Despite a summer of U-turns Boris Johnson is holding on to the voters who brought him victory

The opinion polls seem to be turning against the prime minister – but perhaps the government’s frequent changes of mind haven’t had much effect on underlying sentiment

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Saturday 29 August 2020 21:35
NHS workers hit out at ‘hypocrite’ Boris Johnson during pay rise rally

The prime minister is suddenly unpopular again. An Ipsos MORI opinion poll this week recorded a sharp drop in his favourability rating since last month. His opponents, convinced that Boris Johnson has handled coronavirus badly, are sure his incompetence is finally catching up with him, but are they right?

I try to keep an open mind. Just because London-based liberal Remainers think something doesn’t make it untrue. And it is the case that, when voters are asked if they have a favourable or unfavourable opinion of the prime minister, the unfavourables outnumber the favourables by 17 percentage points.

But this could be simply a reversion to politics as usual. Johnson had net unfavourable ratings at the time of the election. It was the positive ratings at the height of the epidemic in April, May and June that were unusual.

People tend to take a negative view of politicians, so what matters is how they compare with their rivals. Keir Starmer’s favourability rating is better than Johnson’s, although large numbers of people (41 per cent) say they have neither a favourable nor an unfavourable opinion of him. More significantly, Starmer has recently overtaken Johnson when voters are asked who would make the better prime minister. It cannot be long before this translates into a Labour lead in one or two polls when people are asked how they would actually vote.

Yet most polls at this stage of the electoral cycle are essentially “pop quizzes”, as Lynton Crosby calls them. The Australian guru, who ran Johnson’s first campaign for London mayor and David Cameron’s 2015 campaign, said last month: “What I despair of is the focus on opinion polls; they are just pop quizzes about what’s going on at the time; they don’t reflect underlying sentiment.”

On the surface, it would seem that a summer of U-turns would cast doubt on the government’s competence – but perhaps it hasn’t had that much effect on “underlying sentiment”. As Matt Hancock, the health secretary, points out in an interview today, what journalists like to call a U-turn is “evidence of rational, objective government doing the best it can under difficult circumstances”.

He didn’t point out that on A-level grades, for example, the government ended up with the policy the opposition had demanded, but he did say: “If I get 80 per cent of my decisions right then I’d be very pleased with that.” It was surprisingly honest of him to quantify it like that, but it is possible that the voters give politicians more of the benefit of the doubt than media headlines do.

So how do we assess “underlying sentiment”? Good opinion researchers use a combination of polls and focus groups – discussions with small groups of target voters. Deborah Mattinson of BritainThinks is one of the best, and she has a book coming out next month called Beyond the Red Wall which uses conversations with voters in Hyndburn, Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent to assess what happened in the last election and whether new Conservative voters are likely to stick with Johnson.

Her tentative conclusion is that, although they were shaken by the coronavirus crisis and felt that Johnson hadn’t handled it well, they thought the government “had done as good a job as they could in very difficult circumstances”, in the words of Yvonne from Darlington – words that were echoed, almost precisely, by Hancock today.

As for the comparison with Labour, Mattinson found that Starmer has made huge gains by not being Jeremy Corbyn, but so far has not made much of an impression of his own. Ian from Accrington in Hyndburn said: “I don’t know what he’s about. Meanwhile, I see Boris clearly – I get him. I genuinely believe that he’s an old-fashioned patriot.” When Starmer stands up to ask the prime minister some questions on Wednesday, Mattinson thinks he needs Ian’s words about Johnson to be ringing in his ears: “I think he’ll stand up for our country and that’s good enough for me.”

Despite the U-turns, and Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle, and despite “pop-quiz” opinion polls, so far there isn’t much evidence that Johnson is losing his hold on the loyalties of the pro-Brexit, working-class coalition that gave him his election mandate.

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