Why the Tories are wrong to hope for a Thatcher-style poll recovery

Unlike Thatcher in the 1980s, the current Conservative Party does not enjoy the advantage of a divided left.

Having trailed Labour in every poll since 18 March (three days before George Osborne's fateful Budget), the Conservatives are consoling themselves with the thought that they have been here before. Margaret Thatcher, they recall, often lagged behind in the polls but twice recovered to win landslide victories in 1983 and 1987. At the Conservative conference earlier this month, David Cameron told a 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception that between 1983 and 1987, the Tories averaged just 24 per cent in the polls but went on to win a majority of 102 seats at the election. While he would "settle for less than that", he believed that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories could win. It's not just Cameron who is seeking to strike a more optimistic tone. Ken Clarke recently told the cabinet that "he had never been in a government that had been more popular at mid-term." With unemployment and inflation down, and the economy out of recession (although for how long remains to be seen), some Tories are beginning to dream of a majority again. But a closer analysis of the polls suggests that they're wrong to be so sanguine.

First, it's unclear which polls Cameron is referring to when he claims that the Tories averaged support of 24 per cent between 1983 and 1987. As UK Polling Report's comprehensive archive of polls shows, only once (on 12 August 1985) did backing for the party fall this low. Cameron probably meant to say that support for the Tories averaged 24 per cent at this stage in Thatcher's second term (as his personal pollster Andrew Cooper is reported to have told the cabinet), but even this claim doesn't stand up. In 1985, support for the party more often stood at around 33 per cent. The Thatcher recovery was not as great as the Tories suggest.

Second, unlike Thatcher, the current Conservative Party does not enjoy the advantage of a divided left. One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour majority in the 1980s was the strength of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which won 25.4 per cent of the vote in the 1983 election and 22.6 per cent in 1987. It is the present weakness of the Lib Dems that is one of the biggest obstacles to a Conservative majority.

While it is the Tories who are in second place in most Lib Dem seats (38 compared to 17 for Labour), any gains they make from Nick Clegg's party are likely to be outweighed by the gains Labour makes as Lib Dem defectors carry the party to victory in Tory marginals (see Rob Ford's recent post "Who benefits from a Lib Dem collapse?" for more on this). We are seeing this trend at work in the Corby by-election, where a recent poll by Lord Ashcroft found that support for Labour had risen from 39 per cent to 54 per cent since the general election, while support for the Lib Dems had plummeted from 15 per cent to five per cent. Corby is one of 38 Labour-Tory marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory, showing the potential for Miliband's party to make significant gains even if Clegg's party partially recovers before 2015. In addition, while existing Lib Dem MPs, many of whom enjoy large local followings, are likely to benefit from an incumbency effect, it is the Tories, not Labour, who will suffer as a result (as I noted, Cameron's party is in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats).

Finally, while the Conservatives' core vote has held up better than many expected (the latest YouGov poll puts them on 33 per cent, down just three per cent since the general election), there is no evidence of the party advancing beyond this. The Tories are still in retreat in those areas – the north, Wales, Scotland – that denied them a majority at the last election. Rather than drawing false comfort from history, the Conservatives should focus on adopting the policies needed to change this, something they currently show little sign of doing.

The Conservatives hope that David Cameron, like Margaret Thatcher, will overturn Labour's poll lead before the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.