How do Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer, and Boris Johnson compare among key voting groups?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
July 20, 2023, 4:19 PM GMT+0

Rishi Sunak is less popular than Boris Johnson among 2019 Tories who have left for another party

In the wake of this week’s by-elections, Boris Johnson and his allies will doubtless be hoping the results vindicate their belief that only the former prime minister could be said to give the party a chance in the forthcoming general election.

A new YouGov study of more than 13,000 Britons has now examined how popular both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are among key voting groups to see who fares better – along with key rival Keir Starmer.

Among those who voted for the Conservatives in 2019 but who currently do not say they intend to vote for the party (either because they are unsure who they will vote for, or because they intend to vote for another party), Boris Johnson is marginally less unpopular than Rishi Sunak. The current PM scores -33 among these wayward Tory voters, compared to -27 for the former PM.

There are, however, significant differences between voting groups in this category. Among those who voted Tory in 2019 and currently don’t know who they will vote for, Sunak’s score of -12 outpaces Johnson’s -23.

This may not be a huge advantage for Sunak, however, as previous YouGov research has shown that most of a party’s voters who move over to the ‘don’t know’ category between elections end up returning to that party by voting day. The fact that Keir Starmer is so much more unpopular among this group (-48) suggests this is likely to be the case again.

Looking at those who have specifically switched their voting intention from the Conservatives to another party shows that Johnson’s net favourability rating is noticeably less bad than Sunak’s, at -31 to -51.

Again, there are significant differences within this group. Those who left the Tories for a party to their political right, like Reform UK, actually have a net favourable view of Johnson (+14) and a very unfavourable view of Sunak (-60). Meanwhile, those who have left the Tories for a party to their political left, like Labour or the Lib Dems, have a less unfavourable view of Sunak (-44) than Johnson (-66). Unfortunately for Sunak, however, Keir Starmer holds a massively better score among this group (+10), which will severely limit his ability to return these voters to the Tory fold.

In our latest voting intention poll, 12% of 2019 Tory voters had shifted to Reform UK while an identical proportion now intend to vote Labour (9%) or Liberal Democrat (3%). While the data does indicate that the Tories would have an easier time bringing back right wing voters under Johnson, these voters are less helpful to the party’s election prospects.

While losing votes to minor parties does hurt, Reform UK’s predecessor, the Brexit Party, came second in only three constituencies in 2019, and taking a vote directly from the top competitor for a seat is worth twice as much as taking it from a minor party that is not in contention. Given Reform UK’s minor party status, there is also a greater potential for voters returning to the Tories on a tactical basis.

At the same time, we can’t account for how many swing voters the Tories would irrevocably alienate by bringing back the former prime minister. A previous YouGov MRP study found that on the ‘who would be a better PM’ question, Johnson lost to Starmer by 594 to 38, while Sunak ‘only’ lost by 389 to 127 – and every seat in which Johnson beat Starmer was also won by Sunak.

However, it is also hard to see from this data how Rishi Sunak can hope to recover substantial numbers of wayward Tories when Keir Starmer is so much more popular to his left and Boris Johnson is on his right.

See the full results here

Photo: Getty