The rebranding of George Osborne didn’t make him more popular

Few politicians – if they aren’t party leader – face as much discussion of their popularity as George Osborne does.

He’s dominant enough in his party to be favourite as next Prime Minister, but too soft, constrained or cautious to do a Gordon Brown and crush his rivals. So the leadership contest will be competitive and Osborne’s public unpopularity is seen as his weakness.

The Chancellor is clearly aware of this and hasn’t disguised his efforts to become liked, with his haircut, weight loss and hard-hat regimes.

This explains the relentless discussion among political commentators of Osborne’s popularity, which has re-emerged this week.

The usual description is that Osborne was initially hated as a slashing Chancellor; this is supposed to have reached a nadir with the Omnishambles budget and his being booed at the Paralympics. Then, he had a makeover which caused everyone to start liking him. The tax credits debacle has now been added to this, with recent claims that his popularity is tumbling.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while as it has all the elements for me to do one of my favourite kind of articles: one where I muster my powers of pedantry to declare a widely accepted ‘fact’ to be nonsense. There’s a conventional wisdom, that’s seemingly not backed up with numbers and resting on an assumption that most members of the public closely follow political happenings.

So is it nonsense?

In fact, there’s a data series that seems to back up the conventional wisdom quite well. Ipsos Mori regularly test satisfaction with the Chancellor of the day, and the results show pretty much what’s described. Osborne was seen to be doing a good job at first, then his numbers tanked, then – after the Paralympics – they picked up again. Recently they’ve fallen a little.

Osborne approval as Chancellor

But I don’t think this measures what we actually want to know. The question of whether Osborne is seen to be doing a good job as Chancellor might not say much about whether people would be happy to see him as Prime Minister (which is ultimately what we’re interested in).

In fact, to a fair extent, it measures how well people think the economy is doing. Comparing the data to Mori’s question on public confidence in the economy shows that the two have generally moved in tandem (the correlation is about 0.5).

Osborne approval vs economic confidence

So if we have another recession, we should expect Osborne’s job approval ratings to fall. If not, they might recover (though the relationship didn’t particularly seem to hold under Darling or Brown; it could be that the correlation is a coincidence or, for some reason, people are now less willing to accept downturns as being beyond the Chancellor’s control than they were under Labour).

But this still doesn’t really tell us whether the public actually like Osborne, and whether their view has been influenced by his rebranding.

Instead, a different question is more useful. Since 2012, Opinium and ComRes have both been measuring how far people are favourable to Osborne. This seems more useful for the question of whether he’s liked, rather than whether people think the economy’s going in the right direction.

Adding Opinium and ComRes’s data we see broadly the same picture. It starts after Osborne’s supposed nadir and then moves steadily upwards, with a small dip this month.

Osborne approval, favourability & economic optimism

So maybe there really is something in the story of Osborne’s fluctuating popularity. After all, both data sets point in the same direction: he’s now more liked and considered to be doing a better job than he was in 2012.

But, adding another data set changes the picture entirely.

The standard narrative holds that Osborne is shaping his own popularity. The fact that his favourability increased after his rebranding suggests this might be true.

But what if that improvement was nothing to do with Osborne’s efforts to improve how he’s seen? It could be down to other factors, like how the Tories are seen relative to Labour, the general sense of competence of the government, and, indeed, perceptions of the state of the economy.

If that were the case, we would expect these factors to influence favourability towards other members of the government in a consistent way.

Looking at Cameron’s popularity allows us to test exactly that. It’s a neat natural experiment: Osborne has gone to widely trumpeted lengths to improve his public image; Cameron hasn’t. Yet their popularity has moved in almost exactly the same way (correlation 0.82).

Osborne vs Cameron

This seems good evidence that Osborne’s fluctuating popularity isn’t the result of his efforts to rebrand. Instead, it looks to be based on wider factors that are shaping how the whole government is seen.

Of course, as a key person in that government, when Osborne does something high-profile, like the Omnishambles Budget or the tax credit u-turn, his popularity is affected – in the same way that Cameron’s popularity is as well. But the public generally don’t change their view of Osborne separately from their view of the rest of the government (you could postulate that Osborne’s haircut caused the change in both his and Cameron’s favourability; I’m prepared to discount that possibility).

What’s more, if we only look at the trends in favourability we miss another crucial point. Osborne’s numbers are bad. Now, after nearly four years of improvement since the nadir, his net favourability is -24.

For comparison, Cameron – who doesn’t get half as many articles extolling his efforts to be liked – currently has a net favourability of -17. Boris is on +10.

So, while Osborne’s public image has improved since late 2012, there’s no evidence that this is anything to do with his haircuts, runs and hard hats. And while he’s now more popular than he was, he’s still liked less than either his strongest rival for the top job, or its current holder.

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