslide. So things still look gloomy for the Tories generally, and especially for Mr Howard, whose performance is now seen negatively by 42 per cent who say they are dissatisfied with his performance. Only his core support of 26 per cent are satisfied.

Only among Tory supporters are there more who are satisfied than dissatisfied, but over a quarter of them say they are unhappy with his performance to date.

A year or so before the last six elections, MORI's satisfaction ratings for the Leader of the Opposition have shown that none with more negative ratings than positive has won the following election. Mr Howard's -16 per cent net rating now is worse than was Neil Kinnock's in either 1986 or 1991, and not much better than William Hague's in 2000.

The latest MORI Social Research Institute's Delivery Index finds that optimism about government policies on public services is at its highest for over two years. This suggests that as the general election approaches, the Government may be starting to claw back the ground it has lost since 2001 on perceptions of improvements in public services. This will certainly make the mountain higher and steeper than it already is for Mr Howard and the Tories' hope of overturning the Labour majority of 159.

Public agreement that "this Government's policies will improve the state of Britain's public services" is 39 per cent - its highest level since November 2001, six months after the last election. On balance, opinion is still negative with 52 per cent thinking public services will get worse in the long-term, but this is lower than the 57-59 per cent recorded in the second half of 2003.

A similar pattern is shown by rising confidence in Labour's ability to improve the economy. Perceptions are more favourable than a year ago, in the wake of the Iraq war. Rises in interest rates, publicity over possible fuel price increases, a threatened fall in house prices, continuing problems in Iraq and other problems facing the Government have not made any impact.

The state of the health service is of concern to more people than the war, with 44 per cent saying that healthcare and the NHS are among the most important issues facing Britain. Yet the public's assessment of prospects for the NHS is now "in the black", just. This marks an improvement on the -10 negative level MORI recorded last year.

On the five key domestic issues, Labour's ratings are up against a year ago: health up 11 points, education 9, transport 11, crime 5 and environment 4. And on their management of the economy, up 12 from a year ago.

And just nine months to go.

MORI interviewed a representative sample of 1,988 adults aged 18+ in 202 sampling points across Great Britain, in person, from 22- 27 July 2004. Data were weighted to match the profile of the adult population.

© MORI/Independent on Sunday

Robert Worcester is chairman of MORI and Visiting Professor of Government at the LSE

Comments