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24 June 2010

Can austerity be popular?

Tories climb to 42 per cent in first post-Budget poll -- but remember, the pain has barely begun.

By George Eaton

Today’s Sun/YouGov poll, the first since the Budget, is very good news for the Conservatives. It puts the Tories up 3 points to 42 per cent, the party’s highest level of support since January, and shows that, with the exception of the VAT increase, all of the key measures are backed by voters. Meanwhile, Labour is unchanged on 34 per cent and the Lib Dems are down 2 to 17 per cent.

So is this proof that austerity can be popular (if not progressive)? Not necessarily. For a start, many tax and spending changes become unpopular only once they’re implemented. Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax threshold didn’t become a political headache until the year after his final Budget. Voters often mistakenly assume that cuts to spending and benefits won’t hurt “people like me”.

The coalition is also still in its honeymoon period, a factor that influenced George Osborne’s decision to announce the most painful measures now. At the same time, Labour, deprived of a permanent leader, has been unable to offer effective opposition to the coalition and has yet to establish a credible position on either the deficit or spending cuts.

But the Tories are certainly confident they can secure re-election in 2015. MPs point to a recent study by Ben Broadbent and Adrian Paul of Goldman Sachs which looked at the relationship between fiscal tightening and electoral support. The results suggested that, if anything, fiscal rentrenchment increases support for the governing party.

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As Broadbent and Paul write: “The three governments that have executed the most high-profile expenditure-based deficit reductions — Ireland in 1987, Sweden in 1994 and Canada in 1994 — were all re-elected.”

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The other particular advantage for the Tories is that, unlike Kenneth Clarke et al in the 1990s, their fiscal retrenchment is taking place in the first term, rather than the fourth, of a Conservative government. It will be up to the next Labour leader to mount an effective, progressive case against the coalition — the sheer impact of cuts alone won’t do it.

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