Can the country be any more unified against George Osborne that it already is?

Only 16 per cent of the country approve of the chancellor. Polls don't get much more unified than that.

Earlier this week, an ITV News/ComRes poll revealed that voter trust in George Osborne has hit a new low for the Chancellor:

Only 16% of the British public appear to trust the Chancellor George Osborne to see the country through the current economic situation, according to the ITV News Index Poll carried out by ComRes. . .

That compares to 17% for shadow chancellor Ed Balls, up one percentage point from July. He was on 14% when he took over from Alan Johnson in January 2011.

Certainly those are pretty abysmally low numbers, though they are artificially buoyed-up by the high number of don't knows (22 per cent).

But how do they stand in the grand scheme of things? How united can the country get when it comes to opinion polls? And will there ever be a time when 100 per cent of respondents have no trust in George Osborne?

The answer to the last question, certainly, seems a pretty resounding "no". ICM's Gregor Jackson says that "based on my 12 years experience in the industry, it's rare to get higher than 70 per cent agreement on leadership approval."

Approval ratings are the bread and butter of the polling industry, alongside the important voting intentions. The George Osborne question was more specific than approval ratings usually are – focusing, as it did, on his handling of the economy, rather than his performance in general – which may explain some of the level of disagreement. But given that only 62 per cent of the country was prepared to actively say they disapproved of his handling, it still comes in well below the threshold.

Compare that to the times when there really has been near-unanimity in the country. YouGov's Joe Twyman tells me that, in 1943, the approval ratings for Winston Churchill were 93 per cent positive. Even then, 4 per cent of the country disapproved of the man, giving him a "net approval rating" of 89 per cent (net approval can be anything between 100 per cent and -100 per cent. For comparison, David Cameron has a net approval rating as the leader of the Conservative party of -25 per cent).

Outside of the obviously unusual circumstances of the Second World War, the highest was Tony Blair in the late nineties, who satisfied 82 per cent of the public with his performance (while dissatisfying 10 per cent, leading to a net approval of 72 per cent). Even a Prime Minister who was, as Twyman put it, "phenomenally good at being phenomenally popular" only just managed to get more than four fifths of the country approving of his performance.

Of course, the ITV News poll is only partially a simple approval poll. It's also a referendum of sorts on George Osborne's policies, and those questions often have far greater agreement. Twyman refers to a certain type of policy question as "drowning puppy questions". If you ask 1,000 Britons whether they prefer drowning puppies or cutting taxes, it's pretty easy to engineer artificial agreement. Train fare rises are an example from closer to real-life: if you ask the public whether they are in favour of the recent 6 per cent increase, 84 per cent say they aren't. But when you present the policy as a choice between fare rises or equivalent income tax rises (pdf, pg 18), the results are split, with 39 per cent in favour of the fare increases compared to 32 per cent in favour of tax rises.

Some of the highest levels of agreement ComRes has seen in the last year or so sound pretty close to being drowned puppy questions. 81 per cent of respondents thought in March that the income tax threshold should be raised to £10,000, while 74 per cent thought last month that G4S should have paid a bonus as well as contractual costs to soldiers roped in to cover their mess in the Olympics security fiasco.

Others, however, are questions which are perfectly amenable to differences of opinion, but which genuinely generate widespread agreement. Into this category falls, for instance, the question of whether or not there should be a referendum on EU membership (71 per cent think there should be) or on whether coalition policy should be focused more on promoting growth and less on cuts (72 per cent think that it should be).

It's into this category, really, that the Osborne poll falls. No-one can reasonably claim that it's a drowned puppy question – certainly there are some people who are happy to defend his capability – but at the same time, it's not as open-ended as genuine approval ratings. He can, at least, comfort himself with the fact that he's 11 per cent more popular than Abu Hamza – 73 per cent of the country wanted to see him deported.

Telephone pollsters work during the 2004 US presidential election. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.