Ed Miliband suddenly has the air of a man who thinks Spring has arrived. For he knows that, as the BBC reported a fortnight ago, Nicolas Sarkozy’s ejection from office made him the 11th European leader to be ousted in the wake of austerity-led economic policies and Mr Miliband is doubtless hoping that David Cameron will follow suit.
Barring unforeseen events, there are two possible scenarios which would see the Conservatives winning a majority in their own right in 2015. Either they have to right the economy in good time, or they must broaden their appeal to sufficient numbers of hitherto non-Conservative voters without turning off their own demographics. Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, neither option looks particularly likely.
The most important rating, after voting intention itself, is how much the party leaders and Treasury spokesmen are trusted on the economy. Ed Miliband may be the only frontbench figure from any of the main parties who has lectured in Economics at Harvard, but the public have consistently rated the Miliband/Balls team below that of Cameron/Osborne.
However, as this weekend’s ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror/Independent on Sunday showed, Labour’s credibility on the economy has been steadily improving to the point where, for the first time since taking over as Labour leader, Ed Miliband is suddenly looking plausible to voters.
I trust David Cameron and George Osborne to make the right decisions about the economy
Agree 26% (+1)
Disagree 55% (+1)
Net agree -29 (0)
(Change since last month)
I trust Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to make the right decisions about the economy
Agree 22% (+3)
Disagree 51% (-1)
Net agree -29 (+4)
This turnaround has also had a major effect on Ed Miliband and David Cameron respectively in terms of perceptions of the quality of their leadership:
David Cameron is turning out to be a good Prime Minister
Agree 26% (-3)
Disagree 54% (+4)
Net agree -28 (-7)
Ed Miliband is turning out to be a good leader of the Labour Party
Agree 26% (+8)
Disagree 45% (-4)
Net agree -19 (+12 )
All the above is of course based on polling before the ‘Grexit’ becomes a reality - or indeed before any other countries follow suit (I am waiting to see when speculation begins about a ‘Spexit’). So if the UK’s double-dip turned into something more substantial, where would voters go if they were to abandon the Tories? Again from this weekend’s polling, we know that around one in three 2010 Conservative voters has already switched or would consider switching to UKIP. At the risk of over-simplifying things, if the Conservatives lose support from voters at the UKIP end of the spectrum they need to have a plan to attract voters from the ‘soft centre’. Yet here the French election comes into play, because it says to this very sort of voter ‘you don’t have to choose austerity’, whether or not that is the economic reality.
Until now, the closing of the gap between the two main party leaders has been marked more by disaffection for the Conservatives than by adulation of Labour. The Conservatives need to find a way of consigning the Omnishambles to history, to reconnect with their own support base and to persuade the voting public that There Is No Alternative on the economy. Labour need to invoke the French example to reassure people that you can vote for Austerity-Lite without completely spooking the financial markets.
If the Eurozone as a whole goes down in flames, all bets are off. Ironically this could actually work to David Cameron’s advantage – after all, even the deeply unpopular Gordon Brown benefited from being seen by some voters as a safe haven in a time of crisis. But the short term economic consequences of such an outcome would doubtless be extremely painful.