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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies