Friday, August 03, 2007

Brown bounce? Cameron crumble?

Labour’s recent surge in the polls is all very jolly, but isn’t it just a honeymoon for Gordon Brown?

No doubt it is, in part. But it would be daft for anyone to imagine that something as significant as a change in Prime Minister isn’t likely to have a more lasting impact on public opinion.

And there seems to be another factor involved, too: as well as Labour’s and Brown’s ratings going up, we’ve also seen David Cameron’s personal ratings go down.

For instance, Populus regularly asks people to rate party leaders out of ten for their performance. Cameron averaged 5.20 last September, 5.11 this January, 4.95 in May and 4.81 in July. The timescale of this ongoing decline – and the fact that it’s not a comparative question about Cameron vs anyone else – means that this can’t be put down to a ‘Brown bounce’.

And YouGov found back in February that 43% thought Cameron was doing a good job as Conservative leader against 27% who thought not; this had reversed by July with 44% saying no and 27% yes.

So the change in voting intentions looks to be partly being driven by Cameron’s increasingly unimpressive performance – a real danger for the Tories in light of his strategy of personally embodying what the party stands for these days.

Back in December, I said:

The ‘Cameron effect’… has so far amounted to only modest leads. He has not created anything like the sort of popular approval comfort zone that Blair had. Because of this, the Tory core vote is far less forgiving of his modernising pitch towards the centre. This means that the coalition Cameron needs to forge is going to be harder to hold together.

Now that the Tories are behind in the polls, this is even more of a factor. Poor ratings can lead to internal dissent, which of course can lead to even poorer ratings. If he can’t compellingly assert his authority, the only other option is for Cameron to drift back to the party’s comfort zone by going on about things like marriage and Europe. Ahem.

What went down… must come up

But what about Brown? There’s a common view that after a temporary change to his ratings, things will largely settle back down to the status quo.

In a way, I think this could be right. But it’s arguable that the ‘Brown blip’ may actually have been his relative unpopularity over about 18 months.

Averaging results from YouGov polls gives Brown’s net satisfaction ratings through 2003 as +31%. Through 2004 he was at +32% and in the pre-election months of 2005 he was at +40%. But from the end of 2005 to early 2007, he averaged just +10%.

Now of course these relate to satisfaction with his performance as Chancellor, which doesn’t necessarily equate to overall approval, but the figures seem consistent with this hypothesis: rather than currently experiencing a ‘bounce’ in his ratings, which may well not last that long, Brown actually experienced a dip in his ratings, which may now have ended. This dip roughly coincided with the Cameron honeymoon and the increased Labour infighting that led up to Blair’s final party conference.

During this period, the Conservatives turned most of their guns onto Brown, who was hamstrung in his ability to respond by Blair’s continued presence, and Labour’s internal strife, which reflected badly on Brown (seen as masterminding various plots). Now this strange interregnum is over, Brown can get back to making the political weather.

Stealth clunking?

Tony Blair may well protest that he’s been misunderstood. I think he could be right, at least in the case of this remark in the Commons last November:

…because he [Cameron] has no interest in the substance of policy, he can neither understand the long-term challenges facing this country, nor meet them. The next election will be a flyweight versus a heavyweight. However much the right hon. Gentleman may dance around the ring beforehand, at some point, he will come within the reach of a big clunking fist, and you know what, he will be out on his feet, carried out of the ring - the fifth Tory leader to be carried out, and a fourth term Labour Government still standing.

Almost all commentators interpreted this as meaning that Brown would use his intellect, mastery of the facts, huge self-confidence and debating ferocity to land a string of spectacular knockout blows on Cameron in Parliament.

Obviously this hasn’t happened. But that’s not where Brown’s political strengths are. He’s more of a strategist than a performer, and he’s been shrewdly, quietly working away at changing the rules of the political game to favour himself and Labour over Cameron and the Tories. As impressed reactions from Dave Hill and Martin Bright suggest, it’s working.


snowflake5 said...

You are right - though the bounce in the polls is very nice, we should be cautious and keep working the constituencies and doing the hard work - it's very hard to tell how these things will ultimately pan out.

Tom Freeman said...

Yes, absolutely. Popularity can change for any of a thousand unpredictable reasons. I bet a tremor of political fear ran through a good few Labour MPs when they heard about the new FMD outbreak.

(Eclipsed, of course, by the dread that must be gripping every cattle farmer in the country right now.)