Boris Johnson is in trouble. Public support for his government is tanking. His approval ratings have slumped. His own voters are fed up. His MPs are livid. His former advisors have declared war. The Great Reopening is rapidly making way for what some are calling his “Summer of Discontent”.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent. He is the co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (Penguin) unherd.com July 30, 2021
“The Tories are blundering and the vaccine bounce is wearing off amid rows over pay rises for nurses and police officers,” writes The Mirror, “as well as cuts to foreign aid and the planned undoing of the pensions triple lock”. Speaking for many, Robert Shrimsley at the Financial Times similarly asks: “Is it possible that the UK will look back on the last few months as the moment we reached Peak Johnson?”
There is no doubt that dark clouds are hovering above No 10. There is the infighting in Downing Street. The U-turn on self-isolation. The Pingdemic. The unpopularity of vaccine passports on the right-wing flank. The failure to define “levelling-up”. Two by-election defeats. And then the former consiglieri who is repeatedly undermining the credibility and authority of his former Capo.
But are things really that bad for Johnson? I’m not convinced. In the polls, the Conservatives have certainly taken a knock. In the last two weeks alone, their lead is down by 9 points with both YouGov and Survation and 5 points with Redfield & Wilton. Across all polls, at the start of July the average Conservative lead was 8 points. In the very latest polls, it has fallen below 5 points.
In fact, they have led in every single one of the last 130 polls. When it comes to Conservatives only Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher know what this feels like and neither of them had to deal with a global pandemic.
Johnson has already achieved a level of stability and support in the polls that neither David Cameron nor John Major ever achieved. He has only fallen below 40% on 16 occasions this year. Labour has not held a lead outside of the margin of error since January. If I were Johnson’s strategist and woke up to find this as my bad day, then I’d grab it with both hands.
Look under the bonnet and you will see why. There are certainly some things for Team Johnson to worry about. Public approval of the performance of the Government and Johnson himself are both down by 10 points. Only this week, pollsters Redfield and Wilton put Johnson’s net approval rating at minus 15, his lowest since they began asking the question in March 2020.
But compare and contrast. Keir Starmer is also at minus 15 and trails Johnson on the most important indicators of leadership. Who can build a strong economy? Johnson leads by 15. Who would stand up best for the UK? Johnson leads by 8. Who knows how to get things done? Johnson leads by 10. Who is a strong leader? Johnson leads by 9. Leadership is one of the most reliable predictors of election victories and this one really is not close at all.
More to the point, the people who are questioning the direction of travel are not switching to Labour. It is a negative reaction against the Government not a positive endorsement of the opposition. Starmer has not won them over because most people have no idea who Starmer is or what Starmer believes.
The blunt reality is that the Labour brand remains deeply problematic. So much so that its supporters should probably look away now. What follows are numbers that have simply never been held by a party on the way to power.
Only 20% of Britain think that Labour is trustworthy while more than twice that number say that the party is untrustworthy. Only 15% of people think that Labour is competent while half of them say it is incompetent. Only 7% think that Labour is strong while 64 per cent say that it is weak. Only 6% think that Labour is united while close to 60% say that it is divided. Only 15% think that Labour is in touch while 56% think that it is out of touch. And only 15% think that Labour has a clear sense of purpose while over 60% say it is unclear what it stands for.
Labour’s weakness is compounded by longer-term problems that have still not been resolved. Even if these numbers were stronger, the electorate of the Left and the liberal Left remains deeply fragmented. Close to two-thirds of Britain’s Leavers are lining up behind the Conservatives but less than half of Remainers are lined up behind Labour. Close to one in five progressives are still breaking off to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, which is making it harder for Labour to concentrate and mobilise support under a first-past-the-post system.
One of the main reasons why Johnson and the Conservatives are wobbling in the polls is not because their supporters are switching to Labour, but because a larger number of their supporters are taking a time out.
The challenge to Johnson would be much more serious if his voters were instrumentally endorsing an opposition leader who had a compelling message. But that is not what is happening right now.
What is happening is that a larger number of people who voted Conservative in 2019 now say that they no longer know who to vote for or will not vote at all at the next election; it has jumped from 16 to 24%. Only about three-fifths of the people who backed Boris Johnson two years ago now say that they would do so again were an election held tomorrow.
It is worth remembering that two months before Johnson won power in 2019, about the same proportion of people said the same thing before drifting back to the Conservatives to keep Labour out of power.
But while I do think that Johnson’s critics are exaggerating the case against him, there are two red flags that he would be well advised to watch closely.
Between now and the next election, Johnson needs to shore up his support among two groups in particular. The first are Conservatives on the libertarian wing who he has alienated throughout the pandemic. Even today, a rather large 40% of Conservative voters think that his government is still managing the pandemic badly. Depending on how you ask the question, between 16 and 32% also appear strongly opposed to anything that looks like a Covid-19 “vaccine passport”, which could be another problem.
The other group are cultural conservatives who are starting to take notice of something that the whole Brexit saga was supposed to solve and which Boris Johnson struggles to relate to: immigration. Only this week, Conservatives put immigration alongside the economy as the most important issue facing Britain.
With the salience of immigration beginning to rise as the media and Nigel Farage focus on illegal migrants crossing into Britain, this has the potential to cause a major problem for a Conservative Party that now relies on a far more culturally conservative electorate. Throw in a surge of net migration after the pandemic is resolved and it is not hard to see how this problem escalates into a far more serious one, much as it did through the 2010s.
The key question is have Team Johnson learned that lesson? Keeping their electorate culturally aligned and leaning into the realignment of British politics is ultimately the only thing that will keep them in No 10.