Public anger over petrol crisis threatens to overshadow crucial Conservative conference

Poll shows public feel Boris Johnson is doing a bad job on the cost of living, Brexit, and levelling up

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 02 October 2021 22:34
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More than half of Britons think Boris Johnson has done a bad job of ensuring supplies of essentials like petrol and keeping the cost of living down in the wake of Brexit, according to a new poll.

The survey, which also found the public giving a thumbs-down to the prime minister’s performance on Brexit and on “levelling up”, comes on the eve of a crucial Conservative conference at which Mr Johnson will attempt to recast the central purpose of his government after two years of crisis management with an optimistic “building back better” slogan.

Speaking on the eve of the conference, the PM vowed the government would not let the UK go back to how it was pre-Covid, but wants “things to change and improve as we recover”.

He promised “decisive action on more jobs, more police and supporting health and social care” as well as on levelling up disadvantaged areas of the country.

But with lengthy queues remaining at many petrol stations, and the army set to be deployed to drive tankers from Monday, many Tories fear he will struggle to turn around an increasingly gloomy mood as the Covid “vaccine bounce” fades and voters face the new reality of labour shortages, empty supermarket shelves, cuts to benefits and looming tax rises.

Notably, neither Mr Johnson nor chancellor Rishi Sunak was willing in pre-conference interviews to promise that Christmas would not be disrupted for the second year in succession.

Senior Conservative backbencher Tobias Ellwood told The Independent that the PM should be doing more to reassure the public in order to ensure that the crisis does not overshadow the positive message about domestic investment and growth that he wants to deliver at the conference, which is to take place in Manchester.

“This has not gone away as a live issue,” said Mr Ellwood, who has been calling for a £30 limit on petrol purchases to ease pressure at the pumps. “What I would like to see more of is the prime minister grasping this and giving a clear direction of travel. There is no simple solution, but it does require calming nerves and the nation believing the government is in control.”

Veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale warned that fury over petrol queues would certainly have an impact on the conference, citing letters he had received from undertakers in his Thanet North constituency who are unable to conduct funerals because there isn’t enough fuel for hearses, as well as a lifelong Tory voter who was left stranded with an empty tank after following official advice not to panic-buy, who said the “utter shambles” had left him “seriously questioning the government’s ability to govern”.

Sir Roger said there was anger among Tory voters at the “tardy” response of Downing Street to the predictable problem of labour shortages after Brexit, which was not only affecting the haulage industry but also sectors like care work and farm work, meaning that crops had been left rotting in the fields.

“There is no doubt that there is no shortage of fuel in the refineries, so this is a crisis of demand rather than supply,” he told The Independent. “But a synthetic crisis has been turned into a real crisis by a lack of initiative on the part of No 10 in getting to grips with the issue. The knock-on effect on the image of HM government is not going to be beneficial for the party.”

However, another long-serving Tory MP said he believed voters would not punish the party, as the situation was beginning to resolve itself. “Nobody is going to say the government’s handled it wonderfully,” he said. “But it’s not been the kind of toxic issue it could have been. I’ve not heard a dicky bird in my emails from constituents, and the people I speak to seem to be blaming panic-buying and the media rather than the government.

“Clearly there are shortages of some goods in the shops, but so far it has not affected necessities other than petrol. If it starts hitting necessities, or if it disrupts Christmas, that’s when it will be a problem.”

Today’s poll by Savanta ComRes for The Independent found that 54 per cent of voters thought Mr Johnson had done a bad job of keeping supplies of goods flowing and the cost of living down, compared to little more than one-third (36 per cent) who thought he had done well.

On his flagship policy of “levelling up” disadvantaged areas of the UK, just 32 per cent thought he had delivered, compared to 53 per cent who said he had done badly.

Crucially, voters in wealthy London and members of more affluent social classes were most likely to say Mr Johnson had succeeded in “levelling up”, while some of his lowest ratings on this issue were recorded in areas like the northeast, Yorkshire and the west Midlands, where Tories won red-wall seats from Labour in 2019 on a promise of spreading prosperity.

Just 41 per cent across the UK said Mr Johnson had got a good Brexit deal for the UK, against 49 per cent who said he had done the job badly – including 30 per cent of Tory supporters and 34 per cent of those who had voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

More voters said Mr Johnson had done a bad job than a good one on fighting climate change (46-38 per cent), preserving the union (47-41), uniting the nation culturally (49-37), and overseeing the withdrawal from Afghanistan (49-38). But his performance on Covid was rated positively, with 53 per cent saying the PM had done a good job in the pandemic, against 40 per cent who said his response had been poor.

After a run of polls showing the Tory lead over Labour narrowing from the double figures recorded during the vaccine rollout at the start of 2021, today’s survey found signs that some of the controversies surrounding Mr Johnson were beginning to cut through with voters.

Some 23 per cent of people who had voted Conservative in 2019 said that the row over the funding of Mr Johnson’s expensive renovation of his 10 Downing Street flat had made them less likely to back the Tories the next time round, while 22 per cent said the same over doubts about his personal honesty, 20 per cent over reports he had delayed the official response to Covid, and 19 per cent over controversies surrounding his family life.

Mr Johnson was rated stronger, more inspiring and more patriotic than Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and was the preferred choice to share a drink with. But Starmer came out on top for being honest, decisive and statesmanlike, and for understanding the needs of ordinary people.

The PM’s reported desire to remain at No 10 for a decade was shared by few voters, with just 18 per cent saying they would like him to remain in the job until 2029 or beyond, compared to 45 per cent who want him gone by the time of the next election, which is expected to take place in 2023 or 2024. Even among Tory supporters, more than a quarter (27 per cent) did not want him to lead the party into the next election, and 27 per cent said he should step down after it, against 29 per cent who wanted him in place for 10 years or more.

However, he remained the clear choice of both Conservative supporters and voters in general to lead the party now, with 41 per cent of Tories rating him the best option, against 17 per cent for Mr Sunak, 6 per cent for health secretary Sajid Javid, and 4 per cent for defeated leadership rival Jeremy Hunt. Among voters in general, Johnson scooped 22 per cent as best leader, against 14 per cent for Mr Sunak and 5 per cent for Mr Javid.

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