What lies behind the Tories' poll bounce?

The Tories surge past Labour in the polls after Cameron's rejection of a new EU treaty.

Suddenly, after remaining static for months, the polls are moving again. The latest Reuters/Ipsos-MORI survey, carried out after the EU summit, puts the Tories in the lead for the first time this year, with support for Cameron's party rising seven points to 41 per cent and support for Labour falling two points to 39 per cent. Similarly, the latest daily YouGov poll has the Tories two points ahead of Labour, the first time they've led with that pollster since December 2010. Labour's lead, which has stood at five to six points for the last month, has evaporated.

Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but it certainly seems as if Cameron's EU stance has benefited his party. This may seem surprising, since, as polling by Ipsos-MORI regularly shows, only four per cent of voters regard Europe as one of the most "important issues" facing the country. And yet it can still shift polls. There are at least two plausible reasons why. Firstly, for a minority of voters, Europe clearly is very important. The rise in support for the Tories has coincided with a revealing fall in support for Ukip. For a period, with ratings as high as seven per cent, Nigel Farage's party was snapping at the Lib Dems' heels but the latest YouGov poll has them on just three per cent. Britain's eurosceptics are returning to the Conservative fold.

Secondly, as UK Polling Report's Anthony Wells points out, Cameron's bulldoggery (and the favourable headlines it garnered) may have changed perceptions of the PM himself and his leadership. He notes: "[I]f it makes people think David Cameron is a stronger leader who stands up for the country it may improve perceptions of him across the board." Cameron's personal approval ratings remain higher than Miliband's, a fact Tory strategists have continually drawn comfort from. As I've noted before, leadership ratings are often a better long-term indicator of the next election result than voting intentions. Labour party frequently led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance, but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister.

It remains to be seen whether the Tory surge hardens into a permanent advantage. But the fragility of Labour's lead has been exposed for all to see. Miliband's party will still likely walk to victory in tomorrow's Feltham by-election but an unusually strong Conservative showing would raise further questions for Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.