Who is winning the economic argument?

Two polls today present a mixed picture.

As crisis engulfs the eurozone, people across Europe are beginning to question whether austerity is, indeed, the only route out to recovery. But what impact is that having on the economic argument in the UK, and what does it mean for the political parties? Two polls out this morning present a rather mixed picture.

A Times/Populus poll (£) shows a thoroughly divided public. A small majority of 51 per cent believe that the government should slow the pace of spending cuts rather than trying to eliminate the structural deficit by 2017. Conversely, 49 per cent of voters back the coalition’s “Plan A”, and want the government to prioritise deficit elimination by 2017, even if that means more cuts. This result has been broadly consistent for 18 months, suggesting that the eurozone crisis and the implementation of cuts have not had much of an effect.

Elsewhere, a Guardian/ICM poll suggests that the eurozone crisis might actually be helping the government, as the public increasingly blames problems in Europe for the new recession in Britain. Asked about four possible culprits, 29 per cent continued to blame debts amassed by Labour, 24 per cent blamed the eurozone, 21 per cent the banks’ reluctance to lend, and just 17 per cent chose the coalition’s cuts. This shows a slight shift away from cuts and towards Europe since the same question was asked last autumn.

Two years into the new government, it is not good for Labour that the public continue to hold them responsible for the country’s economic woes. Both polls show very similar overall ratings, placing Labour on 41 points. Populus has the Tories seven points behind at 33, while ICM places them at 36.

There are several interesting things going on here. The first is that David Cameron’s personal ratings - consistenly higher than his party's - are falling. Last week, I asked whether “Lucky Dave’s” luck was running out, and that image is compounded. ICM gives the Prime Minister a net negative rating of -11, a significant fall since December (when he ranked at +5) and placing him neck and neck with the Labour leader Ed Miliband at -12.

The second area where the coalition has consistently outpolled Labour is on the economy. Although recent polls have suggested that Miliband’s team is closing the gap, today’s results suggest there is still a distance to go. Populus found that 40 per cent of the public backed Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg on the economy, compared with 33 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls.

ICM’s results mirrored this, finding that when people were asked to put their overall political preferences aside, 44 per cent preferred Osborne and Cameron on the economy, while 35 per cent trusted Miliband and Balls. While this is a substantial lead for the Tories, it’s worth noting that it has been diminishing steadily, from a 21 point gap in December to just nine now.

These polls show a public beginning to fall out of love with the coalition, but not yet confident of the alternative. Eurozone or no eurozone, there is a long way to go yet for Labour to win the economic argument.
 

George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street before presenting his Budget, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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