What do the polls tell Johnson? His response to Covid-19 is losing public buy-in

Support for the government’s response is far from unconditional

May 14, 2020
Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images
Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

Politico reports that Downing Street has commissioned private polls to track the public mood through the coronavirus crisis. What are they telling Boris Johnson? The separate, published, surveys that have been conducted suggest something like the analysis below. It is worth delving into the numbers for they show how and why ministers are losing the overwhelming public backing they enjoyed just seven weeks ago.

The public strongly backed the lockdown when it was introduced. During the week when it came into effect, fully 96 per cent told Opinium that they supported it; only 4 per cent disagreed. Indeed, 57 per cent would have been prepared to go further, for example by banning all public transport. One reason why voters backed the lockdown was that they understood what it meant: more than four in five voters thought the rules were clear.

Voters have reacted very differently to this week’s change in policy. YouGov finds that the public are evenly divided on the new rules: 44 per cent support them, while 43 per cent oppose them. YouGov also reports that only 30 per cent think the new instruction, “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” is clear—in contrast to the 91 per cent who now say the old slogan was clear—“stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.”

A recent five-country survey by Kekst CNC found that British voters top the table in wanting the government’s top priority to be limiting the spread of the virus (73 per cent) rather than avoiding recession (14 per cent) That net 59-point “lead” for tackling the virus compares with net figures of 44 points (Japan), 30 points (US), 16 points (Germany) and 15 points (Sweden).

Voters are losing faith in the way the government is handling the crisis. Most people now blame ministers for not imposing the lockdown rules sooner. Deltapoll and Ipsos-MORI produced virtually identical figures in late April: 66 per cent said the lockdown came too late, while only 25 per cent (Deltapoll) / 26 per cent (Ipsos-MORI) said the measures were introduced at the right time.

Moreover, voters now think Britain’s record compares badly with other major countries. Last week Opinium found that we think that only the US has handled the crisis worse than Britain. Two weeks earlier, voters tended to think that Britain was doing better than Spain and Italy. No longer: now our government is rated worse than both.

The crisis has helped Johnson’s rating, but not his party’s. According to Opinium’s weekly tracker, Johnson had a net approval rating of plus six points before the lockdown (Approve 42 per cent, disapprove 36 per cent). His rating peaked at plus 28 after returning home from hospital, and has now slipped back to plus 20.

That is still a healthy score—but some of its shine is removed when Johnson’s score is compared with that of Keir Starmer. Month after month, Johnson trounced Jeremy Corbyn; but Labour’s new leader is far more of a match. The latest YouGov survey finds the net scores of the two men are virtually identical: Johnson plus 22 (57 per cent say he is doing well, 35 per cent badly), Starmer plus 23 (well 40 per cent, badly 17 per cent). Millions of voters have yet to make up their mind about Starmer; but so far, the broad picture is that the “don’t knows” are gradually declining, and breaking in Starmer’s favour.

Labour’s change of leader six weeks ago complicates analysis of voting intention figures. They reflect the joint impact of the coronavirus crisis and Starmer’s arrival in place of Corbyn. The two effects seem to have cancelled each other out. A “poll of polls” in mid-March gave the Tories a 20-point lead (Con 50 per cent, Lab 30 per cent). This climbed to 24 points (53-29 per cent) a week into the lockdown (and while Corbyn was still Labour’s leader). Polls conducted during the past week give the Conservatives a 19-point lead (50-31 per cent).

The future: a new “Falklands factor” or Iraq redivivus? Two great dramas in the past 40 years had very different effects on public opinion. In March 1982, on the eve of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, just 36 per cent approved of Margaret Thatcher’s performance as prime minister, and only 32 per cent said they would vote Conservative in an early election. By the time the islands were recaptured in June, Thatcher’s approvals rating had climbed to 59 per cent; and 48 per cent said they would vote Tory. Both figures slipped a little in the following months, but Thatcher and her party retained enough of their gains to win the next year’s general election by a landslide.

During the Iraq war in 2003, the ratings of both Tony Blair, the prime minister, and his party rose a little; but support for the war jumped sharply, doubling to 66 per cent as British troops helped the Americans to defeat Saddam Hussein. However, as violence persisted in Iraq and weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise, support for the war tumbled back down again, and Blair’s and Labour’s ratings also slipped back to pre-war levels. In the general election two years later, Labour retained power but lost 47 seats. Were the Tories to lose 47 seats at the next election, they would lose their majority in the House of Commons.

This time, what will matter in the end is how the crisis is viewed not today but after it is over. Voters often rally round their leaders during a national emergency, only to desert them later. Johnson should know this only too well: his hero, Churchill, was ejected from office at the end of the Second World War.

The questions are obvious, and ought to worry the prime minister. A year from now, will the economy be back on track? Will jobs be plentiful and living standards back to pre-pandemic levels? Will the virus have been completely vanquished? Will fears of using public transport, or returning to work, or sending children to school, have been allayed? Will any tax rises be seen to be fair? And let’s not forget the second elephant in the room: will Johnson have confounded his critics and secured a wealth-enhancing trade deal with the European Union?

A pro-Johnson optimist would point out that his, and his party’s, ratings are currently similar to those of Thatcher and the Tories at the end of the Falklands War. However, on current trends, he is unlikely to match Thatcher’s record of a) sustaining a public verdict of triumph over a nasty adversary, and then b) leading the country through a period of judicious tax cuts and record living standards for a majority of voters. (Britain’s industrial heartlands struggled for much of the 1980s; but the rest of the UK mostly thrived.) Johnson will certainly lack one of Thatcher’s great advantages: a Labour leader, in Michael Foot, whose reputation then was much the same as Corbyn’s today.

Johnson plainly hopes that the worst of the pandemic is now over. But the political challenges he will face for the rest of this parliament are only just beginning.