Two-thirds believe Boris Johnson does not have the gravitas to lead the nationby Peter Kellner / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
“He has developed an image that is the envy of most politicians” ©Andrew Parsons via Flicker
We like him. He makes us laugh. He is so much more refreshing than other politicians. But do we want Boris Johnson running the country? Is he up to the job of taking the big, tough decisions? Is he serious enough to deal with a crisis?
Even though he is not even an MP, he is widely talked of as the next Conservative leader. The assumption—by friends and enemies alike—is that he is a huge electoral asset to his party. He would revive its fortunes if it loses power next year. After all, hasn’t he twice won London, a Labour city, by appealing to Labour and Lib Dem voters?
Fresh YouGov research for Prospect throws doubt on this. True, he would win back some Tory voters who have defected to Ukip, but he repels some Conservatives who doubt that he has what it takes to be Prime Minister.
Eighteen months ago, YouGov provoked debate with a poll showing that the Tories would be doing far better with Johnson as their leader. When we asked people how they would vote in a general election with the current party leaders, Labour (40 per cent) enjoyed a six point lead over the Conservatives. But when the same people were asked how they would vote if Johnson were Tory leader, Labour’s lead fell to just a single point, 38 versus 37 per cent.
That poll, however, was conducted during the Olympics, for which Johnson claimed much of the credit and during which he secured acres of publicity. We recently repeated the exercise. This time the “Boris bounce” virtually disappears: the Conservatives (32 per cent) lag five points behind Labour (37 per cent) under Cameron—and four points (33-37 per cent) under Johnson. Instead of an athletic bounce, we have a statistically trivial twitch.
The big reason for this is that since the Olympics, Cameron’s appeal has gone up while Johnson’s has slipped down. We repeated a question we asked then about a range of leading politicians—are they well suited or not to being Prime Minister? Back in August 2012, views on Cameron were evenly divided: 46-46 per cent. Today he has a net score of plus 7, with 51 per cent saying he is well suited, while 44 per cent disagree.
In contrast, Johnson has slipped from minus 18 (36-54 per cent) to minus 22 (35- 57 per cent). True, he remains ahead of Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and other leading politicians. However, what should worry him is that his support has fallen most sharply among Conservative voters, from plus 28 to plus 14, while Cameron’s net rating among the same people has risen from an already remarkable plus 82 to a figure that might have impressed even Stalin: plus 93. (That loyalty contrasts strongly with Ed Miliband’s and Nick Clegg’s ratings among their own party supporters: plus 39 and plus 32 respectively).
This helps to explain why the prospect of Johnson leading the Tory party does little to improve its electability. While one in five Ukip voters say they would return to the Tory fold were Johnson to replace Cameron, one in 10 Tory supporters would desert the party. Taking into account all the movements— including the one in 10 Lib Dems who would shift across to the Conservatives if Johnson took over—then a little over two million people would change their votes, but this is made up of two groups who broadly cancel each other out: around one million who would leave the Tories, and another million or so who would join, or rejoin, the Tory ranks.
What is it about Johnson that attracts some voters but repels others? We tested this in two ways. First, we posed a question we ask regularly about the main party leaders. We listed a number of attributes and asked respondents to pick out all those that applied to each leader. The comparison between Johnson and Cameron is instructive. Among voters as a whole, Johnson wins hands down on charisma and does slightly better (or less badly) on honesty and being in touch with the concerns of ordinary people. On only one does he lag Cameron significantly: on being good in a crisis.
Perhaps more significant is the fact that two-thirds of the public have something positive to say about Johnson—66 per cent pick at least one attribute, while 34 per cent say “none of these” or “don’t know.” But 54 per cent of the public ascribes no positive attribute to Cameron.
Among Conservative voters, what is striking is the contrast between the “human” and “leadership” characteristics of the two men. Johnson is ahead on charisma and being “in touch with the concerns of ordinary people”— but Cameron wins big on “decisive,” “a natural leader” and “good in a crisis.”
Second, we tested a number of criticisms that Johnson’s opponents level against him. One stands out as a real problem for him: “He is not serious enough to be trusted with big national decisions.” Voters as a whole agree by two-to-one. Conservatives are divided. Half of them disagree, but a worryingly large 41 per cent agree. Were he to re-enter the national stage, he might also have a problem quelling the fear that he puts image before policies, and doubts about his exotic life (though he’ll doubtless be relieved to learn that this worries women less than men). But his biggest challenge will be to persuade people that he has the gravitas to lead the nation.
His other challenge will be to get his timing right. Many are unhappy at the prospect of him standing for parliament in next year’s general election, a year before his term as mayor expires. It could look cynical and selfserving. But if he does not stand, Miliband wins the election and Cameron stands down as Tory leader, Johnson won’t be eligible to contest his party’s leadership election.
One way or another, the next 12 months will test him as never before. He has developed an image that is the envy of most politicians. But his is a particular kind of popularity, well suited to a mayor with limited powers in a cosmopolitan city, but not necessarily to a man who aspires to revive the fortunes of a struggling nation—or to one who seeks the right, in terrible extremis, to have his finger on the trigger of Britain’s nuclear arsenal.