Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives have overturned Labour’s lead in terms of who voters trust most to manage the economy, a new poll for the Observer has revealed.
The new prime minister is currently drawing up tax rises and spending cuts designed to fill a £40bn fiscal hole left by Liz Truss’s disastrous time in Downing Street, with warnings that any significant attempt to cut Whitehall budgets will lead to huge pressure on public services. It comes with new analysis revealing that freezing public service spending would save £20bn but would also lead to a return to the austerity of the 2010s.
However, the latest Opinium poll for the Observer reveals that Sunak’s arrival in Downing Street has already helped repair the Conservatives’ reputation for financial management. While Labour still leads the Tories on most issues, 33% said they would prefer “a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak” to manage the economy, with 29% choosing “a Labour government led by Keir Starmer”.
When asked in the previous poll last week, 39% chose “a Labour government led by Keir Starmer”, with only 11% choosing “a Conservative government led by Liz Truss.” There is also evidence that Tory voters are returning to the party at the start of Sunak’s tenure. Last week, only 41% of Conservative voters chose a Conservative government led by Truss as their preference for managing the economy. The latest poll shows that 88% now choose a government led by Sunak.
The Tories have enjoyed a poll bounce overall but still trail Labour by some distance. Labour has a 44% share of the vote, down six points since last week. The Tories are on 28%, up five points since last week. However, Sunak starts life in No 10 with a net positive approval rating. Some 31% approve of the job he is doing, with 23% disapproving – giving him a +8 rating overall.
It comes days after Starmer warned the shadow cabinet that their huge poll leads had been an “enjoyable story” but would close with Truss being removed. His team is now drawing up plans to ensure that the Tories continue to carry responsibility for the economic turmoil that resulted in higher mortgages and dire public finances.
Starmer told the shadow cabinet that Sunak was likely to enjoy a “double bounce: the usual new PM bounce – plus the one Liz Truss managed to bungle”. He added: “That’s why we’ve said all along: no complacency, no caution, no letting up.”
Sunak is now spending most of his time focused on the 17 November autumn statement alongside chancellor Jeremy Hunt. They are likely to have to make a series of tax rises alongside spending cuts to reassure markets and gain economic credibility. However, there are also concerns in Whitehall that Hunt’s plans will go too far in cutting back spending, risking a deeper recession.
New analysis by the Resolution Foundation will warn this week that a real-terms freeze in day-to-day public service spending would save £20bn a year by 2026-27. However, it would slash unprotected departmental budgets by around 9% and take many public services back to the depths of the austerity experienced in the 2010s. The Foundation warns that taking Britain back to the peak of austerity is unlikely to be credible, given the current pressures on many public services, making further tax rises likely.
“Significant reductions in day-to-day public service spending are on the cards, while protecting areas such as health and defence,” said James Smith, its research director. “This would repeat a key option chosen by Conservative-led governments since 2010. Freezing such spending in real terms would save £20bn a year but mean a further 9% budget cut to public services such as transport, policing and housing, and take Britain into a new era of austerity.
“Given the political ramifications of such a move, the new PM and chancellor may choose tax rises instead to fill in far more of the current fiscal hole than their Conservative predecessors in Downing Street did.”