How to read the Tory poll lead

Cameron's party on top in this morning's Sunday Telegraph/ICM survey.

A seemingly remarkable opinion poll in today's Sunday Telegraph that shows a Tory lead over Labour of two points -- after a week of economic gloom -- prompts Political Betting to ask:

Is it so bad that voters want to stick with nurse?

Whichever way you look at the ICM numbers -- Conservatives 38 per cent (+2), Labour 36 per cent (-2), Lib Dems 14 per cent (no change), Others 12 per cent -- they do not make happy reading for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Yet, as always, outliers such as these should be treated with caution. After all, a weekly YouGov poll, published by the Sunday Times, shows an eight point lead for Labour -- Conservatives 35 per cent, Labour 43 per cent, Lib Dems 9 per cent, Others 13 per cent.

So what's going on? Over at UK Polling Report, Anthony Wells notes:

Whenever a poll shows an unusual result I offer the same caveat - sure, it could be the start of some new trend, but more often than not it turns out to be a blip caused by normal sample error. Pollsters' different methodologies have impacts upon their topline figures, and ICM tends to show some of the most positive figures for the Conservatives

Equally, YouGov tends to record some of the highest numbers for Labour. So until other polls show what ICM shows today, it's more realistic to conclude that Miliband's party still enjoys a small lead.

But before we dismiss today's numbers and move on, it's worth making a couple of points -- and neither reflects particularly well on Labour.

The first is that Labour's poll lead (if that is what it continues to be) has hardly shifted from where it was last December. Indeed its percentage share -- and that of the Conservatives -- has declined slightly. That decline is explained by the rise of the "Others" -- where once the Liberal Democrats as the "third party" would pick up the protest vote, it is now going elsewhere.

Labour is failing to pick up the protest vote because it is still blamed, at least in part, for the economic situation. It must hope that, as the parliamentary session progresses, the blame shifts from red to blue.

The second thing to acknowledge is that the unions made a tactical error last week -- an error not of intention but of timing -- and that may be reflected in the ICM numbers. As one shadow cabinet minister described it to my colleague Rafael Behr, the decision to strike less than 24 hours after George Osborne's Autumn statement was "a source of frustration". Privately, the language was doubtless far stronger. As Rafael notes in this week's Politics Column:

Miliband would gladly have let the news of [George] Osborne's economic woes reverberate through the week. Instead, the focus shifted to an issue that risks discomfort for the Labour leader, given his party's financial reliance on trade unions.

It was not to be and David Cameron and Osborne escaped from a potentially tricky week unscathed.

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

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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