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The Conservatives' competency questioned.


"The consistent drip of negative headlines on key issues is likely damaging the electorate’s faith in the government’s ability to deliver."


With scandals, many ministerial resignations, government instability and successive prime minister resignations the Conservative Party’s polling numbers collapsed, with Labour now on average 22 points ahead of them in the polls. This article explores how this decline will be tough to reverse due to the Conservative Party’s image having been damaged by negative events over the last year. It shows how the Conservative Party as a whole is now associated with negative thoughts and feelings, meaning that the problems of Boris Johnson and Lizz Truss can’t be overcome by just replacing the leader and hitting the government reset button. Instead, If Rishi Sunak is going to overcome the party’s polling deficit, he must convince the voters that the entire party can be trusted to deliver on the biggest issues of the day and will be able to govern the country competently. Therefore, even if the new prime minister can persuade voters he is the best candidate for his current role the voters may kick his government out of office due to concerns surrounding the Conservative Party as a whole.


New Issues - New voter assessments:


A significant change since the last general election has been the decline in concerns that tend to suit Conservative Party narratives. Thoughts around Brexit have declined considerably, with 50% fewer voters stating that it is a pressing concern for them, with many indicating it is no longer an issue they think about. Further, thoughts about immigration remain fairly low, with only one in five voters believing the issue should be prioritised, despite recent events around increasing refugee numbers. Instead, voters now think about economic and public service concerns, with roughly 50% more of the electorate stating that the issue needs to be greatly prioritised (see figure one). With the pandemic, anxieties around the NHS have increased by 10%. Also, with pressures on the service and a difficult winter ahead, such concerns will remain and may strengthen. This, on top of strikes making it clear that a range of public services are in deep stress, has caused a range of concerns over public services to rise in saliency amongst the electorate in recent months, with this trend likely to continue in the coming months due to ongoing disputes.

This is problematic for the Conservatives as they are now being assessed against issues they traditionally do poorly on and issues that are bringing negative headlines. The Conservatives have never been more trusted than Labour to deal with the NHS and public health. Moreover, Labour often is seen to be more able to fund and manage public services, and with the Conservatives defending public service cuts and services being under clear stress, it will be hard for the Tories to convince the public they are better on the issues that the voters are increasingly thinking about. Additionally, the economy, an issue the Conservatives have been seen to be most competent on since 2008, no longer favours them as declining economic growth and rising prices are being laid on their doorstep. After the mini-budget failed, the Conservatives will likely be associated with causing these negative economic outcomes, meaning that they are unlikely to be trusted to deliver on the biggest issue of the day.

Figure 1: Voters’ most pressing concerns since Boris Johnson came to power. Source: YouGov, Opinium & Redfield Wilton polls.

Economic competence:


At the time of the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party had a strong lead over Labour in being seen as the party most able to manage the economy, with 20% more voters stating they were better on the issue than Labour. One interesting trend was that working-class voters were slightly more likely to state the Conservatives were to be more trusted on the issues than Labour, with 23% of these voters indicating the Tories were better than Labour on this issue. Yet, over the last year, this trend has reversed, with Labour now leading the Conservatives on economic competence by 20% according to YouGov, Opinium and Redfield Wilton polling (see figure 2). Interestingly, the lead the Conservative Party had among working-class voters has gone, with Labour now leading amongst these voters by 15%. Additionally, Labour also leads by 20% amongst voters in middle-class professional occupations. Worryingly, for the Conservatives, the lead they had amongst Leave voters in the 2019 election of 55% is now down to 5%, with Labour now leading Remain voters by 40% (an increase of 30% since the 2019 election).


Most damaging for the Conservative Party is the very voters they need to keep onside, those over 55 and over, also appear to have lost faith in the Conservative Party’s ability to deliver on the economy. With this group of voters, in the 2019 election, the Conservative Party had a 45% lead over Labour, but now the two parties are tied. Meanwhile, during the same period, Labour’s lead amongst younger voters on economic competence has increased by roughly 20%. Therefore, the Conservative Party is partly losing support in the polls as they are not trusted by key voters to deliver on the biggest issue of the current time, the economy. The mini-budget has made these trends worse for the Conservative Party, further damaging their ratings, meaning it could be a long way back for the Conservatives even if Sunak becomes popular.

