Populus poll shows effects of Labour coup attempt. Or does it?

The party loses 2 points as the Tories gain 1, but support for Brown has increased

The Times has published its monthly Populus poll, taken over the weekend. The headline figures were 28 per cent for Labour, 41 per cent for the Tories and 19 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

This is 2 points down for Labour and 3 points up for the Tories on the last Populus poll, in early December, and appears to show that the plot against Gordon Brown by Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon has damaged Labour in the eyes of voters. It follows an ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend that gave Labour 30 per cent and the Conservatives 40 per cent, reported with the headline: "Week of bungled plots boosts Labour in poll".

It is possible that the Telegraph poll was simply taken too soon after the event to show the ripple effect, but it's also worth noting that the Telegraph/Times polls display results within 2 points of each other, despite their totally different interpretations of events (the Times poll is headlined "Poll shows failed coup hit Labour hopes hard"). The electorate is still lukewarm, and the press apparently divided on how to portray voters' reaction to the latest developments in Westminster.

Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting points out that the Populus poll is especially interesting, as it is "the pollster that has tended to produce the best numbers for the [Labour] party and the lowest for the Tories".

The poll also shows that support for Brown has actually been bolstered. Forty-one per cent of general voters believe that he is the best leader for Labour at present, up 8 points since last September. Among Labour supporters, the figure was up 9 points to 71 per cent.

Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report attributes this to "sympathy", but, as my colleagues have repeatedly argued here, it may have a lot more to do with the timing (so close to the general election), and -- vitally -- the absence of a clear successor to Brown for rebels to gather around.

This is supported by further evidence from the poll. While 12 per cent said they could think of another Labour politician who would make a better leader, nearly half of this group said, when pressed, that they didn't know who, or couldn't remember.

Labour pundits should also take note that while David Cameron continues to lead overall, 50 per cent of people said that he was on the side of the rich over ordinary people, while 42 per cent disagreed. This shows that the "class war" strategy, though it sounds crude when put in those terms, could still be effective. Issues of fairness, such as inheritance tax, remain the Achilles heel of the Tories, and Labour would do well to capitalise upon this.

Meanwhile, 64 per cent said that Brown was on the side of ordinary people, with just 26 per cent saying he was for the rich. The improvement was primarily among unskilled working-class voters, showing that, despite the horror of Peter Mandelson, among others, at the prospect of appealing too heavily to Labour's core vote, it might not be such a bad idea. As Rachel Sylvester points out in the Times today, while such voters alone might not make enough of a difference to win the election, it will not help Labour if they stay at home or vote BNP.

 

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

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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