Tory momentum stalls in the marginals that matter

Cameron's lead down to 2 points, personal ratings tank.

Eighteen months ago, someone at Channel 4 News made a smart call. It was autumn 2008 and the programme's makers were keen to discover whether Gordon Brown's role in "saving" the banks would ultimately save his premiership. But rather than test the mood of the country as a whole, the show set about polling in marginal constituencies.

And not just any marginals. The seats where David Cameron's Conservatives only needed to overturn a lead of a few hundred were irrelevant -- Cameron had those in the bag long ago. Rather, YouGov was asked to look at seats where Labour had majorities of roughly 2,000 to 7,000 votes, the very seats the Tories have to win if they want an overall majority.

In other words, these are the marginals that matter.

This week, YouGov returned to those 60 Labour-Conservative constituencies and last night Channel 4 News broke the bad news to Cameron and co -- the Tory lead over Labour is just 2 points, translating to a Conservative government 11 short of a majority. This is hung parliament territory.

The figures themselves are not disastrous for the Conservatives but the trend is worrying, suggesting a loss of that electoral magic formula: momentum.

Back in October 2008, despite the bailout bounce Brown was enjoying elsewhere, the Tories had a commanding 13 per cent lead in these 60 seats. Moreover, Cameron's personal ratings comfortably trumped Brown's. Not any more. For example, 70 per cent now think that David Cameron in No 10 would mean either change for the worse or no change.

The Michael Ashcroft millions, targeted at just this kind of seat, may yet start to work, but as YouGov's president, Peter Kellner, notes:

If Mr Cameron can't turn that round, and if the general election results are exactly in line with our poll, then the Tory leader would unquestionably become prime minister, but he may need to call an early second election to seek a clearer mandate from Britain's voters.

And if he continues to lose momentum in these seats, things could be even worse. As it says on this week's New Statesman cover: "Game on".

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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How will Theresa May meet her commitment to low-earners?

The Prime Minister will soon need to translate generalities into specifics. 

The curtailed Conservative leadership contest (which would not have finished yet) meant that Theresa May had little chance to define her agenda. But of the statements she has made since becoming prime minister, the most notable remains her commitment to lead a government "driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours." 

When parliament returns on 5 September, and the autumn political season begins, May will need to translate this generality into specifics. The defining opportunity to do so will be the Autumn Statement. Originally intended by George Osborne to be a banal update of economic forecasts, this set-piece more often resembled a second Budget. Following the momentous Brexit vote, it certainly will under Philip Hammond. 

The first priority will be to demonstrate how the government will counter the threat of recession. Osborne's target of a budget surplus by 2020 has wisely been abandoned, granting the new Chancellor the freedom to invest more in infrastructure (though insiders make it clear not to expect a Keynesian splurge).

As well as stimulating growth, Hammond will need to reflect May's commitment to those "just managing" rather than the "privileged few". In her speech upon becoming prime minister, she vowed that "when it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you". A natural means of doing so would be to reduce VAT, which was increased to a record high of 20 per cent in 2010 and hits low-earners hardest. Others will look for the freeze on benefit increases to be lifted (with inflation forecast to rise to 3 per cent next year). May's team are keenly aware of the regressive effect of loose monetary policy (low interest rates and quantitative easing), which benefits wealthy asset-owners, and vow that those who lose out will be "compensated" elsewhere. 

A notable intervention has come from Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee. He has called for the government to revive the publication of distributional analyses following Budgets and Autumn Statements, which was ended by George Osborne last year (having been introduced by the coalition in 2010). 

In a letter to Hammond, Tyrie wrote: "I would be grateful for an assurance that you will reinstate the distributional analysis of the effects of the budget and autumn statement measures on household incomes, recently and mistakenly discontinued by your predecessor." He added: "The new prime minister is committing her government to making Britain a country that works 'not for a privileged few, but for every one of us'. A high level of transparency about the effects of tax and welfare policy on households across the income distribution would seem to be a logical, perhaps essential starting point." 

Whether the government meets this demand will be an early test of how explicit it intends to be in reducing disparities. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.