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The City is not in love with Osborne

Allister Heath
SOMETHING has gone badly wrong for the Tories. Not only is their lead in the national opinion polls looking too low to prevent a hung parliament – they are on just 37 per cent, against 32 per cent for Labour, according to YouGov’s latest poll – it is now clear that they have failed to convince the City of their choice of chancellor. As our front page story today reveals, London’s finance and business professionals would much prefer Kenneth Clarke to manage the public finances at this critical juncture for this country. The Tories’ official choice for the job, George Osborne, is a distant second and barely ahead of the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable.

The overwhelming majority of members of our special panel – 530 professionals representing a broad cross-section of the City and those who work in London’s private sector – support the Tories. Backing for David Cameron’s party among the City A.M./PHI panel (a partnership with top analysts PoliticsHome; apply to join at www.cityam.com/panel) is over twice as high as among the population as a whole – and support for Labour more than three times lower. As we revealed on Tuesday, 73 per cent of our panel believe that an outright Tory victory would be best for the economy, with another 4 per cent believing that the best outcome would be for the Tories to form the largest party in a hung parliament. Just 10 per cent said a Labour majority would be best to sort out the economy.

Yet there is a substantial disconnect between these positions and support for the individuals who would be in charge of implementing the next government’s economic policies. No fewer than 36 per cent of our panel told us yesterday that they support Clarke, against just 23 per cent for Osborne, 20 per cent for Cable and a mere 7 per cent for Darling. Labour has lost the City; the New Labour, 1990s Blairite broad-church project is well and truly dead. It is back to the past when it comes to voting patterns, with one big difference: intense scepticism towards all parties. There is no great enthusiasm for the Tories, merely a belief that they would be better – or perhaps less bad – than Labour.

What is most worrying for the Tories is that the combined Clarke/Osborne share of 59 per cent is substantially lower than the overall support for a Tory government expressed earlier this week. Some Tories even support Cable; given his rabidly anti-finance and pro-tax views, this shows just how desperate everybody is for strong and competent leadership. Osborne’s failure to convince that he is the man to rescue this country should be of great concern to Cameron and the Tory leadership; our panel is the first empirical confirmation of his lack of popularity, something that many commentators have long suspected. One possible reason is that his policies are often more anti-City even than Labour’s, while Clarke often sounds more pro free-enterprise and more forthright about explaining the size and scale of the crisis. Clarke is also vastly more experienced and has held real jobs in the private sector.

The Tories may believe that none of this matters; our readers, after all, are unrepresentative of the wider electorate. But it is them who will drive Britain’s return to growth – and it is the City to whom the next Chancellor will turn to fund the deficit. It is time for Osborne to reach out: we need less populism, more realism and a little more humility. Let us hope he is up to the challenge. allister.heath@cityam.com