According to our poll conducted for The Sun last weekend [Attitudes Towards Sleaze], a quarter of the public now think that the present government is "more sleazy" than the Conservative government under John Major which preceded it; only 14% think the Major government was more sleazy. This is a question we have asked several times over the years [Sleaze Trend], but this is the first time that those who think the Blair government is the sleazier have outnumbered those who think the Major government is worse.
Of course there is nothing very surprising in this finding. Even were the government otherwise doing well, the recent media coverage of the "cash-for-peerages" issue and the police interviewing the Prime Minister could hardly fail to have a damaging effect on public perceptions; few are as vulnerable as politicians to the specious argument that there is no smoke without fire. (Or, as Flanders and Swann joked about a previous scandal, nil combustibus pro fumo.) And while the group most likely to say that Blair's government is sleazier than Major's are the oldest age group (55 and over), who ought to be in the best position to view such matters in their true perspective, they are also of course the most Conservative group in any case, who would naturally be more predisposed to take a negative view of a Labour Prime Minister.
But, in any case, Tony Blair will be out of office in a few months' time. Of more long-term interest is the question of whether his successor will be given the benefit of the doubt or will be tarred with the same "sleaze" brush. And, if so, will David Cameron and the Tories be in a position to benefit? In one sense the Conservatives are reaping the benefits already, for it is undoubtedly the case that part of the handicap that they have gone under at the past three elections has been the memory of the Major government, which has put off waverers who might otherwise have considered voting Tory, in which the impression of sleaze was an integral part; but if they could establish themselves as the "whiter than white" alternative (as Tony Blair of course once did) it would surely have a further effect.
But the poll suggests that Mr Cameron is not at the moment in a position to claim this further advantage, though neither will Gordon Brown -- if it is he who is the next PM -- immediately start with a clean slate. Asked to judge whether a Brown government or a Cameron government would be least sleazy, more than half the public said there would be no difference; as with other polls that find that politicians are among the least trusted of all professions, the impression is that most of the public think they are all as bad as each other. A minority feel there would be a difference, but they are equally split: 17% expect Brown and 15% Cameron would lead the less sleazy government, no significant advantage either way.
It is interesting, though, to look at who it is that thinks each man would be the cleaner option. Naturally, there is a powerful link with voting intention, the vast majority of Tories who think there would be a difference favouring Cameron while Labour voters equally have greater trust in Brown. But even among these, the people who say they would vote for the two major parties, half think there would be no difference between the two, suggesting that this is not (at the moment, anyway) one of those election-defining issues.
But that doesn't mean it wouldn't make a difference at the margins -- which is where elections are often won and lost. If we look at those who support neither Tory nor Labour, there is a very intriguing dichotomy. Supporters of the Lib Dems and minor parties split two to one in favour of a Brown Labour government being less sleazy than a Cameron Tory one. But, on the other hand, those who say they are undecided how they would vote split more than two-to-one in Mr Cameron's favour. The vast majority of both groups, it is true, say there would be no difference or they don't know. But it is still an edge, even if a tiny one -- to Mr Brown among the possible tactical voters and to Mr Cameron among the late deciders (who in reality are the may-or-may-not-voters).
It is worth noting the responses to a question BMRB asked in 2004 on why people have a low trust in government:
Influences on trust in government
Q Could you say what might have influenced your answers?
|War on Iraq||60%|
|Dossier on Iraq arms||23%|
|Reports on government spin||21%|
|Jeffrey Archer case||18%|
|Cash for questions / Neil Hamilton||13%|
|Jonathan Aitken case||11%|
|Local council activities||8%|
Base: all respondents influenced by recent events (422). BMRB April 2004
What is most striking about this data is the fact that while the public are most likely to cite the war and Hutton inquiry, large minorities also cite Archer, Hamilton and Aitken, which are all Tory scandals. Government itself, as an institution rather than a specific party, is seen as 'sleazier' now than it has been in past decades, and many of the public do not distinguish (or care to distinguish) between political parties on the issue.
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