James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
Uncertainty over Brexit and the future of the main parties means the polls are volatile and unpredictable. The Conservatives and Labour are tanking while the Brexit Party and Lib Dems are surging. Currently, the polls imply there are practically no Conservative-Labour swing voters and the only issue making anyone swing is Brexit. In this climate, asking voters how they might hypothetically feel with a particular PM in place, with Brexit playing out in a particular way, is imperfect, to say the least. That’s why I suggested in my last column that Conservative MPs and Members should look for different metrics in determining who might be best placed to deliver Brexit and to beat Corbyn in a General Election.
However, there has been so much high-profile polling recently, with associated news and commentary, I thought it would be useful to bring some order to it – focusing here on what the polls say about the frontrunner, Boris Johnson.
Rather than simply summarising recent polling – which, for the reasons I describe above, is partly flawed – I have taken a longer and deeper look at what the voters think about him. I have been through, to the best of my knowledge, all of the publicly available polling available on him, stretching back to the late 2000s. This longer-term view on Johnson could help those with a vote in the forthcoming set of elections with a broader picture about what sort of candidate he is and about the fundamentals of his character and potential attractiveness. I summarise the biggest lessons here.
Most recent polls show Johnson as the most popular political figure nationally.
Despite the caveats I attach to recent polling, let’s quickly trot through recent polling. First things first, Johnson is clearly the activists’ choice; he’s so far ahead that it’s hard to see how MPs could credibly keep him off the final ballot. ConservativeHome’s Members’ polling shows Johnson is the activists’ choice, and YouGov Party Members’ polling shows the same.
Recent national polls show he is also the public’s favoured choice too. This poll from YouGov at the end of May pairs various leadership candidates against Jeremy Corbyn and puts Johnson top; YouGov’s relatively new “ratings” tool also puts Johnson top (although it suggests his popularity on their measure might fade on the back of doubts about his performance as Foreign Secretary). Furthermore, polling from Lynton Crosby’s agency is said to show he is best placed to win back Conservative supporters who have recently peeled away from the Party towards Farage (although I can’t see the full tables anywhere).
While the national polling shows Johnson is the country’s first choice to replace Theresa May, he suffers from very significant opposition; in short, he’s divisive. This is overwhelmingly primarily down to his role at the forefront of the Leave campaign (on which, more below). This recent poll from YouGov shows more people think he will be a good Prime Minister than other candidates, but more think he will be a worse Prime Minister than other candidates This phenomenon – of being both liked and disliked in large measures – has been true of him for a while; this poll from 2017, for example, tells a similar picture. YouGov has some recent analysis on these numbers.
There was a mini-flurry of commentary online following analysis from former Conservative MP Lord Hayward, suggesting that Johnson would struggle to appeal to the Southern middle class. However, as with Crosby’s poll, I can’t see the full analysis anywhere and have had to rely on write-ups of it.
With this in mind, I’m reluctant to be critical on something I haven’t seen. That said, I can’t make sense of some of the reported claims. For example, Hayward is said to believe that Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid are more popular choices amongst younger voters, but I can’t see how this can be true – or, rather, provable – given how low recognition ratings of these candidates will be, and therefore how tiny the crossbreaks within the poll would be that stack up claims about younger voters.
He is a victim of his campaigning success in the referendum.
As I indicate above, it was the referendum that damaged Johnson’s reputation more than anything else. Before the referendum, he was very popular across the country – and among exactly the sort of voters that MPs are obsessed about attracting again (middle class professionals, young people and Londoners, above all).
All the polling shows that his reputation went off a cliff during the referendum because these voters wanted to remain in the EU. Johnson has been, in effect, a victim of his own campaigning success. A YouGov analysis explained how his reputation took a battering as he took on a more public role in the referendum.
But the wider polling suggests the same was true of practically every senior politician engaged in the referendum – it wasn’t specific to Johnson. However, he took, and continues to take, a bigger hit because he had such a high profile; it doesn’t seem to be down to anything he did per se.
This poll shows how he – along with other senior politicians – were not trusted during the EU referendum and this poll showed that the public was split in three on the behaviour of the two campaigns: in a pre-referendum poll, just over a quarter of the population thought the Leave campaign had been more deceitful, while the same amount thought the Remain campaign had been more deceitful, and just over a third thought they were as bad as each other.
He is well placed to ensure the viability of the Conservative Party.
There is, of course, a major upside to the divisiveness resulting from his role in the referendum: the fact that one of Johnson’s first tasks is going to be getting back the votes and pledges of those Conservative voters that have turned away from the Party in recent months. And, on this, things look good: this poll shortly after the referendum shows that people thought, of all leading Conservative politicians, Johnson most wanted to get Britain out of the EU.
And this more recent poll shows people thought he was right to resign over the Chequers deal. Those that have peeled off to Farage in recent times have done so because they no longer have faith in the motives or values of the Conservative Party; they do not trust the Party to do “the right thing”.
Many in the Parliamentary Party are in denial over the scale of this problem; simply put, the Party is finished without its massive eurosceptic core. That doesn’t mean they’re the only voters that matter; it’s just a straightforward mathematical reality that they won’t get out of the low 20s without them. With Johnson, as far as it’s possible to guarantee such things, these voters come back in the short-term.
In London, he was a popular decision-taker.
Let’s now start to look at his ratings before the referendum, which is perhaps where it gets most interesting. If a year is a long time in politics, three years is an eternity. People have forgotten that Johnson was an incredibly popular Mayor of London, who polled well on practically every measure and across all groups. (In this he resembles his contemporary – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – back in 2012: an outspoken politician with a high-profile and a large conservative following, who managed to reach out across the political divide).
