David Cameron scents victory: is he kidding himself?

The Tories needed a game-changer from George Osborne this week. Did he deliver? Don’t bank on it

Columnist Don Brind

The Conservatives are “starting to believe they can win the general election next May”, according to Matthew d’Ancona, one of those rare journalists reckoned to be on speaking terms with David Cameron.

Under an Evening Standard headline ‘It's make or break for Osborne as the Tories scent a May victory’, d’Ancona says the background to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on Wednesday was the “audacious” idea that “the Conservatives are starting to believe they can win”.

And what is the basis for that belief? D’Ancona says the picture being painted by those around the Prime Minister is that the Tories have a decent chance next May if they can retain remorseless focus on the economy and public services, and maintain the thematic discipline that eluded them at the 2010 general election. (To this day, the Prime Minister cites that campaign, with a shudder, as “how not to fight an election”.)

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But there’s a catch: d’Ancona says this newfound optimism among the PM’s aides is “much influenced by private polling”. That will have triggered the alarm bells in the offices of Lord Ashcroft, the ex-Tory treasurer turned pollster who 12 months ago chastised the Tories for what he dismissed as “comfort polling”.

What Ashcroft said then holds good today: “There is nothing wrong with trying to cheer up the troops. But the correct response to bad poll numbers is to learn from them and change them, not to try and rebut them. Boosting morale is one thing; being in denial is another thing altogether.”

It’s a good rule that if there’s a gap between the private polling and the public polling, trust the stuff that’s out in the open and subject to scrutiny - like the kind of peer review by a fellow pollster which spotted the mistake in Ashcroft’s polling of Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North seat earlier this month. (One day Ed looked like he might actually lose his seat; the next he was safe as houses.)

What the public polling shows is that the Tories are still running neck and neck with Labour: indeed, today’s YouGov poll gives Labour a one- point lead - 32 per cent to the Tories’ 31 per cent -reversing a similar Tory lead on Thursday.

The fact is the Tories need a game-changer to fire them into a decent lead over Labour and the Autumn Statement offered the best – and possibly last – chance to create one before May.

So, did George Osborne do enough with his blizzard of tax and spend measures unveiled over three days, climaxing with the stamp duty reform he announced in the Commons on Wednesday? Will polls this weekend show a Tory jump?

Osborne has form as a man who can produce game-changing policies. His plan to cut inheritance taxes in 2007, when the Tories were lagging in the polls, proved popular and forced Gordon Brown to scrap plans for a snap election.

Mike Smithson of Political Betting thinks that on the evidence of the immediate post-statement headlines – which failed to carry the serious news that this government has failed totally to deal with the deficit as promised - he may have transformed Tory fortunes.

But since then, several economists have given negative opinions – not least Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Having already warned that Osborne’s strategy will involve “colossal” cuts to public spending that might force a “fundamental re-imagining of the state”, he has now accused the Chancellor of “flattering” the public finances “by using a temporary tax increase banks to finance permanent tax cuts”. This, Johnson tells the Financial Times, is just the latest example of a “bad habit” of the Chancellor’s.

What the experts think is one thing – what about the voters? Do they still trust Cameron and Osborne over Miliband and Balls with handling the nation’s coffers?

On the morning of the Autumn Statement, The Sun produced the unwelcome headline that the Conservatives’ long and healthy lead over Labour on “economic competence” was finally on the slide.

That was based on YouGov polling which showed that confidence in the economy has fallen since Osborne delivered his Budget in the spring. In March, 39 per cent of voters thought the country’s economic situation would improve over the next 12 months while 23 per cent thought it would get worse. That plus score of 16 has become a minus score of seven: 25 per cent say the economy will get better and 32 per cent say it will get worse.

“At the same time, confidence in personal finances has stalled,” says YouGov. “While the percentage of British people expecting their finances to improve over the next 12 months steadily climbed from December 2013 to July this year, there has been no improvement – and a 1.5 point fall – since.”

A more detailed - and perhaps more significant - analysis of voters’ views on the economy is provided by the New Statesman’s election website, May 2015.

It says it all depends on who you ask. “The coalition is handling the economy well if you ask the rich – and badly if you ask the poor.” Among ABC1 voters, who make up the managerial, professional and white-collar classes, the coalition now has a net positive rating, and has had one since March. Among poorer members of society – the C2DE voters who work in primarily manual jobs – “the coalition still has a negative rating”.

These voters’ perceptions, says the Statesman, reflect the reality of how Osborne’s austerity has affected different social groups. It links the polling to an LSE/University of Essex study, published in The Observer.

It reports that “George Osborne has been engaged in a significant transfer of income from the least well-off half of the population to the more affluent in the past four years. Those with the lowest incomes have been hit hardest.”

At the very least, this means that Labour has plenty of ammunition for its general election campaign, as Jenni Russell argues in The Times.

Labour’s pitch, she says, is that “the economy isn’t working for the majority and that only its [Labour’s] policies — on wages, housing and investment — will make most people better off… If it can persuade them [the electorate] that Tory economic competence is a fiction and that it’s better to vote for a party that scores highly on ‘being on the side of people like me’, it has a chance of reaching beyond its core third of the national vote.”

It’s not just the battle with Labour that Osborne needs to worry about. Arguably an even bigger priority is winning back voters from Ukip. That won't be easy, according to an analysis of polling on perceptions of the recovery.

Political Betting analysed the 16,000 voters sampled by Populus during October and found that “those currently saying they’ll vote Ukip have the most negative views about the recovery.” More than a third (37 per cent) of Ukip voters say there’s been no recovery and more than half (57 per cent) say there may be a recovery but they haven’t felt it.

So – from the Chancellor’s perspective - it’s all down to those damned Ukippers again. You finally get the headlines off EU immigration and back onto the economy, and the Faragistes are still there, spoiling the show.

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is a former BBC lobby correspondent and Labour press officer who is watching the polls for The Week in the run-up to the 2015 election.