Andrew Grice: Can Gordon do a Major? Probably not

Inside Politics

Friday 17 July 2009 18:06
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What will be in Gordon Brown's holiday reading when he finally starts a much-needed break in one week's time? It's a fair bet that it will include Labour's latest private polling. I have had a peek. The bad news is that Mr Brown's own reviews are decidedly mixed. He has a bit of a problem among women, although men have a grudging respect for his dogged determination to see Britain through the recession.

The launch last month of Labour's much-trumpeted national plan, "Building Britain's Future", has not given the public a clear idea of what the party stands for. It remains fuzzy.

Nor is there much comfort for Mr Brown in the overall public mood. People still feel very anxious about the economy and pessimistic about the future, even though they suspect Britain is doing no worse (and possibly a little better) than its competitors. Their outrage about the excesses of the bankers is matched by their disgust at MPs over their expenses. Men feel Mr Brown has been let down by his own party on expenses and would be even more of a rabble without him.

Despite Labour's poor poll ratings, Mr Brown will take some comfort from the party's research. David Cameron, too, has been dragged down by the expenses scandal. Although voters credit him with making a good start when it erupted, they are less favourable towards him now.

The Tory leader is seen by voters as "good with words" but people wonder whether he would live up to them. If Labour's policies are vague, then the Tories are a vacuum; the public has little or no idea about them. They see Mr Cameron as enjoying the luxury of opposition and able to avoid the hard choices he would have to make in government. That's hardly his fault, but it suggests a nagging doubt about him and his party.

Voters think that spending cuts are coming. They suspect that a lot of public spending is wasted and believe there is scope for cutting waste. No wonder all parties bang on about efficiency savings.

On the face of it, this should help the Tories, since Labour has been in power for 12 years. But there is a recognition that public spending should not be reduced in a recession, and people recoil when presented with painful options for cuts such as the police or education (which, unlike health, would not be protected by the Tories). People definitely do not want spending cuts in order to fund tax cuts; if the Tories try that, voters will think they are looking after their friends. No surprise, then, that the Tories' promised tax reductions, such as inheritance tax, are receding into the distance.

Labour asked small groups of voters how people would feel if they woke up to find there was a Tory government. "No different" and "no change" were frequent answers. So the Tories' "now for change" slogan hasn't worked yet. How would people feel if Labour was still in power after an election? "No change" came the reply.

More optimistic Labour souls claim the party might yet be seen as offering more change than the policy-lite Tories. That would be a miracle after so long in office, and would require the normally cautious Mr Brown to take risks and make hard choices to give his Government a sharper cutting edge, allowing him to highlight the differences with the Tories.

His snail-like progress towards accepting the need for spending cuts does not bode well. Yet he finally talked about "hard choices" on Thursday. The optimists dream that he might do what John Major did in 1992, winning despite the odds against an untried, untrusted Leader of the Opposition. It feels different now. I can imagine Mr Cameron on the steps of No 10. It wasn't easy to do that with Neil Kinnock.

Yet as MPs begin their long summer break on Tuesday, the Tories are more jittery than they should be. They sense, as Labour's polling report claims, that they are not yet loved by the voters. "We should be at 44 to 45 per cent in the polls, not 37 per cent," one candid Tory frontbencher admitted. "People like Cameron. They're not sure about the rest of us."

Interestingly, Labour's research suggests voters are open to the Tory dividing line of "Tory honesty versus Labour dishonesty" when it is run by Mr Cameron, but not when it is drawn by the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne.

The odds are that when voters make their real choice, Mr Cameron will allay the doubts and lead his party to victory. But the game is far from over yet.

What will be in Gordon Brown's holiday reading when he finally starts a much-needed break in one week's time? It's a fair bet that it will include Labour's latest private polling. I have had a peek. The bad news is that Mr Brown's own reviews are decidedly mixed. He has a bit of a problem among women, although men have a grudging respect for his dogged determination to see Britain through the recession.

The launch last month of Labour's much-trumpeted national plan, "Building Britain's Future", has not given the public a clear idea of what the party stands for. It remains fuzzy.

Nor is there much comfort for Mr Brown in the overall public mood. People still feel very anxious about the economy and pessimistic about the future, even though they suspect Britain is doing no worse (and possibly a little better) than its competitors. Their outrage about the excesses of the bankers is matched by their disgust at MPs over their expenses. Men feel Mr Brown has been let down by his own party on expenses and would be even more of a rabble without him.

Despite Labour's poor poll ratings, Mr Brown will take some comfort from the party's research. David Cameron, too, has been dragged down by the expenses scandal. Although voters credit him with making a good start when it erupted, they are less favourable towards him now.

The Tory leader is seen by voters as "good with words" but people wonder whether he would live up to them. If Labour's policies are vague, then the Tories are a vacuum; the public has little or no idea about them. They see Mr Cameron as enjoying the luxury of opposition and able to avoid the hard choices he would have to make in government. That's hardly his fault, but it suggests a nagging doubt about him and his party.

Voters think that spending cuts are coming. They suspect that a lot of public spending is wasted and believe there is scope for cutting waste. No wonder all parties bang on about efficiency savings.

On the face of it, this should help the Tories, since Labour has been in power for 12 years. But there is a recognition that public spending should not be reduced in a recession, and people recoil when presented with painful options for cuts such as the police or education (which, unlike health, would not be protected by the Tories). People definitely do not want spending cuts in order to fund tax cuts; if the Tories try that, voters will think they are looking after their friends. No surprise, then, that the Tories' promised tax reductions, such as inheritance tax, are receding into the distance.

Labour asked small groups of voters how people would feel if they woke up to find there was a Tory government. "No different" and "no change" were frequent answers. So the Tories' "now for change" slogan hasn't worked yet. How would people feel if Labour was still in power after an election? "No change" came the reply.

More optimistic Labour souls claim the party might yet be seen as offering more change than the policy-lite Tories. That would be a miracle after so long in office, and would require the normally cautious Mr Brown to take risks and make hard choices to give his Government a sharper cutting edge, allowing him to highlight the differences with the Tories.

His snail-like progress towards accepting the need for spending cuts does not bode well. Yet he finally talked about "hard choices" on Thursday. The optimists dream that he might do what John Major did in 1992, winning despite the odds against an untried, untrusted Leader of the Opposition. It feels different now. I can imagine Mr Cameron on the steps of No 10. It wasn't easy to do that with Neil Kinnock.

Yet as MPs begin their long summer break on Tuesday, the Tories are more jittery than they should be. They sense, as Labour's polling report claims, that they are not yet loved by the voters. "We should be at 44 to 45 per cent in the polls, not 37 per cent," one candid Tory frontbencher admitted. "People like Cameron. They're not sure about the rest of us."

Interestingly, Labour's research suggests voters are open to the Tory dividing line of "Tory honesty versus Labour dishonesty" when it is run by Mr Cameron, but not when it is drawn by the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne.

The odds are that when voters make their real choice, Mr Cameron will allay the doubts and lead his party to victory. But the game is far from over yet.

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