In the closing days of March, Britain was one week into a relatively soft lockdown. The Johnson government was enjoying the public trust: three in four Britons approved of how it was handling the Covid-19 crisis.
Today, in June, it’s a different story. Of a set of nations polled by YouGov, the British government has the lowest domestic approval rating in the world (alongside Mexico) for its handling of the pandemic. This represents a net approval below even that of the United States, where more than 112,000 people have died, and where President Trump’s personal ratings have plummeted following his widely derided response to the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.
In Europe, no other nation measured by YouGov has witnessed as dramatic a collapse in support for its government as Britain has.
UK public approval of the government’s handling of Covid-19 has fallen by over 20 points since the beginning of lockdown
This fall in perceived competence is a consequence of multiple variables.
One of these is the growing view that the government has been under-reacting to the crisis. This figure had held below 50 per cent, but saw a notable uptick following the government’s decision to ease lockdown measures in mid-May. The number of people who think the government has overreacted has continued to hover around one in ten.
The number of Brits who think the government is under-reacting to Covid-19 saw an uptick after easing lockdown
The government’s perceived competence is also affected by the approval figures for the Prime Minister.
Polling shows Boris Johnson entered the Covid-19 crisis with a respectable 40 per cent of Britons holding a positive opinion of him. That number surged post-lockdown to nearly 50 per cent, and peaked at almost 56 per cent as he emerged from a personal experience of Covid-19 infection and hospitalisation.
Johnson’s approval ratings have tumbled since the easing of lockdown measures, through the revelation that his most senior advisor ignored those measures, and now sit at 39 per cent — the lowest level since January.
Boris Johnson’s approval ratings are back to pre-Covid levels
To be clear, however, this is not a terrible number for Johnson; in more normal times it would be par for the course. During the 2019 election campaign, Johnson often polled approval ratings below 39 per cent.
What makes this figure interesting is not the figure itself but the collapse in approval, which is quite unique. The country is still in lockdown and the Covid crisis still dominates. The IMF has predicted that the economic impact will be more severe than any event since the Great Depression. In other parts of the world that are geographically and economically not so different to the UK, governments retain the confidence of citizens. In Germany, approval is at a resolute 70 per cent. In Spain, approval has increased since the country’s (much more severe) lockdown was raised, up from 35 per cent to 46 per cent. Italy’s government has experience a 12-point drop from the mid-March peak, but continues at 66 per cent.
The other factor is a reinvigorated opposition. For the first time in nearly fifteen years, we are seeing a Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition compete for positive approval ratings — to actually to be more popular than one another, rather than less unpopular.
This will grow in importance as Starmer becomes more recognisable to the public. Upon his election as Labour leader, the Britain Elects poll tracker found only half of voters could muster a view on Keir Starmer. Now, two months on, he is virtually tied with Johnson for approval.
Keir Starmer now ties with Boris Johnson on approval ratings
How durable the damage now being done to the government’s polling in the long term may be a question for the Chancellor rather than the PM, however.
Rishi Sunak’s approval rating has not yet experienced the hit that Johnson’s has. This suggests the public disapproves of the government’s handling of lockdown, but remains relatively upbeat about its handling of the economic fallout.
In the long term, the perceived economic competence of the Conservatives is vital to their popularity, and it is a metric they have consistently led Labour on for a decade. How the government handles the legacy of the Covid crash — and the still-looming economic unknowns of Brexit — will shape this crucial factor for the duration of this parliament.