What lies behind Labour's shrinking poll lead?

Over the last week, the party's lead has halved from 14 points to seven. With politics as normal suspended, the Tories may have benefited from a Thatcher effect.

During last week's Commons tribute to Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative MP Conor Burns, a close confidante of the former prime minister, recalled showing her a poll last November with the Tories nine points behind. Thatcher, he revealed, replied, "That's not far enough behind at this stage", explaining that "she took a view that to do things that were right did entail unpopularity until people saw that what you were doing was working."

Thatcher, then, would be alarmed by the latest polls, which show Labour's lead has fallen to its lowest level for months. The YouGov daily tracker puts the party on seven points, down from eight the previous day (and a peak of 14 last Thursday) and the lowest Labour lead since David Cameron's EU speech in January. Yesterday's Guardian/ICM survey made similarly grim reading for Team Miliband, with Labour's lead down to six (from eight last month) and Miliband's net approval rating down to -23, his worst since becoming leader.

It could, of course, be normal sample variation but it's plausible that the Tories, whose YouGov vote share has risen five points to 33 per cent since last week, have benefited from a Thatcher effect. Polls have shown that most voters continue to regard her (if not all of her policies) fondly and, with politics as normal suspended, David Cameron has enjoyed largely free rein to hail her conservative values. Labour, meanwhile, has presented a divided face to the country as Tony Blair's piece in the centenary edition of the NS has been followed by a series of other critical interventions from party grandees. Voters, as pollsters regularly attest, don't like divided parties, the reason why John Prescott told Monday night's PLP meeting that it was "crazy" for Labour to fracture just two weeks before the local elections. 

Thatcher, incidentally, may have been right about the Tories not being far enough behind (or Labour not being far enough ahead). As the data below from YouGov's Peter Kellner shows, no modern opposition has ever won without being at least 20 points ahead in mid-term. But with the right divided and the Lib Dem vote likely to collapse in Tory-Labour marginals, Miliband has some hope of defying this trend. 

Peak poll leads

Oppositions that went on to win            Oppositions that went on to lose

Lab 1959-64:     20% (June 1963)                      Lab 1979-83:    13% (Jan 1981)
Con 1966-70: 28% (May 1968)                           Lab 1983-87:    7% (June 1986)
Lab 1970-74: 22% (July 1971)                           Lab 1987-92:    23% (March 1990)
Con 1974-79:    25% (Nov 1976)                        Con 1997-2001: 8% (Sept 2000)
Lab 1992-97:     40% (Dec 1994)                        Con 2001-2005: 5% (Jan 2004)
Con 2005-10:    26% (May 2008)

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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