When the Work Event's Over

Patrick EnglishResearch Manager
January 13, 2022, 11:50 AM UTC

Latest YouGov polls show a clear majority believe Johnson should resign, as Labour establish their biggest polling lead in almost a decade

Since the 2019 General Election, there has been something of a myth surrounding Boris Johnson – that he is (or was) a popular Prime Minister on which very little would ‘stick’.

Winning in December 2019 a raft of constituencies never before held by the Conservatives, coupled with a seeming ability to dodge and survive various accusations of scandals and sleaze throughout 2021, peddled a sense of invincibility for the Prime Minister. Conservative MPs, it was said, would never see past him so long as he wanted to stay around (and won elections), and that the public “didn’t care” about stories of wrongdoing or misdeeds.

The great election winner, it seemed, could ride out any Westminster media story and come out unscathed in the court of public opinion.

Now however, with Covid-lockdown party scandals engulfing the PM, turning not only the public but his own party membership against him to unprecedented levels, there is a sense that “something has changed”. Boris, it seems, is no longer Teflon.

The truth of it though is that not many things have changed. Accented: yes. But changed? Not so much.

Firstly, Boris Johnson never was a popular Prime Minister. The public were largely paying attention to various negative stories surrounding him as and when they hit the news last year, and did not tend trust him nor believe him when he offered explanations or denials. What’s more, far from being welcomed with fanfare and applause, Johnson started off his premiership with extremely low public favourability.

Rather than being some new, emergent trend, negative public opinion on Boris Johnson and his government is actually nothing all that new. The YouGov government approval tracker demonstrates this nicely; only at one stage has the current administration been in net approval territory - in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Keir’s Star(mer) rises… slowly

In my opinion, one of the most important things that has changed is public perceptions regarding Keir Starmer and the electoral viability Labour Party. That is crucial to why we now have a 10 point lead for Labour in our polls.

Public evaluations of Keir Starmer have been steadily improving alongside the growth in Labour’s polling lead. Back in May 2021, Starmer’s net approval rating was -48. Now, it is -23. Still far from blindingly good numbers (for context, Tony Blair’s was around +40 in the months leading up to him winning the 1997 General Election), but a significant improvement nonetheless.

Belief that Keir Starmer “looks like a Prime Minister in waiting” rose from 13% in June last year to 25% in December, and Starmer now has a double-digit lead in YouGov’s ‘best Prime Minister’ tracker, having been as many as 16 points behind in the middle of last year. Similarly, favourability toward the Labour Party itself is now up by around 10 points or more since September last year.

And direct switching from the Conservatives to Labour is growing too. In YouGov’s recent polling figures, the proportion of Conservative voters indicating that they intend to switch to Labour tends to push toward 10%. Back in May last year, that figure was around 3%.

Whatever your opinions on the project that Keir Starmer is conducting within the Labour party, it is hard to argue that it is not now beginning to bear some fruit with the electorate – albeit that fruit is delicately poised.

For a while, the Conservatives were able to bounce off troubles and accusations of sleaze and scandal in terms of the polls because the public were simply so un-enamoured with the alternative. Not so much any longer.

Crisis? What crisis? OH! Those ones…

The rest of how we get to public opinion being where it is now is largely a culmination of frustration that has been building for many months – and not limited to stories surrounding lockdown parties.

Though voting intention did not move very much in response to stories of scandals, sleaze, and wrongdoing in the first half of 2021, that did not in turn mean that the public did not notice or care. Nor did it mean that it was not impacting public opinion in other ways.

Under the hood, and away from the vote intention horserace, dark omens were developing for Johnson and the Conservatives.

For instance, while vote intention remained fairly static, Boris Johnson’s trust ratings steadily grew worse through spring and summer 2021. While in March around 52% of the public said they believed that the Prime Minister was “untrustworthy” (30% trustworthy), by the start of September, that figure had reached 61% (with only 21% saying trustworthy).

Similarly, while as recently as May last year the Prime Minister was in net positive approval territory (in that the percentage of the British public who though he was doing well in his job was greater than the proportion who thought he was doing badly), that particular tide turned quickly in June. Each subsequent month has brought the Prime Minister worse and worse approval ratings.

Further, public frustration with the government over price rises well predates current discussion around the cost of living crisis. By the end of September last year, the majority of the British public were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of inflation, and that figure has only grown since.

This early warning flag for the government was driven in no small part by the petrol and food shortages experienced at forecourts and supermarkets across the country around about the same time.

But instead of frustration cooling off once these particular issues were back under control, public opinion on this issue has worsened still for the government. Now, 60% believe the government are handling inflation badly. These problems, like many others over the course of the last 12 months or so, lifted lids and opened boxes of public frustration and perceived incompetence which cannot be so easily remedied.

The Conservatives have been steadily losing ground on a number of other key issues; three-quarters of the public now think immigration is being handled badly (up from roughly 50% just after the country formally left the EU in early 2020), around 55% think the economy is being badly managed (up from around 40% at the start of summer last year, and as low as 30% in spring 2020), and around 60% believe that the NHS is being handled badly (up from around 45% at the start of the pandemic). And Brexit? 60% of the public think that is going badly too.

That is what is different between now and throughout 2021, when breaking stories regarding wallpaper bills, eye tests en route to Barnard Castle, mishandled PPE contracts, and Ministerial misgivings did not appear to do much damage to the Conservatives’ or Johnson’s own approval ratings: Pressure.

Lockdown parties are a flashpoint, driving the Conservatives and Johnson further and further down in the polls. A very big flashpoint, for sure, and one which hits so many people on such a personal level. That is reflected strongly in YouGov polling: around 75% of the public think “it matters” if there were Downing Street parties last year.

Problematically for the Prime Minister and his government, that pressure is not going away any time soon. Even if lockdown party stories do eventually subside (and they are showing no signs that they will), and even if Boris Johnson is forced out of office, the cost of living crisis is only just beginning.

And then there’s the small matter of the local elections in May.

See full tracker results here