In one of the last major polls during his time as Mayor, in January 2016, Londoners agreed that he was doing a good job by 58 per cent -29 per cent. Women agreed by 59 per cent -26 per cent; 18-24 year olds agreed by 49 per cent-17 per cent; Lib Dem voters agreed by 61 per cent-31 per cent; and professionals agreed by 58 per cent -29 per cent. These are favourability ratings that most politicians would kill for and this ensured two election victories, of course, where the ultimate popularity tests took place.
A YouGov summary from 2013 – entitled “London Loves Boris” – emphasised his ability then to reach across party lines. And a further YouGov summary at the very end of his Mayoralty showed that his reputation wasn’t perfect, but very solid in difficult circumstances.
One of the negatives surrounding Johnson that has regularly come up in the polling down the years are question marks as to his ability to take on high office – with people apparently concerned he can’t run anything important. While this has always been a feature in the polling, like with all the negatives surrounding him, it grew after the referendum (his negatives went up on everything as Remain voters were stung).
But all the London polling shows his campaign team ought to be pointing to the fact that, unlike many other competitors, he has been a genuinely executive politician who was seen to run a highly demanding, highly diverse city well. They have not played this up to anything like the extent they should. Incidentally, this Ipsos-MORI poll in 2014 showed that the public thought that Johnson’s plans to become an MP after ending his Mayoral term made it more likely the Conservatives would win the next election (in 2015).
He hasn’t been seen as a typical politician.
Clearly one of the reasons Johnson was as popular across London as he was, and as nationally popular as he was, was because he hasn’t been seen as a typical politician. This is clear from poll after poll down the years. In 2014, Johnson was by far the highest choice of British people to want to have a drink with – a commonly asked question in US politics to probe candidates’ electability.
A 2011 poll on political charisma showed that no other high-profile politician could get near him. 46 per cent of the British public said he had a great deal or a fair amount of charisma, compared to 38 per cent saying the same of David Cameron, 11 per cent saying the same of Ed Miliband and 18 per cent saying the same of Nick Clegg. He got smashed up by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton on this measure, but there’s no disgrace in that.
In 2012, he was the politician that British people said had the biggest impression on them. In a more detailed poll in 2012, YouGov found that he scored higher than David Cameron and the other leading politicians of the time on charisma, sticking to what he believes in, strength, being in touch with ordinary people, honesty, natural leadership, decisiveness and being good in a crisis (markers of being viewed differently from classic “Westminster politicians”).
He was once the candidate of young people.
And just as people seem to have forgotten Johnson’s one-time massive popularity with Londoners, so they have forgotten he was once the candidate of the young. In a 2015 YouGov poll, he was the most popular suggested Conservative leader amongst 18-24 year olds; in a 2014 youth poll, Johnson came only a little below Miliband in a question as to who would do the best job running the country (he was tied with David Cameron). In a 2013 poll, he was by far the most popular choice for young voters.
His supposed gaffes weren’t electoral mistakes.
There’s no denying his role as Foreign Secretary played out badly, although it was a non-job as the PM was running Brexit negotiations (badly) with David Davis and others at DExEU. A few of his off-the-cuff comments – some not meant for public consumption – heightened previous suggestions of his lack of seriousness. Two YouGov polls in 2017 revealed the extent of this problem (even amongst Conservatives). But some have been pushing a narrative that he has been seen as “gaffe-prone”, for apparent mistakes on things like the proposed Garden Bridge and his suggestions that the Met use water cannons on rioters in the future. It is possible that these issues now feature in the public mind as negatives (perhaps reflecting conventional wisdom in Westminster) but at the time the public largely backed him. Originally, Londoners massively backed the idea of the Garden Bridge, by 69 per cent -22 per cent (of course, under closer inspection that would have changed); and by 68 per cent-18 per cent, British people said they supported the use of water cannons during riots (with the rest of the country being even more enthused than Londoners); and for what it’s worth, by 69 per cent – 26 per cent, British people said they would not pay to see him being “blasted by a water cannon”. Furthermore, most people (53 per cent – 40 per cent) in a 2018 ComRes poll said that the Conservative Party should not discipline him over his comments on the burka (although that is clearly not the same as supporting his comments, which were clearly a mistake).
What does all this mean in practice?
MPs and activists should be asking themselves a big question: what is it that made Johnson popular across Britain in the first place? While the polls still strongly suggest that Johnson would be the best chance the Conservatives have got electorally, there’s no denying he carries negatives with him post-referendum. But an important point for MPs and activists to consider is this: his popularity emphatically wasn’t down to the fact that he was a hard right, traditional Tory. He wasn’t: London would never have supported him had this been the case. Rather, he was primarily popular because of his character. He was seen as charismatic, entertaining and honest politician – someone different from the rest. To Londoners, he was also competent – and this should allay concerns that he isn’t up to the job of basic management. On the basis of the polling, it would be making a huge leap to suggest that those that recently turned away from him – younger, urban professionals – are gone for ever given it wasn’t primarily issues that attracted them.
Finally, those with a vote should consider his character in relation to his campaigning skills. Crucially, and this really matters, he is one of the very, very few politicians in recent political history that has the capability to do things that completely command the attention of the media and the electorate – through his own media work, his campaigning or through high-stakes interviews. Tony Blair had this massively and David Cameron had this occasionally (although he was terrible when exposed to hostile public opinion). MPs and activists would do well to remember the 2017 General Election and what it felt like when the polls were narrowing and it was clear that Theresa May simply could not change the dynamic of the race because her campaigning skills were so poor. The Party felt powerless. You certainly wouldn’t get this with Johnson.