Election Countdown

New prime ministers can usually enjoy a post-election honeymoon—but Keir Starmer won’t

The Labour leader is far less unpopular than Rishi Sunak—but his rating is still negative

April 01, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Desperate politicians and optimistic economists often think it, but the wise ones usually keep it to themselves: “This time it will be different.” In the real world, failed prime ministers pass a point of no return; and modern economies never quite shake off the ups and downs of the trade cycle. Even so, I shall take the risk. I predict that British politics will be different this year. But there is a reason for saying so, for in one respect it already is. 

Governments have changed hands three times in the past half century. Unless something extraordinary happens, this year will see the fourth time when a defeated prime minister makes the unhappy post-election journey to Buckingham Palace to resign. But if we compare the ratings of the rival party leaders at the start of each of the four election years, we see that 2024 is unlike 1979, 1997 and 2010.  

Ipsos (formerly Mori) has been tracking the ratings of party leaders since 1977. Each time the government has changed hands, the year started with a clearly unpopular prime minister and a reasonably popular opposition leader. Broadly that pattern held until the election. A partial exception is the run-up to the 1979 election. The ratings of both James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher oscillated throughout 1978. Callaghan’s rating was sunk by the public sector strikes that caused the Winter of Discontent. Thatcher’s appeal grew in response. She moved ahead of Callaghan and stayed there until the election.

The wider point is that each new prime minister arrived in Downing Street with at least some public goodwill (in Tony Blair’s case, a lot). They could look forward to a honeymoon, born out of public approval of their arrival, not merely relief that their rival had lost.

That looks unlikely this year. Both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are significantly less popular than their counterparts in 1979, 1997 or 2010.  The difference between the two men’s ratings (28 points: minus 18 versus minus 46) is not greatly out of line with past elections. It’s this gulf that makes a change of government almost inevitable.

The negative ratings are not just about Sunak and Starmer, but about their parties. YouGov regularly monitors their perceived competence. The Tories’ latest competence rating is minus 47 (competent 14 per cent, incompetent  61 per cent). Labour’s is minus 14 (26-40). Once again, a big gulf separates the two parties, but voters have little confidence in either. As things stand, the prevailing public mood when the King invites Starmer to form a government will have almost everything to do with rejection of the Conservatives, and little to do with enthusiasm for Labour or its leader.

Poor leaders, incompetent parties: it’s not the choice voters want. It’s as if they had entered a bar and asked for chilled Chablis and real ale—and been served corked wine and flat lager. Is this fair? Probably not. Public perceptions can often be unfair. Both Sunak and Starmer have followed exceptionally disastrous predecessors. Their battles to return their parties to sanity have left messy scars. To some extent, their poor ratings reflect these scars. That’s politics for you. The larger question is: does it matter? This is altogether trickier.

After all, a vote is a vote, whether cast in hope or anger; a Commons majority is what it is, regardless of the reasons why constituents elect their local MP. If Labour wins enough seats to govern for a full parliament, it will have time to demonstrate its competence and generate the positive support that it currently lacks. However, given the constraints that Starmer and his ministers will face—a sluggish economy, weak public finances, the damage done by Brexit—that alchemy will be hard to achieve.

Labour optimists may be right when they predict that the post-defeat Conservative party will descend into infighting, move to the right, and be in no position to return to power in 2028 or 2029. Labour would have up to 10 years to prove itself in power. But without policies and a narrative to persuade voters that it is governing well, and not merely less badly than the Tories, it will be taking a risk. 

In fact, it will be taking two risks: one that the Tories will get their act together sooner than many expect; the other that if too many voters remain wary of both main parties, then others might flourish: the Greens? Reform? Liberal Democrats? A revived SNP? Our electoral system will provide some protection for both Labour and the Conservatives—but not for ever. Our essentially two-party system will eventually crumble if both stay unpopular for years on end.