Boris needs to get serious

Peter KellnerPresident
August 11, 2014, 2:17 PM GMT+0

If Boris Johnson is to be a real vote-winner on the national stage, he will have to show that he has the judgement to lead Britain through troubled times

Nobody could have been surprised by Boris Johnson’s announcement that he intends to stand for parliament next year. We all knew he would, just as we all know that he wants to lead the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister.

The issue is not his ambition, which is both proper and wholly transparent, but whether he is actually the vote-winner he claims to be. YouGov surveys for the Sunday Times and Sun on Sunday suggest a more nuanced picture than either he or his detractors might wish.

The case for saying Boris is a vote-winner is simply stated. He has twice been elected as a Conservative mayor of a Labour city. Two years ago, he defeated Ken Livingstone even though, on the same day, the same voters handed Labour a comfortable victory in the elections to London’s assembly. Boris is one of those rare politicians who fires the enthusiasm of voters across the political spectrum and, perhaps more importantly, voters who have no strong partisan loyalty. Given that the Conservative party is still a tainted brand, led by people who are widely seen as out of touch, Boris is able to shrug off his own Eton / Oxford / Bullingdon Club past and come across as a star with the common touch. No wonder that, in the past, YouGov polls have shown the Tories doing much better if Boris replaced David Cameron as party leader.

However, our latest data suggest that things aren’t that simple. From time to time, YouGov asks people how they would vote in three different ways – first, our normal voting intention question, in which we name only the parties; secondly, naming the current main party leaders; thirdly, naming Boris instead of Cameron:

Secondly, and more relevant to this blog, is the Boris effect. It seems to have almost disappeared. Last year and the year before, Labour’s lead declined sharply when voting intention was asked, if Boris replaced Cameron as Tory leader. But in our latest poll, it makes only a tiny difference. London’s Mayor does not seem to be quite the crowd-puller that he used to be. Two things stand out from these figures. The first is that Labour’s lead is slightly, but consistently, lower when the names of the three main party leaders are included in the voting intention question. This probably reflects Ed Miliband’s poor personal ratings. Some people who say they back Labour have second thoughts when reminded that they would be voting for a Miliband-led government.

This may have little to do with him; one explanation is that Cameron’s personal standing has recovered to some extent, along with Britain’s recovery. Perhaps the ‘Boris effect’ in past polls has been more an ‘anti-Cameron’ effect, and this has diminished. Even so, disappointment may beckon for anyone who expects electoral riches to fall into the lap of the Conservatives simply by anointing Boris as party leader when Cameron steps down.

To explore the Boris factor in more detail, we tested six traits, asking whether they applied to Cameron, Johnson and two other possible contenders to succeed Cameron as party leader: Theresa May and Michael Gove.

To some extent, an incumbent Prime Minister is always likely to have an advantage on these ‘hard’ qualities, for he has plenty of opportunities to decide big national policies, negotiate with foreign leaders and send British troops into action. Boris’s big decisions as Mayor of London, such as rearranging the congestion charge zone and giving us ‘Boris bikes’, do not belong to the same league. True, Boris has weighed into big arguments about immigration. Europe and the future of Heathrow, but has had no power to implement his ideas.The good news for Boris is that he beats both May and Gove on all six (albeit very narrowly on whether he would be good in a crisis, when he leads May by a single point.) The less good news is that, while he leaves Cameron far behind on the ‘soft’ qualities of being interesting, genuine and in touch, and holds a small lead on being seen as honest, he lags the Prime Minister on the two ‘hard’ qualities of being up to the job of governing Britain, and being good in a crisis.

Given his undoubted charisma and his way with words, he has the potential to be a big vote winner for the Tories. But, and it is in important but, voters who regard humour and a cavalier style as an asset in a city mayor with few real powers might seek different qualities in a national leader. Last week, in an interview with the Sunday Times, he talked about how his six years as Mayor had given him the administrative experience that would stand him in good stead in national politics. He has a point. But if he is to be a real vote-winner for his party on the national stage, he needs more. He needs to get serious: to show that he has the gravitas and judgement to steer Britain through the troubled waters that the country is likely to face for some years to come.

Image: PA

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