Is David Cameron's luck finally running out?

The Prime Minister's personal poll ratings are falling, indicating that voters have stopped giving h

Back in February, a New Statesman cover story asked: how long can David Cameron keep getting away with it?My colleague Rafael Behr discussed how the Prime Minister is “uncannily immune from blame”, saying:

To Labour's frustration, on most issues Cameron's ear tends to be pretty well tuned. He performs the role of Prime Minister with a breezy aplomb that looks enough like competence for voters to give him the benefit of the doubt. That leeway is something Labour knows will shrink over time, just as the party awaits the moment when Cameron and Osborne will start getting the blame for economic malaise. As one shadow cabinet minister puts it: "People haven't yet realised that the government is failing.

Has the time now come when voters have stopped giving Cameron the benefit of the doubt? It looks like it, if today’s Evening Standard/Ipsos Mori poll is to be believed.

The number of people dissatisfied with Cameron’s performance has risen to 60 per cent, the highest since he became Conservative leader in 2005.
It appears that this is linked to a loss of confidence in the coalition’s handling of the economy, as our cover story suggested. Despite mounting evidence against the Conservative austerity package, this is an area in which Labour has consistently failed to gain ground. As Behr’s article argued:

He and Osborne have controlled the terms of debate so that the dominant question in people's minds is who should be permitted to clean up Labour's mess, which naturally invites the answer "not Labour".

The UK’s dip back into recession and the broadly negative response to George Osborne’s latest Budget perhaps made it inevitable that the tide would turn (indeed, it may be more surprising that it took so long). In the Ipsos poll, 31 per cent of voters said that they thought the Tories had the best policies on the economy – but Labour nearly matched this with 30 per cent. This is notable, given that this is the one area where the Conservatives have consistently outstripped the opposition. Just a month ago, they had a clear 10 point lead.

Confidence also fell, with 44 per cent believing that the economy will get worse over the next year, compared with 21 per cent who think it will improve. This gives on overall “optimism” score of minus 23, five points worse than last month.

Nor is this poll the only sign that the tide may be turning against Cameron and his government’s austerity package. As my colleague Jon Bernstein noted over the weekend, a Sunday Times/YouGov poll showed a personal ratings swing towards the Labour leader Ed Miliband and away from Cameron. The scores were hardly cause for celebration for either leader – Miliband was on minus 23 while Cameron was on minus 29 – but it is a significant that the Prime Minister’s personal ratings are falling, given that he has always out-polled his party. It looks like Lucky Dave’s luck is running out.
 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.