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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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