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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.