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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”