George Osborne represents a very particular archetype found in modern politics. Tomorrow’s Budget comes as stories have been circulating about the Chancellor’s leadership ambitions, with a recent bout of sword-crossing with Boris Johnson fuelling the gossip.
But while the Mayor of London seems to have perfected the “loveable rogue” character, Mr Osborne often presents a rather different personality.
Just before Christmas, ComRes tested how the public would relate to a number of leading politicians on a personal level. The Chancellor scored abysmally on nearly every measure. Forced to choose between David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, Nick Farage and Mr Osborne, just 2% said they would most like to have a meal with the Chancellor, 3% would most want him to give them first aid treatment in an emergency, and only 1% would most like to spend Christmas with him. In each area, Mr Osborne was a less popular choice than for example Nick Clegg.
But despite these low scores, much reaction to the poll, probably quite correctly, focused on how Mr Osborne would not really mind about all this. Because, of all the politicians tested, Mr Osborne was the public’s most popular choice to look after their financial affairs (18%).
What with the constant emphasis on austerity, this approach appears to be a rule that Mr Osborne has followed with vigour. Part of this may be a pragmatic acceptance of the inevitable: consistently portrayed by cartoonists with axe in hand, he may reason that it is better to be seen wielding the weapon with intent than swinging it aimlessly. It also serves as a useful dividing line with the supposedly hapless Mr Miliband. But with all the talk of ‘tough choices’ and the decision to target benefit claimants, portraying himself as the tough but competent decision-maker appears to be at least in part the choice of Mr Osborne.
He is of course not the first to cut such a silhouette: indeed both Mrs Thatcher and Peter Mandelson are said to be inspirations for the Chancellor. But while such an approach can have its merits, equally it comes with some serious risks.
First, it may be obvious, but if you are perceived to be cruel, do not expect to be liked. Just one in six (17%) have a favourable view of Mr Osborne, compared to nearly half who are unfavourable (47%). Although such levels of dislike towards leading politicians are common, it still means that roughly as many people are favourable towards the Liberal Democrats (17%) as are favourable towards the Chancellor. In contrast, more than twice as many are favourable towards his leadership rival Boris Johnson (36%).
Crucially however, it also means that Mr Osborne is viewed much less favourably than his Party generally (28%), whereas Mr Cameron slightly out-polls the Conservative Party (31%). While the Conservatives remain less favourably viewed than Labour (31%), they are unlikely to want to risk electing a leader that drags them down further. For good or ill, elections are at base a popularity contest.
Second, Britons are fiercely tribal – they want to know you’re on their side. But when you start dealing in harsh realpolitik and trumpeting the ‘tough decisions’ you have made, there is a risk that those whose interests are disadvantaged by those tough decisions will doubt whose side you are on.
It cannot be underestimated how intractable a problem this is for the Tories. The graph below shows the proportion of people who think that the Coalition Government understands the concerns of different groups. Although the Government is overwhelmingly perceived to understand the concerns of people on high incomes (75%) and the banks and big business (67%), far fewer think that it understands other groups – importantly, groups which most of the population fall into. Only 32% think that Government understands people on middle incomes, while even fewer think it understands the concerns of small businesses and entrepreneurs (22%). Neither has the Government managed to shift this perception over the course of this Parliament. As the graph shows, most of the lines have remained static around a similar level since 2010.
Base: All GB adults (n=c.2,000 each month)
Finally, by focusing on appearing competent, you may end up falling under the false impression that you are winning the argument on this narrow measure alone. Mr Osborne (24%) is consistently more trusted than Ed Balls (15%) on the economy. But despite this, the Conservatives’ economic arguments are not necessarily preferred. Half of Britons (52%) agree that the Government is cutting public spending too much and too quickly – a phrase at the centre of Labour’s economic argument. Just 30% disagree. Correspondingly 52% disagree that the way the government is going about cutting public spending is fair, compared to 30% who agree.
The graph below shows the net agreement for these two statements dating back to 2010 (calculated by subtracting the proportion disagreeing from the proportion agreeing). Again, this trend has been evident for some time and has continued even after economic recovery. Although Mr Osborne is still preferred as Chancellor over his Labour counterpart, the advantages that come with being trusted personally on an issue risk causing complacency that everything you say about it is preferred too.
Base: All GB adults (n=c.2,000 each month)
Overall, these three risks – being considered unfavourably; being thought of as on the wrong side; and becoming complacent that being trusted individually means your arguments are automatically preferred – all represent significant challenges for both Osborne individually and his Party generally.
For these three risks, even if not caused by a deliberate attempt to be seen coldly rational and competent, have no doubt been exacerbated by the caricature. Going back to our Christmas poll on preferred politicians, Mr Osborne was selected by just 1% of Britons as their most preferred candidate to run the country. If the Chancellor does hold such ambitions, he might do well to do re-evaluate whether the Machiavellian Prince is really the best character with which to take the crown.
Westminster Voting Intention (changes since last month):
Con 32% (NC)
Lab 35% (-2)
LD 9% (NC)
UKIP 16% (+1)
Other 8% (+1)
European Parliament Voting Intention (changes since May 2013):
Con 21% (NC)
Lab 28% (+5)
LD 8% (-10)
UKIP 30% (+3)
Green 6% (+2)
Other 7% (NC)