Osborne's failure could cost the Tories a majority

The Chancellor will no longer be able to wipe the slate clean and offer tax cuts.

This morning's papers make grim reading for George Osborne. Unemployment is at a 17-year high and is likely to rise further. Growth is now expected to be just 1 per cent this year and next. Worst of all for the Chancellor, a deficit hawk, the government will be forced to borrow around £109bn more than forecast at the time of Spending Review and billions more than Alistair Darling would have. In addition, it is thought that Osborne will miss his target to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15 - the part of the deficit that remains even after growth has returned to normal - owing to the fact that the output gap - the difference between potential GDP and actual GDP - was smaller than thought. For the Tories, whose political fortunes are intertwined with those of economy, these are troubling times.

Osborne's pledge to eliminate the structural deficit in one parliament was based on a political timetable, not an economic one. By 2015, Osborne envisaged that the Tories would be able to boast that they had claned up "the mess" left by Labour - a powerful political narrative - and offer cuts in personal taxation. But anaemic growth, higher unemployment and, consequently, higher borrowing mean that this is an increasingly distant dream. Osborne's ultimate goal - a Tory majority - is slipping out of reach. As Peter Oborne writes in his Telegraph column this morning:

If the Chancellor gets it right, David Cameron's Conservative Party will probably command a majority after the next general election. If Osborne gets it wrong, his friend Cameron will go down in history as an Old Etonian version of Gordon Brown: a one-term prime minister who never won a general election ... Eighteen months after David Cameron entered Downing Street, it can be stated with stone cold certainty that George Osborne's economic strategy is not working.

Despite Labour's consistent lead in the opinion polls, there is a default assumption in Westminster that the next election is likely to result in a Tory majority. But several factors mean that this is no longer the case. The Tories continue to struggle in the north, where Labour leads by 28 points, and in Scotland, where Labour leads by 16 points. Ukip's recent surge in support - the party is on 6 per cent in the latest YouGov poll - is also troubling Tory strategists. Nigel Farage's party cost the Tories up to 21 seats at the last election (there were 21 constituencies in which the Ukip vote exceeded the Labour majority) and could cost them even more next time round. Finally, as Andrew Cooper, Cameron's pollster, knows all too well, the Tories remain the most toxic party. While 70 per cent of the electorate say they would be prepared to vote for Labour, just 58 per cent say they would consider voting Conservative. As ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie noted recently, "In order to win an election we need to convert a good three quarters of our potential voters while Labour only needs to capture a much smaller proportion."

The hope among the Tories was that the success of Osborne's economic plan would override all of this. A grateful electorate would rush to thank the Iron Chancellor for balancing the books. But the near-collapse of growth means that there is no chance of Osborne wiping the slate clean. The question the electorate, facing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s, will ask is "what was all the pain for?" The Tories had better have a very good answer.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Shock Wales YouGov poll shows that Labour's Ukip nightmare is coming true

The fear that voting Ukip would prove a gateway drug for Labour voters appears to be being borne out. 

An astonishing new poll for the Cardiff University Governance Centre and ITV Cymru shows a historic result: the Conservatives ending a 167-year wait for an election victory in Wales.

The numbers that matter:

Conservatives: 40 per cent

Labour: 30 per cent

Plaid Cymru: 13 per cent

Liberal Democrats: 8 per cent

Ukip: 6 per cent

Others: 3 per cent

And for context, here’s what happened in 2015:

Labour 36.9 per cent

Conservatives 27.2 per cent

Ukip 13.6 per cent

Plaid Cymru 12.1 per cent

Liberal Democrat 6.5 per cent

Others 2.6 per cent

There’s a lot to note here. If repeated at a general election, this would mean Labour losing an election in Wales for the first time since the First World War. In addition to losing the popular vote, they would shed ten seats to the Tories.

We're talking about a far more significant reverse than merely losing the next election. 

I don’t want to detract from how bad the Labour performance is in a vacuum – they have lost 6.9 per cent of their vote on 2015, in any case the worst election performance for Labour in Wales since the rout of 1983.  But the really terrifying thing for Labour is not what is happening to their own vote, though that is pretty terrifying.

It’s what’s happened to the Conservative vote – growing in almost every direction. There is some direct Labour to Tory slippage. But the big problem is the longtime fear of Labour MPs – that voting for Ukip would be a gateway drug to voting for the mainstream right – appears to be being realised. Don't forget that most of the Ukip vote in Wales is drawn from people who voted Labour in 2010. (The unnoticed shift of the 2010-5 parliament in a lot of places was a big chunk of the Labour 2010 vote went to Ukip, but was replaced by a chunk of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote.) 

If repeated across the United Kingdom, the Tory landslide will be larger than the 114 majority suggested by the polls and a simple national swing.

As I’ve said before, polls are useful, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The bad news is that this very much supports the pattern at elections since the referendum – Labour falling back, the Tories losing some votes to the Liberal Democrats but more than making up the loss thanks to the collapse of Ukip.

The word from Welsh Labour is that these figures “look about right” at least as far as the drop in the Labour vote, though of course they have no idea what is going on with their opponents’ vote share. As for the Conservatives, their early experiences on the doorstep do show the Ukip vote collapsing to their benefit.

One Labour MP said to me a few days again that they knew their vote was holding up – what they didn’t know was what was happening to their opponents. That’s particularly significant if you have a “safe seat” but less than 50 per cent of the vote.

Wales has local elections throughout the country on 4 May. They should provide an early sign whether these world-shaking figures are really true. 

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

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