Would Boris Johnson have been a better choice for holding on to Tory seats?

Patrick EnglishDirector of Political Analytics
November 10, 2022, 5:42 PM GMT+0

A new MRP study shows that Johnson is more well-placed to retain recent Red Wall gains, but that Rishi Sunak better shores up the weakening Tory heartland

In October, YouGov published an MRP analysis which suggested that 389 British constituencies thought Keir Starmer would make a better prime minister than the incoming Rishi Sunak.

The figure of Boris Johnson loomed large in the contest to replace Liz Truss. While ultimately dropping out of the race, membership polling figures suggested Johnson would have been the party faithful’s first preference for leader, and his supporters believed him to be the only candidate capable of beating Labour again at the next election.

The question then is: did Conservative MPs make the right choice for their leader? Would Boris Johnson have offered a better electoral alternative, capable of being competitive in more seats and turning public opinion on the Conservative party around? How does Johnson compare to Sunak in terms of constituency-by-constituency public opinion?

The first and perhaps most obvious point to state is that the public had a very dim view of Boris Johnson by the time he left office. As prime minister, his net job approval rating was -43 at the end of summer, while his government’s approval rating had sunk to -48.

Johnson’s personal favourability rating had recovered somewhat to -36 by the end of September (up from -53 in the summer), but he would have nonetheless walked into a still hostile and deeply mistrusting public opinion environment had he entered and won the Conservative leadership race.

On the other hand, Sunak’s favourability rating is substantially better, sitting at -9 when he entered Downing Street.

Beyond favourability ratings, the question of “who would make the best prime minister” offers an insight into prospective electoral success for both Labour and the Conservatives.

According to our latest MRP modelling, we can reveal that just 38 constituencies in Britain believe that Boris Johnson would make a better prime minister than Keir Starmer. These constituencies are largely restricted to the Midlands and the East of England, including Cleethorpes, Great Yarmouth, Romford, Tamworth, and Clacton. Coastal towns, rural Lincolnshire, and midlands marginals dominate this short list.

None of those 38 constituencies think that Starmer would make a better prime minister than Sunak, meaning there is not a single constituency that Johnson picks up that Sunak would not also have won. Conversely, there are 109 constituencies in which Sunak is preferred to Starmer but Johnson is not.

On that brief evidence, it would seem that Sunak was a better pick than Johnson to lead the Conservative party into the next election.

But the story is much more complicated than that – particularly when we start looking into where those 109 constituencies are, and in which constituencies Johnson may not necessarily beat Starmer, but scores better on the ‘best PM’ question than Sunak does.

The list of 109 seats in which Sunak beats Starmer, but Johnson does not, is almost exclusively made up of ‘true blue’, affluent constituencies in England. Conservative strongholds such as Kenilworth and Southam, Congleton, Sutton Coldfield, Harborough, East Hampshire, and North East Bedfordshire make up a significant portion of this list.

While beating Starmer on the best prime minister metric is of course the position Sunak wants to be in, electorally speaking it does not do much for the Conservative party if he is doing so in constituencies they are already very likely to win.

But Sunak’s winning list also includes a host of constituencies which are currently represented by Conservative MPs, but are part of an emerging group of seats in the South of England in which the Tories are under threat from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. More and more Remain-voting, younger, higher-educated people are moving out of major cities (primarily London) into these suburban and semi-rural areas, changing the electoral geography of this part of the country at a rapid pace.

This is what we call the ‘Blue Wall’, and it includes places such as Harrow East, Surrey Heath, Windsor, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, and even Johnson’s own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

In a situation where the Conservatives are facing an incoming red wave at the next election, their holding on to the Blue Wall could be the difference between Labour winning power or the Conservatives just about clinging on (or at least denying Labour a majority).

Moving beyond this 109-seat cluster, while the current PM does not beat Keir Starmer in any Scottish constituency, he does outperform Boris Johnson north of the border by some margin, including by 8 points in Conservative-held West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and 7 points in the former Tory seat of Stirling. Again, if the Conservatives are looking for marginal gains to protect them from all out defeat, a decent performance in Scotland could be extremely beneficial.

Elsewhere, we see a quite different picture in those now-famous Red Wall seats upon which Johnson built his massive 80 seat majority in 2019. Many of these constituencies across the North and Midlands were won by the party for the very first time that election, connecting strongly with Johnson’s personal brand and the politics and messages (particularly around Brexit) he was able to offer them.

In these battleground seats, it is Johnson who holds an advantage relative to Sunak. He is 8 points ahead of Sunak in Grimsby, 8 points ahead in Bolsover, 6 points head in Burnley, 5 points ahead in Leigh, and 4 points ahead in Workington. Almost everywhere you look across this raft of former Labour heartlands which propelled Johnson to the premiership in 2019, the former prime minister beats the current inhabitant of Number 10 – and in many, by a decent margin.

Perhaps, then, Johnson offers the Conservatives their best chance between the two men of defending those gains they made in 2019. However, in the context of a swing to Labour of around ten points or more (and as of latest polling that swing stands at just under 20 points), practically all those seats would be long lost before Johnson’s personal appeal even began to take effect.

Outside of the Red Wall, Johnson also does better than Sunak across the South Western Celtic Fringe, South Wales, and up and down the East of England.

Lastly, if Labour are to make serious inroads into Conservative-held England and Wales and march toward a majority at the next election, former-marginal seats with strong Tory majorities such as Rugby, York Outer, Monmouth, Corby, Telford, Erewash, and Dover would form a crucial part of the Conservatives’ final defences.

There, the story is much more mixed. While, again, Starmer leads in all such seats, Sunak has a higher share than Johnson thinking he would be a better prime minister in Rugby, York Outer, and Monmouth, while Johnson has the higher share than his successor in Corby, Telford, Erewash, and Dover. Johnson probably just about edges it in this category.

Overall then, the picture is very complicated. On the one hand, based on this MRP evidence Sunak seems better placed to help defend the Blue Wall. But in those Red Wall seats upon which the current Conservative majority is built, Johnson has an advantage over his successor. In the seats that the Conservatives would quite simply have to defend in order to stop a Labour majority, should that be the context of the election, the picture is more mixed.

The answer to the question of which candidate would have been the best electoral pick will depend on exactly what sort of public opinion context the Conservatives face, and what kind of seats they have a chance of defending once the next election rolls around.

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