On the face of it this week has not been the best for Chancellor of the Exchequer. His Budget last week was widely criticised as being a ‘Budget for the rich’, a ‘Budget for millionaires’, as well as Budget which harms lower-middle income families and pensioners. This was the week when the Tories chief political strategist completely lost his nerve apparently. Undoubtedly there have been some short-term communications failures this week, and the rushing out of minimum pricing to try and sure up the ‘small c’ pensioner vote, as well as the slow response to the ‘Cameron for Cash’ scandal has looked anything but ideal for the Conservatives. However, look beyond the hyperactive flurry of activity last week and George Osborne’s central political messaging remains intact.
While the Tories are trailing by 7 points now in some polls, they still lead strongly in the polls that Osborne is staking the Conservatives’ 2015 electoral prospects on: economic competence. Polling immediately after the Budget conducted by YouGov illustrated that 31% of people still think George Osborne is a better Chancellor to Ed Balls, who polled 25%. Similarly, 34% think that the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition are trusted to make the right decisions on the deficit, compared to 24% for Labour.
The message is clear, while the events of last week have clearly benefitted Labour, none of them serve to absolve the Labour Party of their perceived sins in office, namely that they spent too much and they lost control of the public finances. Labour can howl all they want about the Tories pandering to the rich and the cutting of the 50p tax rate, but they remain a long way from being trusted as the party that the nation will select to steward the public finances in 2015.
This is of course not to say Osborne’s strategy hasn’t been without its problems. Clearly the plan was to have all the cuts out of the way by 2015, as indeed, his motivation for cutting the deficit quickly was as much informed by electoral expediency as it was ideological zeal. Now that growth has slowed however, the cuts will undoubtedly go on well into the next Parliament. Nevertheless the central question posed to the electorate will remain the same: “which party do you trust to take care of the nation’s public finances?”
The question from a communications point of view is how Osborne continues to make the case that the Conservatives are the party voters should put their trust in. In this vein one interesting proposal in last week’s budget was Osborne’s idea that taxpayers should receive an infogram-style-breakdown of where their tax goes and what it pays for. This policy ties into the Government’s strategy of making more data available about the mechanisms of Government, but it could also potentially be a useful electoral tool come 2015. While many commentators have highlighted its use for justifying further cuts to the Welfare budget, this document could also potentially be used to inform the public on figures such as the size of the deficit, the size of the public debt, interest on the public debt. Support for the cuts remains relatively strong among the general public, and in continuing to illustrate the corrosive effect debt interest payments have on the Government’s ability to provide services, the Tories may be able to sure up this support at a later date. Moreover, rightly or wrongly, the Tories will undoubtedly continue to try and remind the public come 2015 that the debt – or in their terms ‘the mess’ – was left by the Labour party.
If Osborne can convince the public that he has made a fair fist of addressing the deficit then voters may well pledge to support a majority Conservative Government in 2015 rather than hand over responsibility to Miliband, Balls and Co who are still heavily implicated in the public’s eyes as being core actors in the previous Labour administration’s failings.