There was a lot resting on Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement. The government’s ratings are in a poor state. Labour leads the Conservatives in the polls and the Tories’ lead on the key metric of the economy is narrowing.
The Chancellor’s ratings are also in something just short of free-fall and public attention is increasingly focused on the cost-of-living crisis. What Sunak needed to do yesterday (23 March) was to take the initiative and claim the narrative with a programme that allayed public anxieties.
He failed to do so. When asked if the Spring Statement did enough to help people with the rising cost of living, just 6 per cent of people told YouGov yesterday it had. An overwhelming majority (69 per cent) said it had not.
Despite overwhelming support (71 per cent) for one of the statement’s main policy announcements — cutting fuel duty by 5p — most people aren’t convinced that the measures will be of much material benefit. Sixty six per cent told YouGov that the statement’s policies would have little, if any, impact on their personal lives. Just 2 per cent, meanwhile, believed the statement would be of great help and only 11 per cent that it would be of reasonable help. Sunak’s tax cuts, while individually popular, failed to chime with voters’ priorities.
In a perfect illustration of this, in Ipsos MORI’s most recent issues index three of the five topics that voters ranked as most important were related to the cost of living — something that has not been seen for a long time. The last time inflation, for instance, was seen as this important (with more than 20 per cent of people citing it) was during the 2008 financial crisis.
The Chancellor had an open goal yesterday but snap surveys suggest that he failed to score with the public. Polling by Opinium echoed that by YouGov. Sunak’s increase in the National Insurance threshold from £9,600 to £12,570 won the support of 49 per cent of voters and 44 per cent were supportive of the overall thrust of his statement but, more importantly, 65 per cent did not believe it did enough to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.
There’s a lesson to be learnt here. Public attention is now centred on the cost-of-living crisis as it was on Brexit in 2019, Covid-19 in 2020 and the economy in 2008. If you fail to talk about the most important issue of the day, like Labour did in 2019, the logical response from voters is to stop listening to you. The risk for Sunak is that voters will now stop viewing the government as best placed to deal with the cost of living.
Opinium appears to have unearthed some early signs that this is happening. Labour’s inability to gain a lead on the economy has been the primary reason that no party strategist is confident about the next general election. Yet Opinium’s snap survey found, for the first time in its existence, that Labour has a one-point lead in this area.
In March 2021 the Conservatives led Labour on the economy by a comfortable 14-percentage point margin. The reversal in fortunes is stark, and should be treated as significant, but it should also carry a big warning. Snap polls often reflect a more impulsive mindset among voters. To be sure the political mood has changed, these results need to be repeated in the weeks and months to come.
In any case, if the government was hoping that the supposedly flexible Chancellor would revive its fortunes, the early signs suggest that the opposite is the case. The Spring Statement, while containing popular individual policies, failed to address voters’ anxieties. We shouldn’t be surprised if the public punishes Sunak and his party for that mistake.