OPINION - An improving economy won't save the Tories

 (Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)
(Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)

It doesn't seem fair. When the economy is tanking, the government gets the blame. When it recovers, voters tend to give short shrift. Just ask John Major, who couldn't even convince one in three Britons to support the Conservatives in 1997 despite overseeing 22 consecutive quarters of GDP growth and inflation at 2.6 per cent. All anyone wanted to talk about was sleaze, divisions and Black Wednesday.

No one enjoys bashing the public more than I do, but this is a tad simplistic. Yes, Major lost his job despite bequeathing to his successor the most benign economic inheritance in modern times. But cast your mind back to 1997: public services were underfunded, backbench MPs were in the news for increasingly bizarre proclivities and the government did not possess a coherent position on a central plank of the UK's foreign policy.

This brings us on nicely to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which today had some unusually warm words about the British economy. While criticising cuts to national insurance, the IMF raised its 2024 GDP forecast from 0.5 per cent to 0.7 per cent, adding that the UK economy is set for a “soft landing”.

So why are the Tories still 20+ points behind in the polls? Partly, because the pain of double-digit inflation and tax rises still happened, and will not be undone either by slower price rises today or cuts to national insurance. But also because the economy is only part of the puzzle. Other stuff matters too.

An exclusive Ipsos poll for The Standard finds that 63 per cent of adults named improving the health service as one of the three or four issues a Labour government, if elected, should focus on in the first six months. That is significantly ahead of dealing with the cost of living, in second place and cited by 44 per cent.

This is not altogether surprising. The positive reason is that the cost of living crisis is finally easing (average wage rises have outstripped inflation for 10 successive months). The negative is the state of public services and in particular the NHS, where hospital waiting lists sat at 7.5 million in March, barely down on the record high of 7.77 million in September 2023. That represents millions of people awaiting treatment, frequently in pain or unable to work. Of course, millions more will know and love someone in that intolerable situation.

Voters are capable of giving credit where credit is due. They just expect, not unreasonably in my view, that their government be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Something Rishi Sunak has repeatedly struggled to achieve.

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