Despite widespread awareness and interest in Johnson ‘scandal’ stories, voting intention is static

Patrick EnglishResearch Manager
April 30, 2021, 2:34 PM UTC

While the public are aware of the Prime Minister’s struggles, they aren’t as yet moved in terms of their voting intention

This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been battered with stories and accusations of callousness, scandal, and sleaze.

Reports claim that the Conservative Party leader declared that he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than send the country into a second lockdown. Stories also report that funds donated to the Conservative Party were used to spruce up the 11 Downing Street Flat. Meanwhile, after being accused of being the source of a number of leaks over the past fortnight, the Prime Minister’s former Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings published a scathing blog post, suggesting that Boris Johnson and his government had fallen “so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”.

The government and Johnson himself of course continue to deny the allegations and any wrongdoing, but things went from bad to worse for Johnson on Wednesday as the Electoral Commission launched an investigation into the Downing Street flat saga, citing possible electoral law violations.

And to cap it off, rumours are circulating that the PM may find himself subject to an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards over the flat refurbishment and holiday to Mustique.

These are major stories that have rocked the government and caused quite the stir in media and political circles. But to what extent have the public noticed? Has it changed perceptions of Boris Johnson? Has public mood shifted in terms of voting intention in the wake of so much negative press?

YouGov data shows that the public are most certainly aware of these developing stories. From earlier this week, we found that 31% of the public were ‘following’ the story regarding the redecoration of the flat at 11 Downing Street either fairly or very closely. Meanwhile, 27% said they were following the story, but not very closely, and 28% were ‘aware but not following’. Just 14% of the public had not heard about the issue.

In a similar poll, we found that only 12% of people were “not aware” of the story regarding Dominic Cummings and his allegations against the Prime Minister. One in three (34%) said they were following this closely.

So while it is clear that there has been cut through in terms of public awareness, to what extent has it impacted public opinion?

Latest YouGov data from this week gives Boris Johnson a net favourability rating of -11, identical to the last measurement that we took of the public before the scandal stories struck.

In fact, the biggest change in favourability ratings has come for Keir Starmer, who has dropped from -7 in the first week of April to -19 now.

So rather than Johnson taking a ratings hit, it appears that the public are becoming less favourable toward the Leader of the Opposition.

Dominic Cummings – at the centre of so much of the story last week – has a net favourability of -75. The last time YouGov asked the public for their perceptions on the PM’s former right-hand man in October 2020, this figure stood at -64.

A similar story plays out when it comes to electoral support.

Last week, YouGov estimated that voting intention for the Conservatives was 44%, with Labour on 34%.

This week, we recorded figures of 44% Conservative and 33% for Labour.

It’s hard to look at those numbers and conclude anything but an apparently confusing and contradictory state of affairs: the public very much know what’s going on, and know that a series of scandals currently surround the Prime Minister, but it has changed very few minds on the man himself or his party.

Why then are the public not rounding hard and fast on Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party?

One theory might suggest that partisanship could explain the frame through which the public view the stories. Conservative and Johnson supporters would be much more likely to view the stories as smear attempts, or as political theatre with little to no ‘real-world’ consequences. Opponents of the PM and his party would view things very differently, but already being opponents means that again no minds are being changed there.

According to our data, there are certainly party-political divides to how Brits view these stories, but it doesn’t explain things entirely. When asked who they believe on the alleged impropriety between Johnson and Cummings, less than half (46%) of 2019 Conservative voters said they were more inclined to believe the PM. Furthermore, fresh YouGov data suggests that 50% of the public believe that Boris Johnson make the “let the bodies pile high” comments, which includes almost a third of 2019 Conservative voters.

Another theory might suggest that the public hear the stories and are aware of them, but rather than taking views or sides on them (as above), the majority of the public don’t really know who or what to believe. When we asked the public last week who they were inclined to believe regarding stories about leaks between Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, the most popular answer by far was “neither of them” (46%).

But, generally speaking, figures for “don’t know” in questions regarding the various Johnson scandals are not excessively (or relatively) high; only 24% of people are unsure if Johnson made the “bodies pile high” comments, for instance. In a typical vote intention poll, we get anywhere up to 20% of people saying they do not know how they would vote in a general election held tomorrow.

Finally, what if the public have just come to expect this sort of behaviour from our politicians, and particularly from Boris Johnson? Might it simply be the fact that the public are aware of the stories, think that the Prime Minister has done wrong, but ultimately it does not deviate from their expectations about him or about politics in general?

Looking at data on trust in politics and in Boris Johnson, this rather sombre theory may well hold some weight. Only around one fifth to one quarter of the public in any given survey report that they trust politicians, and the figure tends to be even lower for trust in government. Our latest data suggests that only 28% of people trust Members of Parliament to tell the truth.  

Further, the majority of the British public think that Boris Johnson is untrustworthy. Our latest polling on this question revealed that 52% of the population said Johnson was not to be trusted, versus 30% who trusted him (net -22). These figures compare badly to Keir Starmer, of whom 26% say is untrustworthy versus 35% who view him as trustworthy (net +9).

So, why is vote intention not moving in the face of repeated negative news stories about the country’s Prime Minister? The answer could be as simple as the public expect nothing better. While there is certainly an amount of party-political framing going on, and a fair degree of uncertainty about what has actually happened, we already know that voters do not have very positive views about politics and politicians, and stories such as those dominating the news cycle this week do nothing to challenge that.

If the crisis deepens for Johnson and he finds himself facing potential charges and prosecution, this may well tip the balance. For now, however, the stories are certainly sticking in the minds of the public, but don’t appear to be changing them.

Full tables coming shortly