Liz Truss has had a terrible start as prime minister, to judge from opinion polls that have recorded huge leads for Labour over the Conservatives since she entered Downing Street.
Labour has secured leads of 30 percentage points or more in four polls since chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini”-Budget” involving £45bn of unfunded tax cuts sparked turmoil on financial markets.
But Truss’s position is worse than the headline voting intention data suggest: there appears to be little public appetite for the policies she is pursuing to achieve higher economic growth, as well as a lack of trust in her delivering the agenda, according to a Financial Times analysis.
Significantly, after months in which any loss of support for the Tories came mainly from Britons saying they did not know who they would vote for — a group that historically tends to revert to the party they supported at the previous election — one in six people who backed the Conservatives in 2019 now intend to swing behind Labour.
The shift in public opinion away from the Tories has been driven primarily by Kwarteng’s “mini”-Budget that was unveiled on September 23.
While there was broad support for the 1p cut to the basic rate of income tax, just one in 10 Britons thought abolishing the 45p top rate for those earning more than £150,000 was a good idea, according to a survey by pollster YouGov published shortly after Kwarteng’s fiscal statement. This may explain why Kwarteng performed a U-turn on Monday and ditched the abolition of the 45p rate.
Other measures in the “mini”-Budget — which set a target for the UK to secure annual growth of 2.5 per cent — were similarly unpopular. Just 14 per cent thought removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses was a good idea.
Overall, only 19 per cent said the measures were fair. Among people who voted Conservative at the 2019 election, 47 per cent said it was unfair.
Chris Curtis, head of political surveys at Opinium, another pollster, said there was no doubt that what Truss was doing was proving widely unpopular with voters, but “the question is why the Tories have ended up in a place that is so far away from public opinion?”.
He added: “Truss supporters might say it is because they genuinely believe that these policies will work, grow the economy, and they will be rewarded at the ballot box because of it. But parts of the Tory party has got too used to winning and therefore thinks the public must agree with them on everything.”
Truss and Kwarteng’s struggles stem from how “Trussonomics” — which as well as tax cuts could involve sharp reductions in public spending — has arrived at a time when Britons lean to the left on economics in the way they did in the run-up to the 1997 election, when Labour’s Tony Blair won.
More than half of Britons are in favour of increasing taxes to spend more on public services including education and health, as well as welfare benefits, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, which has tracked opinion since the 1980s.
Just one in 17 thought taxes and public spending should be cut, the survey published shortly before the “mini”-Budget found. Among Conservative supporters, 46 per cent said taxes and spending should be increased, and just 7 per cent stated they should be reduced.
The same survey reported that two in three Britons said ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, the highest level since before the 1997 election.
Truss’s supporters are correct in saying the public agrees that returning to strong economic growth is one of the biggest issues facing the country, according to recent surveys from pollster Opinium for Progressive Britain, a think-tank.
But only 15 per cent thought the measures in the “mini”-Budget will improve growth, while 53 per cent said they would not help, according to the YouGov poll.
Half of Britons said the measures will actively make the country worse off, compared to 9 per cent who stated better off.
Meanwhile, 33 per cent said they would trust a Labour government with Keir Starmer as prime minister to deliver growth, with just 16 per cent stating the same of Truss’s administration.
The Truss government’s rightward shift on tax and spending has alarmed some Tory strategists who are concerned that voters have realised it has a markedly different policy platform than the one presented in 2019 by the then prime minister Boris Johnson.
“Voters are feeling whiplash because what they’re seeing the government doing is the opposite of what they voted for,” said one veteran Conservative aide. “They wanted extra spending, investment, levelling up, not cutting benefits.”
But one cabinet minister close to Truss defended her agenda. “Voters will forgive an awful lot if we do achieve better growth,” she said. “More money in people’s pockets will be rewarded at the ballot box and until then, we have to weather the storm of unpopularity.”
Another Tory strategist said that examining individual policies was not a helpful way to judge the Truss government.
“If polling on specific policies mattered, Jeremy Corbyn would have won the 2017 and 2019 elections,” he said, referring to the popularity of parts of the hard left platform of the former Labour leader. “What actually matters is the overall agenda and message.”