Opportunity Knocks

Well that didn't take long.

After 5 months as Premier Ms. Cox's approval rating has plunged to Ewart Brown territory at 29% (although he went lower), and the PLP's approval as Government down to an anemic 16%.

I'm a little surprised with the speed which the ratings have plunged, not that so many people disapprove, particularly because I thought the "anyone but Brown" bounce would last a bit longer than this. So much of Paula Cox's personal popularity over the past few years has been her being a blank slate and the light at the end of the Brown tunnel, but as she's come into office holding both the Premier's position and Finance, the reality of where Bermuda is and how she contributed to getting us there seems to have taken over.

I don't think there's too much interpretation to be done here, the ratings are bad because things are happening and being discussed in Bermuda that never were previously: Unemployment, foreclosures and a murder epidemic.

Never before has Bermuda experienced these things in a widespread way. Never.

I often ask people what the PLP would be doing and saying if the UBP had been in power for 12 years and was responsible for record unemployment, open discussion of foreclosures and a gun murder a month?

The answer is self-evident. They would be absolutely hammering them, and rightly so. We'd see marches, resignation demands, huge drumming up of public outrage - all that stuff that the PLP excel at. What they don't excel at it is governing and making the hard choices of public policy. The bad news for the Premier is that her ratings have fallen on the back of what I would describe as a dishonest budget that was supposed to prop up her popularity briefly - an election budget - that doesn't begin to make the inevitable choices that the Premier would make after an election (civil service job cuts, tax increases, slashing of services).

The UBP is pretty much the complete inverse of the PLP; good at public policy and managing but awful at the politics - although they have played the long game on finance and I think are seeing some dividends as their warnings are playing out.

The answer for a successful party and country is finding that sweet spot in the middle of reality based politics with reality based public policy.

What's also interesting is that this disapproval of the PLP and Premier is not translating in any real sense into support for the Opposition. Or Oppositions.

And that is the issue.

From a purely political perspective the environment is as hostile to an incumbent party and favourable for change as it can ever be. This is about as good as it gets from the Opposition perspective, but there has to be a viable alternative.

It is telling that the UBP and BDA's combined support in the poll exceeds the PLP (even after the BDA's support has been cut in half). I wouldn't read too much into that, but it is relevant.

It suggests that people are looking at their options, but don't see the UBPBDA as an option.

And who can blame them. The length of time that this merger has taken to get done - and it will get done, and is on the verge of getting done as I understand it - is lost time.

Once the new entity is announced and launched, they have to work double time.

The UBP tend to expend a lot of energy on things that the voters don't care about. Like fine tuning the party constitution and getting lost in internal procedural minutiae. Voters don't care about that, and the marginal return is very, very marginal - arguably negative. Those things are important over the mid to long term, but now the focus has to be on putting together the basic framework, putting candidates in place and getting out in front of the public.

I was hoping that this would have been done in December. The first 3 months of the year could have been spent introducing the entity and defining its priorities and identity on their own terms (as much as is possible with someone counter branding you). April, May and June would be all out communication/campaign mode, driving and reinforcing a tight message on the economy, crime and education in anticipation of a summer election.

Voters have to be receptive to an alternative after the PLP's policies and politics have been exposed as incompatible with Bermuda's prosperity and social stability, but a lot of that goodwill might have been squandered in an overly long merger exercise.

Of course the Budget debate dropped in the middle was part of that, where the UBP (and a subset of that) do the heavy lifting of the Official Opposition. But that time can't be recovered and it's time to keep moving forward.

The poll results today would perhaps give the Premier second thoughts about going to an election in June or July. August is just too damn hot (as is July for that matter) and I don't think too many people want another Christmas election. The vitriol just kills the holiday fun!

The Premier would probably not want to go into an election in this environment with her poll numbers low and not much good news on the horizon absent a disorganized and fragmented Opposition. Waiting gives a new Opposition time to get more organized and time to reconnect with a newly accessible voting public.

Her options aren't great, but nor are they as bad as they should be. What I suspect could happen is that the Premier will keep her options open with a view to a summer election. If the environment continues to worsen, and the Opposition look better positioned, she might wait for any minor uptick in support or good news to quickly pull the trigger and capitalise on it.

In many ways that was where the UBP were in 1998, aware that the environment was against them but waiting for a bit of good news and respite to go to the polls and hope to eek it out, or at least minimize the losses.

The big difference is that unlike the UBPBDA the Opposition PLP was very well organised - a known and newly moderate entity in a state of constant campaign readiness - and the public felt it was their time.

The message for the Opposition(s) couldn't be clear to me.

The BDA signed their death warrant by acknowledging that they were talking to the UBP about a merger early this year. The UBP, even their most loyalist supporters, know that the party has run its course. Both Oppositions are aware that Bermuda is best served by the UBP and BDA coming back together as a new entity, taking the best of both worlds and asking the voters: "Do you want more of the same or positive change and a reversal of Bermuda's PLP driven decline?"

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