As large areas of northern England and the Midlands prepare to re-enter a form of lockdown this week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that the Government will pay two-thirds of the wages for UK workers who are employed in firms which are told to close.
In Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest polling across Great Britain (conducted shortly prior to Rishi Sunak’s announcement), only 28% of respondents said they were ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ confident in the ability of the Chancellor to take the appropriate measures which best protect the economy. Half of respondents meanwhile said they were only ‘somewhat’ confident, and over a fifth (22%) were ‘not at all’ confident.
Our polling has regularly highlighted that the Chancellor’s overall approval rating is higher than all other major political figures in the UK, and that Rishi Sunak is popular among voters of both major parties. Nevertheless, these results suggest a degree of superficiality to Sunak’s high ratings. Significantly, only 39% of 2019 Conservative voters define themselves as ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ confident in the Chancellor’s abilities. More than half of this subgroup say they are only ‘somewhat’ confident, which is far from a ringing endorsement and could indicate a broader pessimism about the state of the economy and what the Government can do to save it.
For instance, Government spending on coronavirus has increased the national debt to a record £2.024 trillion. In these circumstances, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that tax rises are inevitable. Looking ahead, however, a plurality (38%) are opposed to personally paying more taxes after the coronavirus crisis, while a third (33%) would support paying more in tax, while 27% would neither support nor oppose.
Support or opposition to paying more tax is not impacted by political allegiance. A broadly equal proportion of Conservative and Labour voters support (34-36%) paying more in taxes after coronavirus as the proportion who oppose (35-37%). This finding is particularly interesting given that the Conservative manifesto from 2019 stated that “we promise not to raise the rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT.” Ultimately, a substantial proportion of Conservative voters recognise the extraordinary nature of the current situation, and are therefore willing to pay more personal tax to support the economic recovery.
Although reducing public debt will be a key consideration behind future decisions to raise taxes, the current Conservative Government has said it is determined to ‘level up’ the country by increasing spending in the Midlands and North. Currently, a strong plurality (42%) of respondents say they would be most strongly motivated to pay more taxes if it led to increased spending on the NHS. Only 17% are mainly motivated by the opportunity to reduce public debt. Interestingly, just 11% see increasing spending on national infrastructure as a central motivator to pay more tax, despite the Government’s stated commitment to investing more in infrastructure going forward.
Meanwhile, it has recently emerged that the UK economy grew by just 2.1% in August, leaving the country’s economy 9.2% smaller than it was in February. Although the UK’s economic recovery looks likely to be further constrained as new restrictions are announced, a majority (53%) remain more concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on public health. Nevertheless, 38% are more concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the economy.
The tensions evident in the Conservative Party surrounding whether the Government should prioritise the economy or public health are reflected among the Party’s base: 48% of 2019 Conservative voters are primarily concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on public health, while 47% are more concerned about the effect on the economy, a difference falling well within the margin of error of that sub-sample.
Ultimately, the British public remains primarily concerned about the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public health. Yet, views on the Government’s competence regarding the economy stand on shaky grounds. While a majority approve of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s job performance so far, fewer than a third of members of the British public say they are moderately or very confident in his ability to take the appropriate measures that best protect the UK’s economy.