Figure 2: Party that is most able to handle the economy – average figures and by class group. Sources; YouGov, Opinium and Redfield.

Health and the NHS:


Labour is nearly always more trusted on the NHS than the Conservative Party, and since the 2019 election Labour has increased their lead on this issue. On average, since the 2019 election Labour has increased its lead from just under 5% to roughly 35%. Their lead amongst Remain voters on the NHS is now 55%, see figure 3. Crucially, Labour is now leading amongst Leave voters by over 10%. Importantly, the Conservative Party had a lead amongst older voters on NHS competence of 20%, but now Labour has a lead of 15%, with their lead amongst younger voters also being extended from 25% to 40% in the same period. As the pandemic has brought further strains to the NHS, which was already struggling pre-pandemic to meet targets, problems within the service have become starker. The pandemic has made many think about their health and the quality their health service is in, and with a difficult winter likely to be ahead concerns around the NHS will likely linger. The difficulty in responding to the pandemic and the problems that will linger from its long-term effects will make it too hard for any government to deliver on the NHS, meaning that it will be hard for the government to deliver on this issue. This, on top of perceived past failings, will again mean the Conservative Party will find it hard to appear competent on the biggest issues of the day, thus providing a huge barrier for them to regain their polling lead.

Figure 3 – Best party to manage the NHS since the 2019 election – average view and Leave compared to Remain

Immigration no longer the vote-winner?


Not only have Brexit and immigration decreased in saliency, but the Conservative Party is also seen to be weaker on these issues. For instance, the Conservative Party had a clear lead on both immigration and Brexit, with the Conservative Party having a 15% lead over Labour on being seen to be the party best on the migration issue in 2019. Yet, with Brexit not bringing the expected control on immigration and rising refugee numbers bringing more news stories of increasing migration flows, the voters may have lost faith in the Conservative Party’s ability to deal with the issue. Figure four shows that Labour is now more trusted than the Conservative Party to deal with the issue, with 10% more of the electorate stating that Labour is best on the issue. Even amongst Leave voters, the Conservative Party’s lead on the issue has declined from 30% to 15%, with Labour clearly leading amongst Remain voters by nearly 30%. Additionally, amongst older voters since the 2019 general election, the Tories’ lead has declined from 30% to just over 5%, with Labour clearly leading amongst younger voters.


Further, with Brexit having been implemented, Brexit is no longer as salient and any problems associated with Brexit are also attached to the government that implemented it. Therefore, any inability to deal with immigration or troubles with the border post-Brexit may now be damaging to the government as the public expects the British government to deal with the issue, meaning that Brexit, the EU ad immigration are issues that likely no longer produce a benefit for the government.

Figure 4 - Best Party to handle immigration –average response and Leave compared to Remain voters. Source: YouGov.

Overall:


In conclusion, it can be said that even with a leadership change that has mostly gone down well there is still a long way back for the Conservative Party. The implementation of Brexit and the pandemic has changed what voters are concerned about. With debates around Brexit declining in voters’ immediate thoughts and the pandemic making the electorate more concerned about the NHS and the economy, voters’ concerns are orientated around the cost of living and quality of service thoughts rather than cultural issues. As both the economy and public services (particularly the NHS) are under severe stress there are many negative news stories associated with these issues, making it hard for the government to appear competent on these issues.

The consistent drip of negative headlines on key issues is likely damaging the electorate’s faith in the government’s ability to deliver. Additionally, with a hard winter ahead, a long recession likely to grip the 2023/24 financial year, a tough winter ahead for public services and looming public sector worker strikes (which will have some support) it will be tough for the government to regain an image of credibility as generating positive outcomes and headlines will be challenging in such a climate. Therefore, due to wider problems surrounding government competence, even if the new prime minister can convince voters he is the best leader for the job wider concerns about the Conservative Party’s competence on key issues will make it hard for the government to reverse their declining polling fortunes.

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