Is Labour’s lead over the Tories a blip - or a sign of things to come?

Conservatives hit by five-point slump as Keir Starmer takes first lead since January

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Toby Melville/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

After 149 consecutive poll leads, the Conservatives have fallen behind Labour for the first time since January following a week of manifesto-busting pledges on taxes and pensions.

The latest polling by YouGov found that Labour has pulled two points ahead of the Tories as “support for the Conservatives slumped to its lowest level since the general election on the back of Boris Johnson’s tax rise”, The Independent said.

The prime minister has stood by the National Insurance hike – which was passed in the Commons yesterday by 319 votes to 248 – while Culture Minister Oliver Dowden told Times Radio that while poll results “come and go”, Johnson will be rewarded for making “difficult decisions in the national interest”.

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Double-edged sword

Johnson has pledged that his decision to raise National Insurance contributions (NICs) by 1.25 percentage points will help deal with the “catastrophic cost” faced by those who need care. But it would appear to have also cost him in terms of his popularity with voters.

The latest YouGov polling results, carried out for The Times, show “support for the Conservatives had fallen to its lowest level since 2019”, the paper said. It suggested that “the policy has, at least for now, undermined the Conservatives’ reputation as a party of low taxation without giving them the credit for increased investment in the NHS and social care”.

The poll also found that “six in ten voters did not think Johnson or his party cared about keeping taxes low compared with about two in ten who thought he did care”, while “less than a third of voters thought Johnson and the Conservatives cared about improving the NHS compared with more than half who do not”.

In what the Daily Mail described as a “more optimistic sign for the Tories”, Labour “only managed to soak up one extra point” after the week of manifesto-breaking policy announcements.

And cabinet minister Dowden sought to “shrug off the setback”. “I’m afraid I’ve seen polls up and down, come and go,” he told Times Radio. “The real test is general elections and, in my experience, voters reward political parties, they reward governments that are willing to take difficult decisions in the national interest.

“I’m absolutely confident that in the distant future, when there is a general election, people will weigh up what this government has achieved,” he added.

“They’ll look at the strong growth, they’ll look at the jobs that have been created, they’ll look at our handling of this unprecedented crisis and they’ll say that the prime minister and the government handled it well and have got the right plans for the future.”

Anthony Wells, YouGov’s director of political research, also suggested that “we should be cautious of leaping to too many conclusions from a single poll”. However, he also added that “it looks as if the government may have sacrificed their reputation for low taxes amongst Tory voters without actually getting much credit for helping the NHS”.

The poll results will also “alarm Conservative MPs before the party conference next month”, The Times added, especially those who “spoke out against the plan”, for example ex-chancellor Philip Hammond and former leader Iain Duncan Smith.

But it will come as a welcome boost to Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has faced criticism from his own side of the political divide for “failing to set out an alternative plan for social care reform”, reported the Daily Mail.

Red rise?

“Letting the government come unstuck on one of its flagship policies is a good enough strategy three years from an election,” said the i’s policy editor, Jane Merrick. “But there are already calls from inside his party and beyond for [Starmer] to showcase some policies of Labour’s own.”

And Starmer might do well to learn from the experience of his rival party’s former leader, David Cameron.

“Four years before the 2010 election, David Cameron began a policy overhaul”, which included big policies such as an inheritance tax cut. It may have “infuriated Tory traditionalists” but it “got the Conservatives noticed”, she added.

What this poll definitely does not show is “Starmer’s Labour seizing the day”, wrote Red Box editor Patrick Maguire in The Times, who accused the party of producing not a “murmur of original thinking” as events unfolded in Westminster. However, Starmer’s team seem “pretty sanguine”.

“We’re far from victory but the poll shows that the social care scam wasn’t the brilliant wheeze No 10 were spinning earlier this week,” one Starmer insider told Maguire.

“And our decision to focus attention on their plan, expose it, and not get spooked in to making a big announcement of our own in response – despite some flak – was the right one.”

However, even among the Starmer faithful, those who back him are “getting weary of his reticence to make bold policy commitments or offer up a vision of how he wants to lead the Labour party”, said Sky News’ political editor, Beth Rigby.

His usual offering of “saying he’s not Jeremy Corbyn” is “growing old 18 months in”, she added, and a lot will be riding on his conference speech when he needs to set out what the future looks like under his Labour Party.

“But after a difficult six months,” Rigby added, “a lot is riding on a good performance.”

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